Office Admins - what do I need to know to excel at your job?
June 28, 2016 11:09 AM   Subscribe

Office Admins - what do I need to know to excel at your job? After a career where my highlight was being a support consultant, making presentations across England on the benefits of Internet marketing (my degree was in marketing) and also updating basic brochureware sites, I am seeking to return to the workforce after a long time as a caregiver.

I am getting support back into employment from a charity, this includes interview coaching and potentially even calling up employers directly on my behalf. The most obvious route back into work for me seems to be working in office admin, ideally not temping to start but either part-time or full-time. I no longer have any commitments as a caregiver and the Meetup groups which form most of my social life I could fit into weekends or evenings. I know I need to learn to touch type and update my basic Word 2003 and Powerpoint 2003 into at least Office 2010, plus learn Excel 2010 from scratch. What other skills to need to learn to do a really good job in office administration?

It might not be my dream job but I don't want to half-ass things either, this is a new chance for me and although I'll be starting off in a lowly role I don't want to be a clock-watcher, I want to be one of those who master their jobs and when times are slack is on the lookout for new things to do or ways to improve things. I saw Udemy had some very brief 1 or 2 hour courses in becoming an office admin, I bought one to try, and I also subscribed to for a month (though I may keep it going for several months) to help me get up to speed on Office 2010. Can anyone recommend an (ideally free or low cost) online course for office admins? Or a book (I already have "The definitive personal assistant & secretarial handbook" by Sue France but that's not exactly the same role)?

Are there any tips from people who have gone into office admin and thrived in it, what do you like and dislike about it? What are some typical challenges and how do you deal with them (I imagine being one office admin for a department of four or six might mean diplomacy since they are competing for your time)? Any tricks for me to be able to study/ practice things at home - for example I could maybe make spreadsheets relating to my monthly budget, or speed up typing by retyping articles from the newspaper - any more like this which would help me in a simulated work test if that was part of an interview?

As you can see I have lots of questions, and I'm also curious if anyone can speak to differences between admin in a widget factory vs a legal practice or the health service, since the latter two are live vacancies I identified with the charity's careers adviser this afternoon. I am not in need of an admin job this very minute to pay rent for the month, but I want to be up to speed ASAP both to learn how to pick up the pace and put in full days, and also because my time with the advisor will be for a limited number of weeks so the sooner I am applying and a credible candidate the better, as then she can identify potential employers and perhaps contact some for me in the time we have remaining together.

Throwaway e-mail in case anyone has opinions which they'd rather share privately rather than have listed alongside their username. Thanks in advance for any advice you can give!
posted by AuroraSky to Work & Money (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I am a lawyer who has an awesome paralegal. My awesome paralegal gets stuck doing all my admin work since we don't have an admin, and she truly is the best. Things I appreciate about her:

*She doesn't need reminders of weekly tasks. Our accounts payable are handled and on my desk for approval the morning they're due every week, she reminds us to complete our timecards, the mail gets checked twice a day, the copier is never out of toner...the mundane but important stuff just gets done.
*She anticipates my needs. If I have a big meeting, the folder with the documents I need will be on my desk in advance with a note reminding me of what receivables are outstanding.
*She is always willing to learn new things. In the last few years we've gotten new phones, new software for file management, and put some new processes in place. Rather than complain like a bunch of the administrative staff do, she attends the trainings, watches videos online, and then asks for more training or help if she's stuck.

The one thing I will say about working for lawyers that has to be annoying is that when we want something we want it now, and we often need to be reminded of multiple competing deadlines. The more you can do to anticipate needs, the less running around you'll have to do.
posted by notjustthefish at 11:15 AM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

SO. MANY. SPREADSHEETS. At least at my job, as an admin for two Assistant Directors of a non-profit in education. Get your hands dirty in Excel, maybe check out an online tutorial or two. Oh, since you're starting from scratch, it's probably worth it to see if there's a class you could take. Hopefully the charity can help you fund a class? Or get an Excel For Dummies (ugh I hate those titles) book from the library and dig in.

Many, many, many Word documents. LOTS of mail merging, envelope merging, and label printing. I love that Word has a step-by-step Mail Merge Wizard. Start practicing!

