Help Desk

A few days ago I was getting ready to go home after a long day in the office when it dawned on me that I had been at my desk all day. Yes, I had got up to make the odd cup of tea or make a quick trip to the bathroom but I hadn’t been out for lunch or in any meetings that day so effectively I had been sitting in my chair at my desk for a good 8 hours. I think this tale might be familiar to a lot of assistants who seem to spend more time at their desk than at their home! As we do spend large periods at our desk we should make sure that we have it organised in such a way that we know where everything is. Below are a few tips on how to make your desk more efficient:

Essential stationery

There are only so many things we can keep on our desk before it starts to look cluttered but we do use certain items of stationery on a frequent basis so we do need to have them to hand. If you have a pedestal under your desk I would highly recommend these objects are locked away from those with sticky fingers! I recommend having the following on or in your desk at all times:

  • Pens and pencils – I prefer retractable pencils to write notes than a pen. I keep one good pen, preferably a fountain pen, for signing documents  and a red pen for ticking things off my to-do list.
  • Highlighter pen – I don’t seem to use these much anymore but Worthing keeping handy
  • Eraser – for correcting mistakes
  • Stapler and staples – Always always get the best stapler your company can afford and use the same brand staples as the stapler. I know this sounds silly but how frustrating is it when you can’t staple a few bits of paper together… trust me it will save you so much time having a decent stapler!
  • Hole-punch – again one to be stashed away in a locked drawer! Get a good, industrial sized hole-punch if you can.
  • Scissors – and another one for the locked drawer. I often wonder if scissors actually sprout legs during the night and make a run for it!
  • Sellotape (or sticky back plastic!) – you might not need tape everyday but when you do you won’t be able to find any. If you have a drawer keep this in there rather than on your desk.
  • Letter opener – saves time and your fingers from getting paper cuts.
  • Internal envelops – I go through dozens of these a week. Always handy to have on your desk
  • Ruler – this is a multiple use piece of stationery. It can be used to help reading data, drawing a straight line, measuring something and keeping naughty colleagues in check!
  • Notebooks – I have one hard back A4 notebook for meetings and one A5 scrapbook for scribbles, doodles and messy thoughts.
  • Post-it notes and flags – I always buy the largest post-it notes in a variety of colours as I often write notes to myself and need the extra room! I use the small post-it index flags all the time as well.   
  • Calendar – For quick reference I have a one sheet per day calendar block on my desk. There is also something very satisfying in pulling each day off and chucking it in the bin!
  • Files – see my previous blog on my filing system
  • Calculator – I still use a calculator most days despite knowing how to use formulas in Excel!

Office Equipment

I’m a big advocate of assistants having their own office equipment such as a photocopier, printer and shredder. We deal with confidential material all day and it can be awkward sharing equipment with other members of staff. In addition to that as part of our role we are always at one piece of equipment or the other and it is a massive time saver if for example the printer is near our desk. The phone should be on the desk as near to your keyboard and computer screen as possible. I once made the mistake of having my phone at one end of my desk to my computer screen so I had plenty of room around me, but obviously I couldn’t look anything up while I was on the phone. I wasn’t that silly for long!

Other bits and bobs

Here are a few other random but essential objects I keep on my desk:

  • A list of colleague’s phone numbers including my Director’s just in case I ever forget the extension when I am transferring a call
  • My iPhone charger which is on my desk but tucked away out of sight
  • Recent copies of the company’s literature. This is kept neatly in an upright plastic magazine rack and I cull out of date information every few months.

When organising your desk I would spend a bit of time thinking about the tasks that you perform everyday and the equipment you need to complete the work. It is important that we have everything to hand so that we can start work immediately. I also think it is worth remembering that as you progress in your role the tasks will change so do have a review of how you use your desk and change it around if you need to.

You can follow me on twitter: @PracticalPA

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Effective Communication – What does this actually mean?

I was having a look through my CV recently, just adding a few bits and bobs and generally updating it and I noticed I tell my would-be employer how well I communicate both effectively and efficiently. As I was reading this I thought to myself, ‘what does that actually mean?’ and then it occurred to me that if I wasn’t sure then I doubt any potential employer would be! It is all very well and good saying you are good at communicating but what are the skills and personality traits behind that statement? Also how do assistants apply this skill to their roles? Having thought about it I believe the ability to communicate effectively means the following:

