The Big Ideas Shaping the Business Support Profession in 2021

Written by: Ethan Cumming
Published on: 28 Jan 2021

With a global pandemic, government scandals, a faltering economy and a multitude of other twists and turns, 2020 was a year of volatility and uncertainty for people and businesses around the world.

Although we are not yet out of the woods, the vaccine rollout is providing a glimmer of hope to the PAs, EAs and business support staff who have suffered and struggled in the past year.

We reached out to a selection of trusted recruitment consultancy clients and industry experts to find out about the big ideas and trends set to shape the business support profession in 2021.


Although some Business Support Professionals will return to the workplace...

An eventual return to the traditional workplace looks more likely for some business support staff than it does for others.

Many will find that the industry they operate within will have the greatest influence over their return to the workplace. Those in highly regulated banking and finance sectors, for example, can expect to be encouraged back to the office once it’s safe to do so.

“Financial services businesses - particularly private equity - have continued to work from the office as normal throughout the pandemic,” says Victoria Lindfield, Managing Director at Victoria Lindfield Associates, “and whilst the fee earners haven’t travelled, all meetings have taken place via video call and so most haven’t seen their business financial results drop.”

The conversations that Clare Robson, Director of Carnegie Consulting, has been having with her clients mirror Lindfield’s views.

“It’s all dependent on industry as within investment and asset management it is unviable for traders to be working from home due to the slower internet and security issues this poses,” Robson tells us. “Many businesses are reviewing come the end of March with a view that there will be a slow return to the office maybe from the Summer onwards.”

“Quick communication, an overseeing eye at all times, strong culture building and far less hassle when it comes to data protection – what’s not to love?” was the response of long-time Virtual Assistant Ellena Ingles when we asked why some employers will be in such a hurry to get back to the workplace.

Ultimately though, Ingles believes that it comes down, at least in part, to a “lack of willingness from employers to deeply commit to remote culture.”

However, as Coronavirus cases and deaths continue to reach new heights in the United Kingdom, a timeline for returning to the office remains elusive.


...Many will continue to work from home

With all that said, it was never going to be possible for the past year of remote working to have no lasting impact on flexibility and working patterns within the business support profession.

“We have definitely seen a shift in remote and flexible working,” says Lindfield. “Pre COVID-19, flexible and remote working for support staff was still quite unheard of with only a few firms open to the idea. The pandemic has proved productivity levels haven’t necessarily dropped at all and lots of clients are far more open to the idea of remote working post-COVID.”

Lindfield goes on to tell us that some expanding companies are taking a step back from existing plans to take on larger office spaces in London to consider whether rent-saving flexible working style rotas and hot desk arrangements could work for their staff. She even speculates that we may see a large number of firms relocate out of London’s costly centre “now COVID-19 has proved business can be done successfully via video.”

Similarly, Olivia Coughtrie, Director at Oriel Partners thinks that the rise of co-working spaces - popularised pre-pandemic by companies like WeWork - will only be accelerated as businesses look for new, flexible ways to structure their workforces.

“There are many advantages to utilising a co-working space rather than working from home,” explains Coughtrie. “By understanding your personal or business needs, you can find a co-working environment to suit you, whether it be a more creative and relaxed culture, or more formal with professional meeting rooms and other facilities.”

Conversations between the consultants at Carnegie Consulting and their clients indicate that the majority of firms are hoping to strike a balance between remote and office working post-pandemic.

“Many of our clients have already agreed two or three days in the office, one from home and a ‘free day’ to be based around work requirements,” Robson says. “Some have even already planned out that they will have team or business specific days to allow continued face-to-face interaction amongst the business whilst also taking into account a more flexible office and remote working approach.”

For Suzy Sanders, founder of Alchemy VA, the past year has resulted in a business boom.

“COVID-19 has meant lots of uncertainty and loss,” she explained to us, “but as a Virtual Assistant company supporting entrepreneurs with their administration and marketing, business is thriving.”

Thanks to widespread adoption of remote and online processes last year, Sanders predicts that working from home will be a mainstay in the business support profession throughout 2021 and beyond.

“Companies are far more open to the idea of outsourcing now too,” she told us, “mostly as a result of furlough and restructures. Many businesses have been able to refine and improve how they operate to become leaner and more efficient, and these new processes and ways of working won’t change, even when office spaces are able to reopen. I think we will all just continue to evolve.”


PAs & EAs will be reluctant to return to the office

Part of the driving force behind this permanent pivot to remote working is the changed attitude toward working from home among business support staff. According to a survey SecsintheCity conducted last year, 93% of PAs, EAs and other business support professionals would like the opportunity to work from home regularly post-pandemic; a figure proving beyond doubt the benefits of flexible working patterns.