We use Outlook, and I gather that's a pretty standard system to use in business. I don't know how easy it would be to practice with it without having an account (probably not very?) but you could read articles about, say, how to maximize your task scheduler, how to schedule meetings with multiple people, etc.

Most of what I do requires shifting quickly from the task I'm working on to the task someone needs me to do RIGHT NOW. It's never really life or death (and no one ever makes me feel like it is) but those things do require my attention to be divided many, many times per day. Sometimes it feels like it's impossible to stay on task and finish a long-term project.

Write things down once you get the job. DO NOT assume that you'll just remember stuff as you're told. I sort the mail as it comes in, which requires me to log donations before I give them to our finance person. There are different categories that require different sheets and if I hadn't written all that stuff down, I would have been asking a dozen questions every time the mail came in.

Do not be afraid to ask questions! If your new boss/bosses get pissy when you need clarification, it's not a good place to work.

I really like my work and the variety of it. I love working for a non-profit, even though my salary is commensurate with the fact that it's a non-profit! If you have any questions, feel free to MeMail me!

Good luck!
posted by cooker girl at 11:34 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

One thing I really struggled with when I briefly worked in admin was a tendency people had to assume I could read their minds. For example, my boss would ask me to 'prepare the materials for the board meeting' and I would prepare the same ones I had the last month. And it would turn out there were three things sitting on her desk somewhere that she had forgotten to tell me about, and I would get chastised for not including them.

The admin at my current job is a master of this sort of thing. She uses folders for everything. As soon as a new event or project or whatever gets started, she makes a folder. Then everything---lists, receipts, what have you---all goes in there. That's what my former boss needed. There should have been a monthly 'board meeting' folder where anyone could add what was needed, and then it would all be there when it was time to 'prepare the materials.'

If I had to do it again, I'd use an on-line Calendar program to schedule tasks and follow-ups ahead of time with pop-up reminders, and I would systematize everything so that I wouldn't need to read people's minds.
posted by JoannaC at 11:43 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been an Executive Assistant to CEOs for sixteen years. You're going to be fine. You seem bright and motivated, and (beyond basic competency) the number one most important thing about being a good admin is attitude. Be positive and helpful, even when you want to kill everyone in sight. And leave your ego at the door. I graduated summa cum laude and can write complicated Excel formulas with the best of them, but I also keep the Jolly Ranchers stocked on the front desk and get people coffee. Mundane tasks are part of this type of job, but as long as you have a good boss you will feel appreciated and there will be plenty of opportunity to use your brain as well.

The second most important thing is to be discreet. Always assume nobody else knows the things you know. Never gossip about anything remotely work related. If you're privy to confidential information, people will act like they know things they don't in order to get you to spill the beans. It's better to play dumb than get tricked into saying something you shouldn't.

So, after those two things, the rest of it is just, well, administrative. I have an old fashioned day planner on my desk because I find that physically writing things down is much more useful to me than keeping electronic records. I find a desk calendar especially useful because when I find out about something that needs to happen in a week, I can immediately flip to the due date and write it down and not worry about trying to remember it when that day comes around. I write everything down, always. I never assume I will remember things. I learned this the very hard way in my first EA job (i.e., accidentally leaving an interview candidate in the lobby for two hours because my boss was on the phone when he arrived and then spacing out on it completely once the call had ended, etc). Also, never throw anything away. Save all emails, always. IT will probably hate you, but I can't tell you how many times I've had someone ask me about something that happened eight years ago and I've been able to pull up complete information to give them what they needed when no one else could.

Yes, learning the updated versions of Office is a good idea, but if you're relatively well versed in 2003 you're going to be able to figure out the latest updates in no time at all. The key to the computer stuff is really just having the confidence to work out the things you don't know, so do whatever it takes to get to that basic level of proficiency and you'll be fine.

