Stuff is cluttering my brain. There’s the work stuff (people to call, email, meet, things to read and write, expenses) — then there’s the life stuff. Presents and school uniform to buy, summer travel and accommodation to book, hospital appointments and after-school clubs to arrange. Many of the tasks on my personal to-do list are barely taxing but cumulatively they stalk my mind, sometimes disturbing my nights.
So when offered a month with a remote personal assistant to battle my chores, I gratefully said yes. Unlike an executive assistant, who is the gatekeeper of work diaries, organises meetings and travel, my white knight is Laura-Faye Trainor, a remote PA who will help smooth out my private life. Kath Clarke, the founder of BlckBx, who employs Trainor, has great claims for the service. Users will have more free time and greater gender equality at home, unshackling women from their domestic load and boosting their careers.
I was hesitant on my first call. Could I really ask Trainor to put the under-11s football fixtures in my diary, find a gift and book tickets to a Beatles tour? Yes, she urged. It felt awkward. But very quickly, it felt bloody brilliant. I had outsourced tedium.
Clarke started BlckBx in the pandemic when she saw women struggle to keep on top of work and home life with school shutdowns. The service was also born from Clarke’s own frustrations. Friends thought the mother of three, who worked for herself as a consultant with flexible hours, was living the dream. Instead, she was constantly “Googling time management, [wondering] what am I doing wrong”. The women who seemed to have their lives in order did not have better focus she realised but support. “It’s a secret that all these successful people have help.”
So she set up a service tackling “the really boring stuff, outsourcing for family admin”, aimed at employers. She hopes they will offer a virtual PA as a perk to employees.
The sweet spot, Clarke said, is the daily to-do list, “Then there’s Red Nose Day, World Book Day. Christmas plays, fundraisers, then all the Christmas shopping.” She said her remote PAs (80 per cent of whom are employees) save a family between 10 and 30 hours a month, on tasks ranging from holiday ideas, to booking an online shop.
Demand for remote PAs has surged following the pandemic, says Melissa Smith, founder of The Personal Virtual Assistant service. “It gave people time to reflect . . . People would set aside their weekends and nights [to do life admin]. They thought, ‘Why do I need to do that?’”
The days of asking a workplace PA to buy a present for a spouse (or paramour) belong to the martini-soaked days of the Mad Men era. Chloe Cotty, a virtual PA working from Devon, previously worked as a PA in a large company but had a career break to have children. Many of her clients have an executive assistant at the office but it is not their job to do life admin: “If my boss had asked me to book the dentist, it wouldn’t have been right.” She also enjoys the variety. “You’re not sitting down doing invoices all day.”
Virtual PAs are an increasingly popular employee benefit, says Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder and chief executive of virtual PA company Time Etc, for those employers looking for ways to “maximise staff productivity and reduce stress”. “People want to enjoy their free time. Plus, pressing life admin has a tendency to creep into working hours.”
Adam Hearne is the CEO and co-founder of Carbon Chain, a platform that enables companies to track their supply chain emissions, and recently offered the service to employees because “people are overwhelmed with managing their personal lives.”
But the start-up also wants employees to shop around for more sustainable products to reduce their carbon footprint. This can take extra time on top of family and work demands, so offering a virtual PA is “a way to support staff to think about lower carbon options.”
Research suggests a more equal distribution of unpaid care and housework would contribute to more equality in overall employment rates, different types of employment and the number of hours worked. But Abby Davisson, co-author of Money and Love, pointed out that many more tasks are primarily mental — and invisible — rather than physical labour.
Sometimes referred to as the mental load, “these still take up time and brain space”, she said, which is where a virtual PA can really help.
Hearne and his partner, for example, now centralise to-do lists, surfacing tasks like routine dentist or health appointments that can be easily forgotten. “It levels things out,” he says, referring to the couple’s division of chores.
Christian Edelmann, managing partner and co-head of Europe at Oliver Wyman, is paying for a PA himself. (The consultancy offers BlckBx assistants as a perk to new parents and to those at stress points in their personal lives, such as divorce.) “My wife is working full time too,” says Edelmann. “It’s made us conscious that we want to share tasks 50/50. It tends to be women that take it on.”
So too for Davisson, who has young children and recently launched a business, as did her husband. “We’ve both been able to devote more brain space to our professional endeavours as a result — and we’ve been able to be more present when we’re with our kids. The investment we’ve made feels worth it — and we do see it as exactly that: an investment in our careers and our lives, not simply an expense.”
Ironically, Trainor has helped me recoup my free time because she left her previous career as a solicitor, when the workload swamped her personal life. She is able to “empathise” with clients about a poor work-life balance. There are some overlaps between law and being a PA — chiefly, the fast pace when clients need something urgently.
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Many traditional secretarial tasks, like dictation, have been replaced by technology. With the proliferation of generative artificial intelligence, will virtual PAs still need human input? Clarke says that they already use ChatGPT to automate some work. “AI technology can power through the repetitive, recurring and predictable administrative tasks [such as sourcing gifts while the] assistant cherry picks . . . they know you inside out and can provide a bespoke service.”
BlckBx is building an AI platform to help the assistants, and improve and refine services. Clarke believes real people will always be in demand. “They’ve all got empathy. You can’t replace that.”
What struck me about my month with Trainor was that a service that felt like a luxury quickly became an entitlement. Trainor became a status symbol as, horrifyingly, my family started mentioning “your PA” as much as possible at social gatherings.
Soon I developed a learnt helplessness, particularly pronounced after we said goodbye to Trainor. Plotting a train journey through France and various stop-offs, I lamented the loss. It felt too much on my own.
However, I cannot make a case that she recalibrated my relationship with my partner, as the domestic chores are pretty evenly split. But my mental load was lighter, knowing stuff was being done without my input. I want to say I used that extra time to focus on my work, but I suspect I used it to watch more telly.