Naturally, Assistants and their business support colleagues will be reluctant to give up this newfound flexibility and the enhanced quality of life it enables.

“There are many reasons that people will be hesitant to return to offices full-time,” Ingles tells us. “The tech industry is always ahead of the curve; having started remote working a number of years ago, digital nomads travelling Peru and coding in their hostels wasn’t abnormal – but for the first time ever PAs and EAs can join them, when we are allowed to travel again that is! And why shouldn’t we? With strong Wi-Fi, phone signal and motivation, PAs can work from just about anywhere.”

She goes on to connect the dots between remote working, a female-dominated profession and the increased likelihood of women taking on the lion’s share of domestic duties.

“We can’t avoid the fact that support roles are largely filled by women and that many women take on a large amount of childcare responsibilities,” Ingles explains. “Remote working enables more time for the school run, the possibility to take the children to that dentist appointment and the ability to feed them their supper on time in a much less stressful, rushed manner. Is that something people want to give up?”

It would appear that the answer to that question is a resounding no.

Kate Baxter, Director of Operations at The Maine Group, disclosed that, for many of the consultancy’s candidates, job requirements are permanently altered.

“Interestingly, our candidates, particularly EAs, tell us that they will only join companies offering agile working going forwards,” says Baxter. “It seems that smart businesses will be able to use a flexible approach as both an attraction and retention tool.”


Face-to-face interviews are high on the agenda

For firms that have expanded or needed an extra pair of hands during the pandemic, video interviews and remote onboarding processes have been a saving grace.

In fact, according to Coughtrie, video interviews even have their own unique benefits.

“It is easier to attend an interview when you can have the meeting from home, without having to travel anywhere, or without having to take time off work,” she points out. “It has also sped up the recruitment process as the key decision makers are available more readily, allowing businesses to make faster decisions and secure the successful candidate quicker.”

Despite these positives, Coughtrie is of the opinion that video calls are not a viable long term substitute for traditional face-to-face interviews.

“Primarily, an interview process via video call does not allow candidates to get such a good idea of the company culture and the team fit, which can often be integral to their decision-making process,” she reasons. “Secondly, with so much communication being non-verbal, employers can find a video interview more challenging to assess candidates’ interpersonal skills accurately.”

“Companies are still hesitant to onboard remotely,” Lindfield told us, echoing Coughtrie’s sentiments. “Whilst some have a process in place for this, most haven’t and aren’t comfortable hiring via video call and want to still meet in person.”


Business Support will outmanoeuvre Brexit

The drawn out talks between the UK government and the EU, though tedious on the surface, have given organisations and their support teams plenty of time to make plans and preparations for post-Brexit business.

“In all honesty, Brexit planning had been done,” says Robson. “The fact that we now have confirmation as to the deal and also future implications means companies are now planning forward.”

Robson is of the belief that Brexit will have no further major impact on the business support profession, and that established concerns around things like visa sponsorship and employment law will remain the focus.

Ingles speculates that, although Brexit may throw up new barriers, it does not have the power to immobilise the UK’s pool of proactive, jet setting Assistants.

“Many PAs seek their fortune abroad and it is a role that often involves travel and relocation,” she begins. “Though it may now involve more paperwork to do so, I cannot see this having a drastic effect on our sector as a whole; let’s be honest, it’s what many of us are trained for! Where there’s a will there’s a way for PAs and EAs, and we are tasked with finding it daily – why should this be any different?”


Spare time will be spent upskilling

From the very first lockdown last March, people around the world have found themselves with an unusually large amount of spare time on their hands. Regardless of whether these extra hours were the product of furlough, redundancy or endless weekends spent at home, PAs, EAs and other business support professionals have been utilising their spare time in the pursuit of knowledge.

“Many PAs and EAs have been brilliant at using any time off to upskill,” Ingles told us. “The number of courses out there is incredible, and many are free or remarkably close to free to partake in. No matter how high flying you are in your career it is my opinion that you can never truly finish learning and there is no better way to spend a spare hour than taking on a new skill or absorbing a new fact.”

But with so many courses out there, where’s the best place to start? The general consensus is that, provided your learning is related to technology in some way, you’re probably on the right track.

“With vast numbers of new tools and platforms hitting the market, this is where I would start,” continues Ingles “Technology is rapidly advancing – gone are the days of PAs and EAs just needing to know how to use Word, Excel and Powerpoint.”