  • Before attempting any type of communication think about what it is that you are trying to convey. Organise this in your mind and stick to the key points. If you need to, write these key points down so that you can refer back if the topic runs away from you. This should be used in any form of communication from emailing someone to meeting them face to face.
  • Be clear and articulate. I’ve found that since I started using Twitter I have become so much more concise in my writing. Having only 140 characters to express an opinion does engage the mind somewhat! • Maintain good eye contact, avoid mumbling.
  • Listening is equally as important as speaking. I’ve heard the phrase ‘active listening’ quite often and don’t really know what this means except to say that you should actually be listening to what the other person is saying and also try not to interrupt them.
  • Be aware of how you come across to others this includes your approach, tone of voice and body language. How we are thinking and feeling affects our communication style so try to remain positive even if you are in the foulest mood imaginable! We all have difficulties at work from time to time but try to remain upbeat and offer solutions rather than just having a general moan… That can be saved for your nearest and dearest outside of work!
  • It is also important to be aware of other’s communication style, particularly for assistants as we deal with all types of people from clients to senior members of staff. Knowing how to adjust the way we communicate depending on the person we are speaking to is essential.
  • Know how to communicate with your key stakeholders (by stakeholders I mean those that you deal with on a regular basis and have an influence over your role in the company). Think about how much of an impact these people have on your day-to-day work, how frequently you should communicate with them and which communication channel will be the most effective. I always find it useful to have a communication plan in place, particular if I am working on a new project or with colleagues I have not met before. It isn’t a grand document but a note to myself detailing how these people prefer to communicate, for example do they always call me even if I have only emailed them or visa versa do they only ever email, do they prefer face to face meetings or happy to receive a regular email update? Once I know how they like to communicate I can adjust my style so that we can work effectively together. Having a small plan in place also means that you do not become reliant on one type of communication channel. I can really overuse emails because they are quick and easy to ping out to everyone but if I am aware that I work with someone who prefers face to face communication I force myself to go and speak to them.

So now I know what I mean when I say I communicate effectively! I don’t get it right every time and have in the past uttered those dreaded words ‘no, that’s not what I meant!’ but you live and learn. If you can think about the best way to get your point across to the audience you are addressing then you are effectively communicating, something that I am sure all assistants have the ability to do.

Follow me on twitter: @PracticalPA

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Lovely Jubilee!

This weekend is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee which means all of the assistants in the UK get a lovely long bank holiday weekend to celebrate and enjoy all that Great Britain has to offer. I live in London so I’m extra excited about all of the events that are taking place in the Capital! I’m a big fan of the Queen not just because we get lots of time off work whenever her family decide to celebrate something, but because she has dedicated her life to this Country and the Commonwealth and because she  is a tough but caring great-grandmother, working hard and always wearing heels!  

To honour her on this fabulous jubilee weekend, here are some things I think we can all learn from the Queen!

Be prepared!

During the Coronation the Queen was expected to wear the extraordinarily heavy St. Edward’s Crown which weighs 2.23kg so that she was used to the feel and weight of the crown  the Queen also wore the Imperial State Crown while she went about her daily business, sporting it at her desk, at tea, and while reading the newspaper!

Know when to stand up for yourself

The Queen issued a writ against The Sun newspaper after it published the full text of her 1992 Christmas broadcast two days before transmission. She later accepted an apology and a £200,000 donation to charity.

Behind every great woman is a great man

Prince Philip has escorted the Queen on all of her State visits and  on her Coronation Day he pledged  “I, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, do become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. So help me God.” … Now if only we could get every man to say this to their wives!

Think about what you wear to work

The Queen always looks smart and well-groomed even when we see those rare pictures of her ‘off duty’. When she goes on her walkabouts to meet and greet the people she always wears bright colours so that people can see her. I love that every outfit is planned and is given a name so that it can be archived correctly, if only we had that many clothes!

Remember it isn’t all work, work, work

On VE Day in London the then Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret escaped Buckingham Palace and mingled with the celebrating crowds outside.

Never complain, never explain

Although the saying has been attributed to many over the years it is believed the Queen Mother instilled this virtue in her daughter and to this day she still lives by it. If you think of how much confidential information, gossip and scandal she must have been privy to over the years I can only imagine what stories her biography would contain. Unfortunately she has never really said anything about anyone and I’m assuming her opinion on these matters will always remain a mystery.   

Be honest when things go wrong

There have been a few dark days during the Queen’s reign and there have been times she has been out of step with public opinion, most obviously after the death of Diana. But she always manages to get it right in the end and admit when she could have done things differently, which just shows how human she really is. Her 1992 Christmas speech says it all “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis’.

Any job is worth doing well!

The Queen has been doing her job for 60 years, could you imagine being in the same job for that long! It is a scary thought for some of us but for her loyalty to the role went without question. As she said “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Be fair to one and all and remember dignity in the workplace is important!

During her 2004 Christmas message the Queen said “Discrimination still exists. Some people feel that their own beliefs are being threatened. Some are unhappy about unfamiliar cultures. They all need to be reassured that there is so much to be gained by reaching out to others; that diversity is indeed a strength and not a threat.” Wise words from a very wise lady!