I truly think being good at admin work is more about who you are than the specific job duties. If you're available, organized, and ready and willing to do whatever it takes to make your boss's life easier, you're going to be successful.
posted by something something at 11:56 AM on June 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

I would learn the basics of bookkeeping. Not because you're going to be doing the accounts yourself, but you need to be able to follow along when the accountant/bookkeeper meets with the boss. Our office admin does a lot of juggling along the lines of "well, the office coffee supply can't come out of this account, because of restrictions on purchasing food, but we could maybe use that other account and then use the first one for paying temp workers..."
posted by Liesl at 12:00 PM on June 28, 2016

This is all really encouraging stuff. I won't pick any more "best answers" because all are really helpful, both from those doing the job and those employing them. I did get a good Honours degree (2:1 here, not sure what GPA that equates to) and I know I can do this. I have found a couple of online courses to give office admin skills, one gives a PDF certificate for an extra $25, if anyone has personally found a low cost course which maybe (but not necessarily) issues a certificate that might help show I really want an admin job (I want to study part-time and do social things too, so this maybe sounds less ambitious but is a good match for me) rather than be settling for one.
posted by AuroraSky at 12:09 PM on June 28, 2016

Having worked with a secretary who made us all want to tear our hair out, here's a quick list of things she did that you really should avoid:

- She prioritized nonessential projects over essential ones. She volunteered for every damn committee (party planning, fundraising, etc) in the office but had literally months of unfiled paperwork that was as good as lost until it was properly filed.

- She pushed back on the most senior person for whom she worked, either by telling him she was too busy to do what he asked or by telling him that his directions were wrong and that she should do it differently. I figured out, and told him, that her issue was that she wanted to feel in control, so she subconsciously would reject work given to her until her brain had worked it around so that the project was coming from within her, and not from an exterior source, and that probably saved her job for a few months.

- She forgot that the most important thing to an attorney is money. #1 - paycheck, #2 - expense reimbursement, #2 - time entry (which leads to paycheck). Assume an attorney will put aside ANY deadline in order to get their pay or reimbursement, and to have their billable time entered.

- Ask questions about prioritization if it has not been made clear to you.

- If two people of relatively equal rank tell you to put their work ahead of anyone else's and you don't have backup so the work can be done simultaneously, get THEM to work it out. Say, "Could you check in with X, who also has a rush project, and let me know what the two of you decide about prioritization? thanks."
posted by janey47 at 12:28 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Aside from becoming a mighty Excel master, which you must do (and there are programs that will issue completion certificates), I came here to say this:

I'd use an on-line Calendar program to schedule tasks and follow-ups ahead of time with pop-up reminders

You must, from Day 1, present yourself to your customers (the people you support) as a mere - if very clever - mortal who is forced to adhere to the space-time continuum. You are no Hermione with a time-turner. Outlook will likely be your mail/calendar home, and your Outlook calendar should be fully readable to your customers and you should conduct every bit of business you possibly can via scheduled appointment. Teach them to expect it and respect it. If you need to be vague or make certain appointments private that's fine, but schedule everything.

It probably would not kill you to take an intro Project Management course, both to have the certificate to show and also because that's often a role you will unofficially play.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:28 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Be prepared to go into a place where the previous person was completely incompetent and you can't find anything or find things that were done appallingly wrong. There's a lot of that out there (the upside is that when you display any competence at all, for the first few years, people freak out at how awesome you are. The downside is that critical files will still be missing.)

Be careful in how you phrase suggestions for changing what seem (to you) minor protocols. People can get surprisingly territorial about the tiniest changes.

(Carefully) seek out mentors or at least allies to give you the back story on how things work there. If you are the admin for a higher-up person, people will probably come to you, but make friends in other departments/areas in order to keep dibs on what is happening with your company.
posted by emjaybee at 12:45 PM on June 28, 2016

Hello, I am an admin and I think I "thrive" in it and I do enjoy it (for the most part). Without getting too specific, because it varies so much from office to office, here's what I think makes a good admin:

- Not resenting the "grunt" work. I think this is the #1 area where admins burn out so it helps to build up your confidence about the value you're adding to an organization. This is also where having a good boss helps - honestly it's amazing how much of a difference it can make doing a mundane task for someone who understands that mundane tasks add up to time-saving/valuable support, versus someone who just wants to feel like a VIP by dumping tasks onto a subordinate. That's hard to screen for when you're job hunting! But you can definitely put on the right "attitude" when you step into the office (leaving your ego at the door, as something something says above).

- Writing things down. I used to think I had a good memory...then I started working in admin. I carry a notebook everywhere and I write down everything someone asks me to do, or that I think I should do, as the absolute first step (you can turn the scribbles into actual tasks / plans later). I never assume I will remember something.

