A part-time PA proves an angel in the office

It's not just chief executives who need help to cope with work, says Thea Jourdan

High earners in big business have always enjoyed the benefit of super-efficient personal assistants. The best PAs become almost like wives, doing everything from remembering birthdays to sending hand-written thank you letters. Company accountants regard PA salaries, which can top £100,000, as wise investments.

High earners in big business have always enjoyed the benefit of super-efficient personal assistants. The best PAs become almost like wives, doing everything from remembering birthdays to sending hand-written thank you letters. Company accountants regard PA salaries, which can top £100,000, as wise investments.

But it is not just senior executives who suffer from the modern malaise of time poverty. Working mothers, the self-employed and professionals may become too busy to do everything effectively. The solution for this growing number of over-stretched people is to employ an assistant to help out on a temporary or part-time basis. For as little as £10 an hour, it is now possible to have your very own PA, who will field calls, pay bills and even fill out your tax return.

Hire Intelligence, a London-based agency, has been offering a bespoke service to around 200 regular clients for the past seven years. The company's PAs charge from £50 an hour to £100 per hour after 9pm.

Suzanna Watson, who has worked for the company for the past two years, says she will do anything to help clients as long as it is legally and morally acceptable. She sees 12 clients a week. Some have a weekly slot, others ask for her every six months. Although her work is predominantly administrative, it may include picking up children from school, organising hair dresser's appointments and arranging for a seamstress to take up a client's trousers. She signs confidentiality agreements with all her clients, pledging to keep their personal and financial details private.

In her experience, more women than men require a part-time PA. "It is probably something to do with the fact that women will ask for help when things are going wrong. Men hate to admit that they can't cope." There is no stock type, although clients tend to be relatively affluent. Ms Watson regularly sees a woman in her eighties who wants to check that her bank statements are correct. Another client requires that a parcel to be sent to Iraq once a week to his girlfriend with a selection of hand picked goodies. Last week, the parcel included Evian water, tinned curry and a jigsaw puzzle. She adds that one of the most important aspects of her job is being a sounding board.

Many people just need a one-off call from a competent PA who can help them get their lives in order. Mary Gordon, 36, a copywriter, needed help to sort out her office at home. "I had recently moved house and there was a certain amount of chaos which I brought with me," says Gordon, who lives in London. "I had piles of papers everywhere. I couldn't even open a drawer without papers spilling out." She hired two PAs for an afternoon. "We all sat down and we went through the lot," says Ms Gordon, adding that the expense was worth it. "I got the help I needed and now I feel I can cope on my own."

Paula Chapman set up her own agency, Adminamum, in Middlesex, after being inundated by requests for temporary assistants. Her staff are mainly mothers with children who have a few hours spare in a week to do administrative duties. "I match the mothers with the clients who have been inundated with paperwork. We don't discriminate. We help anyone who needs us." Clients pay an hourly fee. Many of Adminimum's PAs work from home and bill clients for phone calls done on their behalf. "You don't always need to be with the client to do a job," says Ms Chapman.

So-called "virtual" PAs are also gaining popularity. Companies like Urban PA offer a remote service where you never have to see your helper after an initial introduction. Their Urban Office tariff is £195 per month plus a one-off joining fee of £300.

Once you have decided to hire a part-time PA, the trick is to hold on to the good ones. Only fat cats with fat cheque books can afford to throw tantrums and expect their PA to stay smiling. "We don't see ourselves as little secretaries bowing to the big cheese," says Ms Watson. "We see our job as more of a partnership. Our clients put a lot of trust in us and we are very involved in their lives. We want to be able to walk into a home or an office with a genuine smile on our faces."

* www.urbanpa.com Tel: 0208 487 9400; www.hireintelligence.co.uk 0207 350 0664; www.adminamum.co.uk 0208 866 6412

'There is nothing my assistant can't do'

Lynne Page, 35, has employed a part-time PA for a year. Ms Page, left, a successful choreographer who also runs her own dance school, Nifty Feet, in Wimbledon, says: "My school was expanding really rapidly and administration is not my strong point and I ended up staying up until 2am every night just to get through all the messages on my answering machine.

"I found my PA through a friend who recommended her. She had a background in management and administration and was taking some time off after the birth of her baby and did not want to be full time.

"I think it is an excellent investment because Nifty Feet could not run without her, and I would have to give up my job as a choreographer. I wouldn't give her up now. There is nothing she can't do."

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