Secretarial: Talk to my cyber-secretary

The e-mailing, web-surfing personal assistants have arrived
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A GOOD secretary, as any boss knows, make the office tick like clockwork. Being able to juggle phones, fax machines and constant queries while arranging lunch meetings makes a secretary indispensable.

In the past five years a secretary's job has altered dramatically. The key to this is technology. More and more companies expect their secretaries to be comfortable with the Holy Trinity of computer packages: Word, for word-processing; Excel, for spreadsheets; and Powerpoint, for presentation graphics.

But big-league businesses now demand more than this. They argue that a confident use of e-mail and the Internet are essential secretarial skills.

Industry experts say they are witnessing the rise of the "cyber-secretary", to use the latest buzz-word. Miriam Knight, of the recruitment company Secretaries Plus, says that if secretaries are to be successful in today's marketplace they must be well versed in new technology. "We are getting more and more requests for secretaries with multi-media skills," she says. "With many of the leading firms, particularly the banks, it would be inconceivable to place somebody who didn't know how to use new technology.

"Companies expect their secretaries to use e-mail, both externally and internally, and to be familiar with the Internet and Scheduler, the electronic diary package that can be plugged into a computer and mutually updated, even if a boss is thousands of miles away. It is not enough to be fluent in the three main packages any more."

Secretaries who use the latest skills say that their working lives have changed dramatically for the better. The Internet and e-mail are swifter and more efficient than their paper equivalents. Gone are the days when a PA would have to stick around until 8 or 9 o'clock at night just to speak to American colleagues - a time 27-year-old Abigail Morris well remembers: "When I first started as a PA eight years ago it was par for the course to stay in the office late at night or to get in early so we could fax or speak to colleagues in America or Singapore. All that changed when e-mail was introduced. You always know if it has been sent correctly, so there's no need to hang around."

Abigail, who is currently working as a temp for Bank of America in the City of London, says that capitalising on the available technology is the only way she and her jet-setting boss can keep in contact. "My boss spends one or two days a week in our Milan office," she says. "When he's out of the country he still relies on me for all the usual PA duties, and the best way for us to communicate is via e-mail.

"No matter where he is, I can keep him up to date with the latest developments in London and even organise his electronic diary from thousands of miles away. I can send him sensitive documents via e-mail and know that they won't go astray, which is something you can't do with the fax. Because I'm always based in London, my boss has come to rely on me being at the hub of UK activity. If he wants information quickly, the e-mail is really the only way to get it."

Sarah De Souza, 32, is a PA to the managing director of Grayling, a PR company. She uses her e-mail every day to set up meetings and pull together important documents from other managers within the company for her boss to read. "If I didn't have the technology at my fingertips, I would be lost," she says. "My boss travels extensively and it makes keeping in close touch so much easier. It's the first thing I look at in the morning. I also make great use of the Internet when we are carrying out research on a company that we want to make a business pitch for."

Like Abigail, Sarah believes e-mail is more reliable than faxing. "Instead of printing a document, all I have to do is press a button and the e-mail is away. It saves time on the little jobs."

With the demand for technically efficient secretaries accelerating, it is unsurprising that they are joining ranks with the office cyberphiles. Abigail Morris claims: "My boss won't mind me saying that he is not all that well versed in technology. I think he relies on me to deal with things like the Internet. Which, I suppose, is no bad thing."