- Multitasking / prioritizing is a huge part of my job. To toot my own horn, I think what makes me successful in my job is that I do a lot of...task-sorting (both mental and on paper) for lack of a better word. So I have a really good understanding of how long it takes me to do something, when tasks are due (including thinking ahead to the long term and having a good sense of regular tasks on a daily/weekly/monthly basis), how important items are, etc. So that when random things come up throughout the day I can quickly judge whether it's a "let me do that for you right now" situation or a "I can definitely do that, but not until X date" situation or a "yes, I knew that was coming up, and it's about 90% done and will be with you tomorrow" situation.

- Being a "yes" person. This doesn't mean being a pushover or doing work that isn't part of your job duties, but having a good attitude and giving people the benefit of the doubt is really important. A big part of my job is Helping People With Things and Answering Questions. If I can't help them for whatever reason, I explain why and then try to figure out a way to get Thing/Question resolved, whether that's offering my help at a later point, teaching them to do it themselves for the future, finding someone who is better placed to advise, etc. Basically I try to be the opposite of obstructive.

- Not procrastinating on annoying tasks. For me this is a particular type of filing, and invoice paperwork. So I never let an invoice sit on my desk for more than one day, and I stick to my resolution to do the filing when it gets to a certain height in my filing tray. Because odds are someone WILL come around and ask about whatever task you find most annoying and it will make you feel much better if you can say you did it :)

Honestly, so much can vary about the way that different offices do things that I think the most important factors are a good attitude and common sense. What makes me good at my job is not just that I'm good at Excel (although I am great at Excel), it's that I enjoy the work I do and find it valuable, that I'm tuned in to what my boss and my department needs, and that I'm willing to wade in and figure things out as I go along.
posted by cpatterson at 2:05 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Social media and other online communications stuff (like using Mailchimp for newsletters) is also often a part of admin work nowadays, especially in small organizations. If you haven't used these before, setting yourself up on Twitter, Hootsuite, Mailchimp, etc, so you aren't figuring them out on the job is definitely helpful.
posted by ITheCosmos at 2:15 PM on June 28, 2016

Filing systems are surprisingly challenging. A good filing system is a blessing. A bad filing system is a pair of concrete shoes.
posted by bq at 3:13 PM on June 28, 2016

I'm an admin. I don't like it, I am not thriving, and I have been trying to change careers for a year.

Why, if you used to be in marketing, are you trying to be an admin? What about it appeals to you? Are you doing this because admin positions are relatively easy to get hired for, or do you really, honestly enjoy doing admin work?

Admin is really easy to get into, especially if you are a woman, and almost impossible to get out of. Admins are also ridiculously underpaid and there is no career growth. Your options are basically to accept cost-of-living increases at your current company (if you are lucky) or move to another company to babysit someone else's phone.

I would not have become an admin knowing what I now know about it, so please consider carefully if you want this to be your career.
posted by Lycaste at 4:43 PM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would reconsider temping. Many temp jobs are covering for a position that will be hired, and you'll be first in line and know if the culture / job is tenable for you. Sign up with several agencies, local ones are often better than giant corporations.
posted by momus_window at 4:53 PM on June 28, 2016

I'm an executive admin at a technology company. I'm an Outlook journeyman and a space-planning martyr. I broke in by temping for 7 months and proving to be calm in the face of rush projects, and willing to put in overtime as long as I was paid hourly.

I would not agree that there is no career growth, but like Lycaste, I want out. This is my 8th year at it, though, 10 if you count temping. It can easily lead to project management or program management roles *at other companies* but within a company it can be very hard to shake off the admin title. Don't let that scare you away though. You take the jobs that are available and you can do, when you need to get paid! Admin tends to track naturally toward low-level HR positions and business manager roles, but some jerks really get scrupulous about having an MBA when you start doing business management/Chief of Staff jobs. Finding a good manager who will have your back when you want to make changes is critical. Unfortunately some managers can become so dependent on you that they will resent your attempts to grow out of the role. However, simply because I have been at a large technology company for a number of years and supported increasingly high level execs, I am headhunted by other companies in the area, and sometimes, across the country. At a certain point, a business admin can become a valued headcount.

