Things clutter my brain. There are the work things (people to call, email, meet, things to read and write, expenses) – then there are the life things. Gifts and school uniforms to buy, summer trips and accommodations to book, hospital appointments and after-school clubs to arrange. Many of the tasks on my personal to-do list are barely taxing, but taken together they haunt my mind and sometimes disrupt my nights.
So when I was offered a month with a remote personal assistant to do my chores, I gratefully said yes. Unlike an executive assistant, who is the gatekeeper of work schedules, organizing 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, which employs Trainor, has big claims to the service. Users will have more free time and more gender equality at home, freeing women from their household chores and boosting their careers.
At my first call I was hesitant. Could I really ask Trainor to schedule under-11 football games, find a gift and book tickets for a Beatles tour? Yes, she insisted. It felt uncomfortable. But very quickly it felt damn brilliant. I had outsourced boredom.
Clarke started BlckBx during the pandemic as she saw women struggling to manage work-life balance with school closures. The service also grew out of 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 didn’t have better focus, she realized, but support. “It’s a secret that all these successful people have help.”
So she set up a service for “the really boring stuff, family administration outsourcing,” aimed at employers. She hopes they will offer a virtual PA as an employee perk.
The sweet spot, Clarke said, is the daily to-do list: “Then there’s Red Nose Day, World Book Day. Christmas shows, fundraisers and then all the Christmas shopping.” She said her remote PAs (80 percent of whom are employees) save a family between 10 and 30 hours a month on tasks ranging from vacation ideas to booking an online store.
Demand for remote PAs has skyrocketed in the wake of the pandemic, said Melissa Smith, founder of The Personal Virtual Assistant service. “It gave people time to think. . . People would put aside their weekends and nights (to manage life). They thought, ‘Why should I do that?’”
The days of asking a workplace PA to buy a gift for a husband (or lover) are among the martini-soaked days of the Mad Men era. Chloe Cotty, a virtual PA based in Devon, previously worked as a PA in a large company, but took her career break to have children. Many of her clients have an executive assistant in the office, but it’s not their job to administer life: “If my boss had asked me to book the dentist, it wouldn’t have been right.” She also enjoys the variety. “You don’t spend all day making invoices.”
Virtual PAs are an increasingly popular employee benefit, says Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder and CEO of virtual PA firm Time Etc, for employers looking for ways to “maximize workforce productivity and reduce stress.” “People want to enjoy their free time. Plus, pressing life’s paperwork tends to creep into work hours.
Adam Hearne is the CEO and co-founder of Carbon Chain, a platform that helps companies 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 look for more sustainable products to reduce their ecological 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 low-carbon options.”
Research suggests that a more equal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work would contribute to greater equality in overall employment rates, different job types and hours worked. But Abby Davisson, co-author of Money and lovepointed out that many more tasks are primarily mental—and invisible—rather than physical labor.
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.
For example, Hearne and his partner are now centralizing to-do lists, bringing up tasks like routine dental or health appointments that can be easily forgotten. “It evens things out,” he says, referring to the couple’s division of labor.
Christian Edelmann, managing partner and co-head of Europe at Oliver Wyman, pays for a PA himself. (The consulting firm offers BlckBx assistants as a perk for new parents and those facing stressful times in their personal lives, such as a divorce.) “My wife also works full-time,” says Edelmann. “It made us aware that we want to divide tasks 50/50. It is usually women who take it upon themselves.”
So does Davisson, who has young children and recently started a business just like her husband. “This has allowed both of us to devote more brain space to our professional endeavors — and we’ve been able to be more present when we’re with our kids. The investment we’ve made feels worthwhile – and we see it as just that: an investment in our career and our lives, not just an expense.”
Ironically, Trainor has helped me recoup my time off, as she left her previous career as a lawyer when the workload swamped her personal life. She can empathize with clients about poor work-life balance. There are some overlaps between the law and being PA – especially the fast pace when customers need something urgently.
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Many traditional secretarial tasks, such as dictation, have been replaced by technology. With the proliferation of generative artificial intelligence, will virtual PAs still require human input? Clarke says they are already using ChatGPT to automate some work. “AI technology can power the repetitive, repetitive and predictable administrative tasks (such as buying gifts while the) assistant cherry picks. . . they know you through and through and can provide tailor-made solutions.”
BlckBx builds an AI platform to help the assistants and improve and refine the service. Clarke believes that real people will always be in demand. They all have empathy. You can’t replace that.”
What struck me about my month at Trainor was that a service that felt like a luxury quickly became a right. Trainor became a status symbol when, horribly enough, my family started calling “your PA” as much as possible at social gatherings.
Soon I developed a learned helplessness, especially pronounced after we parted ways with Trainor. I planned a train journey through France and several stops and regretted the loss. It felt too much alone.
However, I can’t claim that she has recalibrated my relationship with my partner as the household chores are fairly evenly split. But my mental load was lighter knowing things were being done without my input. I want to say that I used that extra time to focus on my work, but I guess I used it to watch more television.
The FT paid for a month trial version of BlckBx