Happy Jubilee weekend everyone!

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Gossip Girl!

I’ve written a few blogs recently on how to work with confidential documents particularity when your desk is in an open plan office. It is a subject that most assistants would have wrestled with in their career and at times probably have found themselves in a difficult position so I thought it would be good to discuss this over a few blogs. Today I will look at the following issues we face – how do we keep the confidential information we  have either overheard, read or been entrusted with a secret from our colleagues? Secondly, how do we have effective working relationships with our team when they know that we are privy to information that may concern them and lastly how do we maintain this trust when other members of staff are spreading office gossip?

The simple answer to all of these questions is that we do not say anything and keep our mouths firmly shut. However, this is sometimes easier said than done, especially for assistants that are new to this role. A few years ago I was working for a department that was going through a restructure and I was bombarded with questions from a member of staff that sat opposite me. It was continuous and sneaky and I was quite taken aback at the amount of times they would try to trick me into saying something I shouldn’t. This person also told the rest of my team that I knew what was going on and wasn’t telling anyone, therefore suggesting that  I wasn’t a team player. As I said, for anyone new to the job it can be difficult to withstand the pressure that some colleagues will put you under.

As I’ve said before, being trustworthy and able to deal with sensitive information is key to our role so how do we maintain our manager’s confidence without alienating ourselves from the rest of the office?

Office Gossip

It can be difficult not to get involved in gossip and general office banter, it is fun and it makes the day go quickly. I think some gossip can be harmless and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that you shy away from joining in. What I would suggest is that you identify harmless gossip, such as what happened in the pub after work or sharing in a joke about a member of the team. Once you have identified the general good-natured discussions you can quickly see when the banter turns into gossip that you should well avoid. For example this could be  people discussing other members of staff that aren’t there to answer for themselves, or events that are taking place in the company that influence jobs and or pay. If you make a conscious choice not to get involved in these types of conversations, your colleagues will notice and probably avoid discussing it with you further. Another suggestion is not to start any of this type of gossip, no matter how harmless you think it might be. If you initiate anything people will assume you are happy to part with other possibly more sensitive information at a later point.

Remember your role and use it to your advantage

Quite often assistants are referred to as the ‘eyes and ears’ of their manager. This means that the manager is too busy to know everything that is going on in the office so they rely on their assistant to fill in the gaps, this could be anything from the general mood of the team to who is putting in extra hours and who is constantly coming in late. When I first became a PA  I struggled with this concept, I didn’t want to be seen as the person that ran back to the boss to tell tales on my colleagues. I had worked with people like that in the past and didn’t like the idea of not be trusted by the people around me. It then occurred to me that you don’t have to look at this part of the role as something negative, in fact it can positively help you keep information confidential. Your colleagues know that you are privy to sensitive issues but they also know that you see what goes on every day in the office and have the authority to relate this back to their boss if you choose to. If you are able to maintain the trust and respect from both your team and your manager, this balancing act will almost elevate you to a position where the pressure to divulge information is lifted.

Be honest

Be honest to the point that you may have to spell it out to some of your colleagues, including those people who you consider to be friends. “I am an assistant… I can’t tell you.” I must admit I’ve lied in the past before and said I don’t know what is going on when of course I do, I also used to deflect a lot of questions and got very good at being as vague as possible. I found this took up so much time and energy that I now refuse to be anything but honest and I will just say that I can’t discuss it. Honesty is the best and quickest policy!

Sometimes it is just not worth knowing

In some cases assistants are exposed to confidential information because they have discussed it with their manager. However most of the time we stumble across it, we may have been asked to print a report which contains everyone’s salary, we may have read an email that someone is about to be made redundant. Either way it is information that we don’t really need to know except that we have eyes and they have the annoying skill of automatically reading whatever is in front of them. It is human nature to be curious and look at sensitive documents, and we assistants are human, not robots – honestly! I have found over the years that sometimes it is just best not to know the ins and outs of everything, it means when people ask I can honestly say that I don’t know, because I really don’t know! How do I do this? Well I try really hard not to skim read emails when it becomes apparent they are confidential, when I’m printing those sensitive reports I just print them without reading the details. I think if you can become slightly detached from the information your colleagues would die to know, it makes it less important in your mind that they know. It is hard to stop yourself sometimes but I think worthwhile attempting. 

It can be difficult to maintain the confidence of your manager when you are close to your colleagues and you may have information that will affect them personally, it is part of the job and unfortunately it does come down to keeping your mouth shut. However you don’t want to appear aloof or unable to interact with your team.  It is a fine balancing act but with the correct approach most of us should be able to walk the tightrope.

