Q&A with Ruth Houlsby: Office Manager of the Year 2021

Published on: 3 May 2022

Last year, the PA of the Year Awards judges were blown away by the fantastic work of Ruth Houlsby, Office Manager at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. Ruth has been Office Manager at London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum for just under two years, supporting the Director there, and was nominated by the Head of Operations - who along with calling out her fantastic management capabilities leading meetings and organising teams - spoke of her core strength as really making the museum ‘feel like somewhere that people would want to work.’ - a seismic feat given Ruth joined the business just a few months before lockdown hit. The judges were hugely impressed with her creativity and initiative. Ruth sailed through the shortlisting process and went on to be named the 2021 Office Manager of the Year.

We caught up with Ruth to find out more about her career to date and her journey to the Awards.

Q&A Headshot Ruth Houlsby

How did you become an Office Manager?

I worked in events management for 10 years, including as Events Manager here at the museum a few years ago for a maternity cover. In 2019 I took some time out to go travelling and while I was away the Office Manager job was advertised. I jumped at the chance to be back at the museum again and so found myself in this new area. The office manager and events roles need similar skills – being organised, communicating well and making sure everyone is taken care of – so it’s been a natural move.

What can you tell us about your role at Sir John Soane’s Museum?

I have a varied role providing administrative support to our Director and board of Trustees, as well as general office management duties for the whole museum, some HR support and answering visitor queries. I can go from writing finance minutes, to ordering biscuits, to helping a visitor with a research enquiry. It keeps life interesting!

What do you love about being an Office Manager?

I get to be involved with all the different departments and work with the amazing staff here. We are a relatively small team (we’re the smallest of the national museums) and everyone is so passionate. The Museum was the home of the architect Sir John Soane and it’s preserved as it was in 1837, so it’s like stepping back in time. Our Visitor Assistants know so much about the museum's history and the collection and they want to bring it to life for our visitors. It’s really inspiring to be around.

Your nomination speaks about the wellbeing initiatives you have set up at the museum. Could you tell us a bit more about these, and what inspired your decision to establish them?

During the pandemic we had a lot of staff on furlough, so we wanted to keep them feeling engaged and part of the team. We also had staff who weren’t furloughed and were working incredibly hard on planning the museum’s closures and reopenings. We wanted to make sure everyone felt supported in the strange days of Covid-19.

I was part of our reopening team and we planned wellbeing initiatives. One was a staff newsletter that we called ‘Postcard from the Soane’ and we encouraged staff and volunteers to send me their photographs, lockdown recipes, book reviews etc. I collated them and circulated the finished ‘Postcards’. I also started a film club where we chose a movie to watch each month and then caught up over Zoom to chat about it. They were small things to encourage the sense of community even though we weren’t physically always together.

Earlier this year I completed Mental Health First Aider training and used that to write a mental health and wellbeing policy. It’s in the final stages of approval and the idea is to encourage everyone to feel comfortable talking about mental health, to make positive steps to look after themselves and each other, and to embed wellbeing into the workplace. I’m really pleased that mental health and wellbeing are being more openly discussed. We all have mental health in the same way we all have physical health and being open about it is the first step in ensuring we best look after ourselves.

How did you find the PA of the Year Awards interview process?

It was lovely! It was useful to reflect on the things I’ve done here and nice to be able to share some stories from the museum. The interviewers also told me the lovely things my nominee said and that was so nice to hear, she is a wonderful colleague.

Do you have any interesting or funny stories from your time as an Office Manager?

We work in a beautiful, unusual building that is over 200 years old and so there are many quirks to working here. One of my favourite moments was seeing a note on a colleague’s door that said, ‘Do not enter, dead mouse on floor’!

It would be amazing if you could tell us in your own words why Office Managers are so essential to the organisations and individuals they work for.

I think that the Office Manager is often a person that really cares about making everyone’s lives at work that little bit easier. We remember birthdays and special occasions, we make sure everyone has the biscuits that they like and we stop what we’re doing when the printer is jammed! It’s often easy to overlook the little things that can be taken for granted, so it’s very special to have that celebrated here.

What advice would you give to other Personal Assistants hoping to enter the 2022 PA of the Year Awards?

Don’t hesitate. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on your achievements, to think about why your workplace is a special place and to take a moment to celebrate the small things that make your colleagues' lives a little bit easier.

If you are an Office Manager who deserves recognition, or if you know someone who is exceptional, please submit a nomination for this year's awards here.