The archetypal assistant is efficient and self-effacing, content to be outshone by their leader or employer – and consequently, largely ignored by history. Fiction has been kinder to them: we know how Don Quixote leant constantly on the long-suffering Sancho Panza; how Robinson Crusoe would never have survived without Man Friday; and how lost Bertie Wooster would have been without his far more intelligent and resourceful butler, Jeeves.
One of the first internet search engines was called ‘Ask Jeeves’ – now better known as ask.com. And nowadays, we look to information technology to make our lives easier. We use Google or Wikipedia for most of our everyday research. We buy apps for our mobile phones that connect us immediately to services and information on which we soon come to depend on. In the process, we save enormous amounts of time and money.
So, what do we still need a personal assistant for? I find it hard to know where to start, since I need several assistants, some human, some electronic, often working simultaneously in different places and different time zones.
A lot of it comes under the heading of information, and this is where IT offers us so many options. With the Wikipedia app, for instance, we instantly have access to a store of information that would once have required us to make our way to the nearest library. With a weather app, we can check the weather wherever we’re going and plan accordingly. And with Google Earth, we can find our way almost anywhere.
Everyone has their favourite app. Twitter, Skype and Facebook can help with ideas, business networking, or simply staying in touch with friends and family around the world. Then there are the games apps, addictive but satisfying for filling those dead moments during the day, at airports, train stations, bus stops or in queues.
My own life has been made a lot easier in recent months by the BA app, which enables me to plan my travel, book and pay for my tickets, then review my options when my plans change. Among the more interesting new apps is Word Lens, an instant translation service which claims you can simply point it at a menu and see the words transform into your own language. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
There comes a point, however, when information is not enough, and you need to make connections with people. Answering the phone is one vital task. Almost every young entrepreneur soon finds themselves needing to be in different places at once, while they need their clients, or potential clients, to be able to contact them – and not just via their mobile number. For credibility’s sake, they need somewhere that at least sounds like an office, with a real person on the end of the line.
There are telephone-answering services all over the world, many of them indispensable to small businesses and start-ups, with Regus being one of the leading providers. But there are times when we need someone who is receptionist, concierge, gopher and many other things besides.
We need such a person to be well-informed, reliable, intelligent, discreet and unflappable. He or she must be able to organise meetings, brief members of staff, make connections, field complaints, calm nerves, and make everything run smoothly.
But perhaps the most important quality of the ideal assistant – a quality shared by Sancho Panza and Man Friday (although somewhat less so by Jeeves) – is that he or she should be almost entirely without ego. In the upper echelons of business and public life, there are always strong personalities competing for attention and supremacy. Amid these clashing egos, petty jealousies and constant politicking, the perfect assistant is an oasis of calm and reassurance, a reliable sounding-board who will filter out emotion, let anger or impatience subside, and help us get things done without fuss.
There are no ego problems, of course, with a virtual assistant or an electronic app. That’s one of their great attractions. Although technology does not always function the way you want it to, it doesn’t usually threaten your blood pressure or create unwanted emotional distraction in the way that real people can.
But there is no app, no programme, that can take an instant briefing, communicate an idea, sound people out, negotiate, interpret and report back.
These are tasks for which you need that really exceptional personal assistant, someone who is content in an intrinsically subordinate role. I choose that adjective carefully, because when I say subordinate, I certainly do not mean inferior. Those qualities of intelligence and sensitivity that make a good listener are rare qualities. They often exist alongside kindness, generosity and patience.
I like to think that Regus, with its concierge service, and the other services available at our business centres, provides some of those qualities for our clients. As the company’s chairman and chief executive, I count myself fortunate indeed that I can personally call on the services of several personal assistants. Some are male, some female. All are intelligent, sensitive and tolerant. It would be invidious to name any, but I know I couldn’t manage without them.
Cervantes, Defoe and Wodehouse were all right. The perfect assistant is a jewel beyond price.
Mark Dixon is founder and CEO of Regus.
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