Let me know if you have any instances where you’ve struggled with keeping confidential matters a secret, what did you do? Do you have any techniques that stop your colleagues asking you questions?

You can follow me on Twitter @PracticalPA

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PA Confidential

As assistants we are trusted with confidential information on a regular basis, we see our boss’ emails, we open their post and we often hear private details about other members of staff.  A few weeks ago I wrote a blog on how to work effectively in an open plan office and I did touch on this subject but considering we often get asked in interviews how we maintain confidentiality I felt it was well worth revisiting this crucial skill.  Let’s have a think about the different types of confidential matters that we have to deal with on a regular basis

  1. Confidential electronic documents (anything that is visible on your computer screen)
  2. Confidential paperwork (anything that is on your desk)
  3. Confidential information either over heard or trusted with

In this blog I am going to look at the first two in more detail, I think the third area deserves its own blog as this confidential information can be so difficult to keep secret when you have close working relationships with your colleagues.

I feel safe to assume that most of my readers will have access to their manager’s emails and calendars, I also am assuming that like myself you check the emails everyday and have pretty much free rein to read the messages and reply on behalf of your manager as and when you can. In addition to this you also see all of the attachments that have been sent to your manager and all of the documents they are working on as well. How do you ensure that when you in the office you don’t let anyone see what you are doing? I would suggest the following:

Confidential electronic documents

  • If you do work in an open plan office try to have your desk in a position so that people can not walk up behind you or look over your shoulder. If this is a problem speak to your manager and see if you can move desks. If you mention that staff are able to see your screen and therefore information that is private I would think your manager would certainly listen to your request. If this is impossible ask that you have a privacy screen over your monitor, this device limits the view of the screen from certain angles.
  • Always lock your computer when you are away from your desk, always always! You are not being rude or distrusting of your peers (this has been suggested to me before), you are doing your job! Lock your computer even if you are only going to the photocopier, it is better to be safe than sorry…  On occasions I have also locked my screen when a colleague comes over to talk to me. There have been plenty of times they stand by my desk asking me for something and then get distracted by what is on my computer, confidential or not I will lock my screen just in case. To get in the habit of doing this you can change your settings so that after a certain period of time your computer will automatically enable a password protected screensaver.
  • When reading a confidential email I never open it to the full size of my screen, I will most likely scan the email in the reading panel or open it into a minimised window. This means that if I need to close the email quickly I can either click on another email or if it is a new window just click onto the screen behind to make the window disappear.
  • If you have been asked to email a confidential message to another member of staff ensure you do everything you can to make them aware the details are sensitive. The following steps should make this clear: a) Mark the email as ‘confidential’, you can do this in the email options tab. b) Encrypt any attached files. Depending on the sensitivity of the document I will often phone the individual and give the password to them personally. c) Move the emails from your sent file into a secure location.
  • Every week or two have a good sort through your online files (email and shared drive). Make sure you haven’t accidentally left anything visible to the prying eye! Also it is good practice to delete your temporary files on a regular basis. Anything you open will automatically save there, so if someone does have access to your computer they might be able to open sensitive information.

Confidential Paperwork  

  • Firstly, ask yourself ‘does this need to be printed?’ In a lot of cases it is easier to deal with confidential work if it is kept in an electronic format rather than as a piece of paper on your desk that can be picked up and moved around.
  •  Sometimes you will have to make a hard copy of the information and in these circumstances make sure the paperwork is not left on your desk unless you are there. Like your computer screen lock the documents away even f you move from your desk for a few moments.
  • If you do not have your own printer, then again, I suggest you speak to your manager about this. You should have a confidential printer that only you have access to. If your office doesn’t allow this you can still print confidential material to a shared printer by selecting the ‘secured printing’ method on your printer settings. This delays the printing until you physically go to the printer and enter a password.
  • When you are completely finished with the documents, shred everything or put it into  a confidential paperwork bin. It isn’t worth holding on to the material just in case you need to use it again.
  • I personally do not label my paperwork with a confidential stamp, watermark or cover note. I think if people see this word it tends to make them want to look even more… it is human nature, so I don’t encourage their curiosity.

My final point would be to remain vigilant when it comes to dealing with confidential documents. I’ve had a few instances in my career where I’ve been absent-minded and colleagues have seen things on my desk that they shouldn’t see, luckily the information wasn’t particularly sensitive but it made me realise people like to gossip and know things that their colleagues do not. You might think it is their fault for looking, and you are not to blame if they go out of their way to snoop, but it will also look like you can’t handle sensitive information and you might not be trusted again and as we know if we can’t be trusted it makes our jobs incredible hard to do.

Next week I will write in more detail about how to maintain confidentiality when your colleagues want all the gossip!

You can follow me on twitter @PracticalPA

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