“One of the most powerful parts of being a member of support staff is being able to see the gaps in your company others can’t and technology can fill so many of these nowadays. Research, find what works for you and relay the information to your Principle - I am sure they will be both impressed and grateful. Project management tools, communication tools, CRMs, accounting software, password protection, cloudspace; the list of possibilities for adding value is endless.”

Skevi Constantinou, founder of The PA Way, agrees that tech-focused upskilling is the way to go for career-driven Assistants.

“I have seen Assistants enrol on various courses to learn new skills quickly such as technology software and organising online conferences,” she says. “Assistants have used this time to level up, making sure that they are even more equipped for their roles and an incredible asset to their companies.”

“I believe 2020 was all about demonstrating grit and grace,” Sanders adds, “but 2021 is about alignment, flow and exploring new opportunities and technologies, especially in online video and social media. As well as stronger, more meaningful collaborations.”

To back this speculation up, Lindfield confirms that many companies are specifically looking for tech-savvy support staff who are up to date with the latest apps and programs that can enhance workplace performance.

“It is imperative that candidates ensure they keep their knowledge and skills up to date in this area,” she explains, naming apps such as Tripit, Any.Do and Expensify as good starting points.

“Competition for PA and business support positions remains extremely high,” Baxter adds, “and hybrid roles that offer cross-function support are becoming increasingly popular. Updating skills and undertaking additional training such as marketing or social media will help applicants stand out in the market.”

A spokesperson for Bower Talent underlines this further, stating that, alongside tech-savviness, current fundamental requirements from clients routinely include entrepreneurial spirit and strategic thinking.


Recruitment could pick up in the summer

As for when business support professionals will get the chance to show off their updated skills in a new workplace? Lindfield thinks we’ll be waiting until the summer before recruitment picks up in earnest.

“I definitely think Q1 of 2021 is going to be slow whilst companies figure out whether to hold off until Q2 or Q3 to recruit,” she explains. “Particularly with the vaccine, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and hopefully this will be the last lockdown so most may hold off and pick back up in Q2, but Q3 and Q4 is where I imagine we will see the largest volume of new vacancies.”


Demand for Private PAs will remain strong

However, that’s not to say that opportunities aren’t out there, particularly if you’re an experienced Private PA or an Assistant looking to make a move away from the corporate world.

“The private side of our business during COVID has gotten busier as our clients spend more time at home and therefore need more live-in support,” explains Victoria Miller, Director of Stanton Miller Recruitment. “Many have also decided to move out of the capital and therefore more roles have come up overseas and within country estates as opposed to city-based posts.”

While the doors of workplaces, bars, restaurants, non-essential shops and most other public venues remain firmly shut, high net worth individuals and their families will continue to spend time at home.

“Many private households need more staff in order to account for the fact that more time is spent at home,” adds Ingles,“so for Private PAs, options are plentiful.”

You can check out the latest Private PA job vacancies here.


Assistants will continue to be the behind-the-scenes heroes

Regardless of what 2021 holds in store - and if we’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that anything can happen - of one thing we can be sure; Assistants and their business support colleagues will continue to be the behind-the-scenes heroes for the organisations and individuals they work for.

“Assistants are the backbone to any organisation,” affirms Constantinou. “I am beyond proud of how my profession has adapted given the circumstances and kept pushing forward. Yes, it has been challenging and continues to be, but from my experience as an EA and from fellow Assistants in my network, I know that a challenge is where we perform well and we will do what we can from our part.”

Looking ahead to the development of the Assistant role in 2021, Baxter mentions how an increasing number of organisations are beginning to view their EAs as genuine Business Partners. These Assistants, no longer spending so much time managing complex travel arrangements and having offloaded some of their more rudimentary duties to junior support staff, have had the time to show what they are truly capable of.

“The extra time the EAs have allows CEOs, Directors, and their teams to finally tap into the skill set of their highly qualified, well educated and commercially savvy Assistants by offloading lots more responsibility, giving them autonomy over management level projects and taking on a range of other duties,” Baxter explains.

Tying everything together, a spokesperson from Bower Talent explained to us how Assistants and business support professionals are more important than ever to their employers’ success.

“In 2021, admin staff are an integral part of any company’s engine, wearing a multitude of hats and delivering major rewards when properly fostered,” they told us. “If the COVID pandemic showed us anything, it is that a business needs tech infrastructure at its core and the admin role is developing to encompass and complement this. We will see a further shift towards admin requiring deep knowledge of the ins-and-outs of specific products, services, or areas within the tech world. It’s a truly exciting time for the industry!”

What do you think are the most important ideas and trends set to shape the business support profession this year? Find us on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter to have your say.