Administrative assistants make the corporate world go ’round. They keep the entire office running smoothly, assist with vital preparations for important meetings, free up executives’ time to focus on strategic planning, facilitate onboarding of new employees, serve as a source of centralized knowledge about company culture and the inner workings of the office, and boost the productivity of the entire company.
While administrative assistants provide invaluable services to their coworkers and executives, it can sometimes seem like they get the short end of the stick. Demanding coworkers, time-sensitive requests, frequent interruptions, unrealistic expectations from managers, and large workloads are par for the course. And because administrative assistants spend much of their time catering to other workers’ needs, it can sometimes feel like they don’t have much recourse to advocate for themselves.
The good news is that a variety of strategies can help administrative assistants effectively navigate the more frustrating aspects of their jobs. Here are five challenges administrative assistants often face—and how to cope with them in ways that preserve both the efficiency of the office and their own sanity.
Challenge #1: Their coworkers liberally assign duties and blame
Administrative assistants are often expected to fix anything that goes wrong at work, including technical difficulties with the printer, scheduling conflicts, internet connectivity problems, clogged toilets, messy break rooms, and so on. Not only are they expected to be jacks-of-all-trade, but administrative assistants often bear the brunt of the blame for whatever goes wrong—even if they aren’t the cause of the problem.
There are a few things going on, which means these situations require different coping strategies. When it comes to the expectation that administrative assistants are responsible for fixing everything, prevention is worth a pound of cure. Help prevent problems from occurring in the first place by posting clear instructions for using communal electronics (such as printers and fax machines), and posting signs that clearly communicate expectations in the break room. (Examples include “You are responsible for cleaning up after yourself in the break room.”)
It’s also important to remember the value of delegation. If an issue arises and you have no idea how to fix it, don’t be afraid to assign problem solving to someone who can. (After all, IT teams and plumbers exist for a reason!)
When it comes to being unjustly blamed for mistakes or issues at the office, it can be helpful to keep a log of your activities throughout the workday. That way you’ll have a written record that can help serve as an alibi should someone accuse you of making an error you didn’t make.
Challenge #2: Their coworkers expect them to be available at all times
For whatever reason, many coworkers expect administrative assistants to be available all the time—as if they don’t have their own work and lives to attend to. As a result, administrative assistants may find they’re constantly interrupted on their lunch break or that they receive emails at all hours of the night. This can make it difficult to focus on their own work and maintain work-life balance.
Start by establishing clear boundaries. If a verbal request comes in during your lunch break, let your coworker know you’ll tend to their request once you’re done. If the request comes in via email, don’t respond until you finish lunch. Also make a point of only responding to business emails during regular working hours, if possible. If you consistently maintain these boundaries, you’ll eventually “train” your coworkers to recognize you are unavailable at certain times.
The key here is to practice consistency: If you don’t enforce these boundaries, then coworkers won’t feel a need to respect them. While it can seem challenging or uncomfortable at first, establishing boundaries is like strengthening a muscle. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
Of course, the reality is that some tasks are major priorities. Sometimes, you may need to put down your sandwich and handle a request right away—for example, if an executive needs a new printout on their way into a board meeting. In these cases, it’s important to refer to your own judgment and your knowledge of the company’s priorities. If something is truly critical according to the strategic objectives of your boss and/or the company, then by all means take care of it. But recognize that these cases are few and far between, and don’t make exceptions for anything that isn’t time-sensitive.
Challenge #3: Their coworkers don’t take the time to learn about the office
Because administrative assistants are “in charge” of the office, many coworkers take this to mean they aren’t responsible for knowing anything about the office space or schedule. This means people are constantly pestering administrative assistants about everything from where to find the file folders to the time of the staff meeting. These constant interruptions can be a major drain on administrative assistants’ energy and time.
There are two strategies that can prove especially helpful. First, adopt the “teach a man to fish” approach. If a coworker asks you for a particular office supply, offer to show them where the supply is stored so they can access it themselves in the future.
Second, make communication the name of the game. Clearly label storage cabinets so industrious coworkers can easily locate items on their own. Send out a reminder email the day before staff meetings. If you notice you’re constantly getting asked the same questions about a particular topic, educate the team collectively so you don’t have to repeat yourself all the time.
Challenge #4: They have an exceptionally high workload
Partly because they’re expected to provide so many services to so many different people, administrative assistants tend to have very high workloads. Not only is there a lot of work to be done, but administrative assistants must also juggle a range of priorities from different members of the staff. Meanwhile, requests for new projects can arrive at any time and with very short turnarounds. All of these factors can make time management and work-life balance especially challenging.
For starters, it’s critical that you have good organizational skills. A well-managed calendar and office space will boost efficiency and ensure you don’t miss important meetings, waste time hunting through stacks of papers, and so on.
It’s also important to develop processes as part of your organizational system and to educate your coworkers about these procedures. For example, there should be a clearly defined process for when a coworker needs you to perform a certain task, such as booking travel or taking action on an email thread. (In the former case, for example, before you take action on their request, you could require all employees to submit a form with all the information you need to book the trip.) Having systems such as these in place can help streamline your workload so you’re better able to manage your time.
Challenge #5: They lack privacy at the office
Administrative assistants rarely (if ever) have their own personal office space. Instead, their desks tend to sit near communal spaces or out in the open. On the one hand, this makes sense. Since administrative assistants tend to play a role in the work of each of their coworkers, availability is key.
The downside is that administrative assistants constantly lack privacy, which can make it difficult to avoid interruptions and stay focused. What’s more, coworkers sometimes use administrative assistants’ desks as a communal space where they dump newspapers, office supplies, files, and the like.
Once again, organization and boundaries are the name(s) of the game. Start by keeping your workspace organized and designating spaces for any communal materials that end up on your desk by necessity. Whenever relevant, instruct coworkers to put office supplies and other materials back where they actually belong. Additionally, assign spaces for your personal work materials. This will help ensure none of these items accidentally go missing.
Maintaining boundaries is also key. If you’re interrupted and the request isn’t urgent, let your coworker know you’re presently engaged in a project but you’ll respond as soon as you’re able. You may even consider putting up a little sign on your desk that communicates when you’re focused on a project. This will let coworkers know they shouldn’t interrupt you unless it’s absolutely necessary. So long as your boundaries are communicated in a respectful way, you are well within your rights to set them.
At times, juggling multiple sets of priorities, a high workload, and demanding coworkers can feel like a grueling job. Administrative assistants can make things easier on themselves by implementing these strategies for coping with workplace challenges. In the process, they can boost their efficiency and improve quality of life on the job.