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Working Effectively with an Administrative Assistant
If you've never had an administrative assistant before, it might be a bit of mystery just how to best work with one. This discussion is split into two parts: general guidelines for working with your assistant and a more specific discussion about the types of things the admin can do for you.
Working with an admin
Undoubtedly, your admin supports several faculty members. That means that s/he has N bosses and each one thinks that his/her request is absolutely of the highest priority. As a result, your admin is constantly juggling priorities and trying to balance out multiple people's needs. You can make your and your admin's life easier by taking this into account:
If possible, make requests enough in advance so your admin can work it in after fighting fires.
When you ask your admin to do something, indicate by when you need it (and if the answer was "yesterday", be properly apologetic)
If you're going to be making the same request regularly, let your admin know so it can be scheduled (e.g., I'll need lecture notes every Tuesday and Thursday).
If you will be out of the office, let your admin know. Better yet, make sure that your admin has access to your calendar.
It may be the case that you would like your admin to have skills that s/he does not currently possess. Sit down and have a frank discussion with your admin to see if it's reasonable for him/her to acquire these skills or if it might be better to have someone else (e.g., a TF) do the task you had in mind. For example, it would be nice if our admins knew how to set up and administer password-protected web pages or Wiki's but it might not be the best use of their time.
If your admin is up to acquiring some new skills, work with him/her to figure out the best way to do so -- after all, these new skills will benefit you in the long run, so it's worth some up-front time now. For example, if you want your admin to use LaTex, remember how you learned it, suggest that, and then spend 20 minutes bringing him/her up to speed on your N favorite tricks for using it.
When things are going well, it's easy to forget all the things that your admin is doing -- don't forget them! Kind words are always welcome and things like the holidays, Administrative Professional’s day, birthdays, etc are good ways to show that you value your staff. They also make it easier to undertake the more difficult task of addressing deficiencies. No one is perfect, and your admin will make mistakes. If you don't alert him/her to the mistakes, they won't get fixed. Bring the mistakes to the admin's attention in an honest, but non-judgemental fashion; chances are the mistake won't happen again.
When you find yourself doing a task, it's worth asking the question, "Is this something that demands a faculty member's attention?" Photocopying, reserving a room, printing out letters on letterhead, ordering food, filling out expense reports, returning a book to the library, etc. do not require your attention. Let your admin help you. Writing a grant proposal, preparing for class, and conducting research clearly need to be done by you. Everything else seems to fall somewhere in the middle.
For example, should you maintain your own calendar or should your admin? Different people answer this one differently. Both models have their advantages, but make a conscious decision about which model you prefer. If you decide that your admin is going to manage your schedule, be absolutely brutal about enforcing that -- don't go scheduling things without letting him/her know, lest you find yourself double-booked. This means letting your admin know when you have personal obligations and won't be available.
Another grey area is travel arrangements. Your admin can certainly sit on the phone with a travel agent or surf the web and work out details for a flight, however if your schedule is highly constrained, and you have strong preferences, it might be more time efficient to simply go to travelocity.com or some other site and book it yourself.