The number one requirement for an admin position is 'being calm and proactive in the face of ambiguity.' Not kidding, it's often on the job requirements for any role in business support. i am not a yes person, but I am not the gatekeeper of no, either. You can't really lead with 'no, you cannot' unless a person is looking to commit some crazy policy violations, but you let people know the limitations of what you can do and what they can do, and when they're eager to look for alternate solutions, you help.

My regular, every day stuff:

- I run 3 manager's calendars via Outlook
- I also run a Rhythm of the BUsiness calendar via Outlook. Being able to plan and administrate and ROB calendar is a big gold star. You'd plan recurring team meetings, business reviews, etc.
- I plan domestic and international travel using an tool you can see online called Concur.
- I track and manage the OPEX (operating expense) budget for a team of 70. I've done this for teams of up to 300. This can mean knowing the spend of every dollar of several million, or much smaller totals.
- I handle space planning (where people will sit).
- Procurement: I purchase the computers and peripherals and supplies and handle distributing them. I make sure the invoices are approved or not so our vendors get paid.
- I handle all headcount moves: incoming to the team, within the team. I open vendor headcount. It's all done through an internal tool. I manage whether or not we're operating in compliance with the headcount allowance we've been given by the corporate office.
I am the policy go-to. People expect me to know all the vagueries of submitting expenses - I don't, but I can usually find out. People need to know how to make donations of our products to charities without getting the company, themselves and the charity in trouble. I need to be able to tell someone 'sorry, you cannot book business class to Tokyo for your only international trip this year, you are not a VP'.
- I plan morale events like dinner cruises, team picnics, indoor skydiving, what have you.

Extraordinary projects I have managed
- A yearly sales meeting for 350 team employees and 100 cross-corporation guests, from venue selection to travel scope, to room assignments (yep, you're doubling up folks), to catering for every one of 11 meals.
- Assisting in the logistics of international concerts

Intense hassles of the job:
- doing the legwork for China, Tibet, Brazil visas (nightmares)
- I have to keep candy in my office for the team. I don't want candy in my office! I have to build a wall between me and it or I'll eat it all. All.
- Sometimes managers forget that I am a BUSINESS administrator and treat me like a PERSONAL assistant. I am willing to grab lunch, but do not ask me to empty your trash or feed your dogs. Book your own vacation flights. It can be very difficult to have a conversation about this kind of thing with a manager, as they truly believe that you helping them with the personal streamlines their ability to dedicate themselves to the business. I firmly believe if it doesn't go on my resume, it doesn't happen.
- People calling you at 2am from another country because the driver you booked hasn't shown up and they're not comfortable calling the company even though you put the number in their itinerary
- The pay. My compensation is really very good until I compare it to the people around me. Recently admins at this company lost their eligibility for bonuses in trade for a one-time incremental across the board raise for all admins. It's still a very unpopular move.

I don't intend to keep moving up in the admin ladder: next steps up are with high-level VPs and CEOs and that really does become the PA type role I am trying to avoid complete with 24/7 on-call status. I am fantastic at my job, but I do resent some facets of it. I've also got another 25 years in the workforce ahead of me and I can't see doing this the whole time. That's fine, the job has taught me many things, particularly in how to set priorities, how to form a supportive network, and how to spot a bad manager miles away.
posted by taterpie at 6:49 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I love my admin, whom I share with one to two other managers.

She is an incredible human being -- humble, kind, generous, funny, conscientious, and more.

As an admin, the single best thing is that she is always looking 2-3 months ahead and making sure I don't forget anything. We have weekly one-on-ones, and she shows up with detailed calendars with all the tasks/projects that need to be looked at, things for me to sign, decisions I need to make, things I forgot from last week even though she reminded me, and so on. Speaking of one-on-ones, she is great about saving anything non-urgent for these meetings, so she isn't emailing and/or constantly interrupting me. I never have to remind her of anything; she reminds me. She scans my calendar weekly and daily to make sure I have everything I need for upcoming meetings/projects.

She actually doesn't have high-level Excel or Access skills, but she is always fine with picking up new stuff if I need her to. We use these programs a lot and it hasn't been a problem.
posted by Frenchy67 at 4:52 AM on June 29, 2016

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