Australian Financial Review
EY trials remote EAs
by Agnes King – Wednesday, April 27th 2016
Ernst & Young hires secretaries in Manila
Ernst&Young is testing the use of ‘‘virtual executive assistants’’ based in the Philippines with senior staff in Australia in an effort to cut costs and stop qualified staff wasting time on administrative tasks. The professional services giant has completed a four-month pilot with about 20 equity partners and directors, which looks set to become a permanent feature of the way support services are delivered at the firm. It has big implications for the future of work in the lead-up to a federal election when employment is front and centre, and business confidence is subdued.
A PwC report, The STEM Imperative: Future Proofing Australia’s Workforce, puts secretaries and personal assistants among the professions at high risk of ‘‘digital disruption’’ in the next 20 years, along with accountants, cashiers and administration workers. Cost is the main driver behind the EY pilot. The firm pays between $50,000 and $95,000 for an executive assistant in Sydney or Melbourne, while popular Malaysian job portal JobStreet puts the cost in the Philippines between $5000 and $20,000 a year.
But it also comes with a carrot in that it will allow EY to extend support services to more junior staff. These include managing travel arrangements, expenses, meetings and compiling PowerPoint presentations. EY Oceania chief operating officer Tim Eddy, a key supporter of the program, said feedback from trial participants has been mostly positive. ‘‘We expected more bumps in the road,’’ he said. Mr Eddy said senior staff have had to adjust to be more organised, and that most issues arose from assumptions, for example that Manilabased EAs would know which airline executives wanted to fly with. EY will complement the ‘‘virtual EA’’ system with a concierge service to deal with spontaneous requirements.
Rising costs and margin pressure from clients has forced professional services firms to reduce support staff in the local market. One executive assistant is typically shared by three partners in EY’s local practice, but can sometimes support up to five executives. With support services stretched, many younger professionals who have grown up in the self-service culture find it easier to do their own admin. Jon Pye, deputy managing partner of EY’s Asia Pacific assurance practice, found himself volunteering to participate in the trial when his local EA was reassigned to a different division. He said the impact has been minimal but confesses ‘‘it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea’’. His Manila-based EA, Vito, had a baptism of fire scheduling meetings and travel arrangements in nine cities over nine days when the pilot started in February.
‘‘Operationally, everything gets done, although sometime it’s easier to talk to someone face-to-face. Other than that there’s no real difference,’’ Mr Pye said. He believes many of the tasks going offshore are things over-stretched local EAs ‘‘are probably quite happy to see the back of’’. He has had four local EAs in the past year, and says activity-based working means assistants don’t necessarily sit in the same location as the execs they support. He says virtual EAs are unlikely to suit executives with fluid diaries, but has no doubt its application across the firm will be expanded. ‘‘I suppose it would be nice [to keep these jobs in Australia] but clients are not prepared to pay for it – they’re looking at efficiencies and in most cases have ‘offshored’ themselves. It’s very difficult to resist that trend unless we’re prepared to absorb that cost,’’ he said.