Project Managers: Take a look at your job description. Does it say “make reservations, clean up conference rooms, take ALL notes, and create others’ meetings”? Probably not. So why do we end up doing all of these things? Where does an Admin role end and a PM role begin—or are they even connected?
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: someone has to do these things, but why is it often the PM, and what can we do about it when it really shouldn’t be?
What Is An Admin?
An Administrative Assistant (often shortened to “Admin”) or a Virtual Assistant (often shortened to VA) is someone who assists you (or a bunch of “you’s”).
Their purpose, by and large, is to take day-to-day, time-suck tasks off the hands of folks who were hired to do higher level or more specialized jobs. And Administrative Assistant is an important role that can be immensely challenging —the duties an Admin does are vital, but the Admin often doesn’t have complete control over how things are done in a way that lets them do their best work (sound familiar?).
What Are The Similarities And Differences Between PMs And Admins?
PM vs. Admin: Similarities
PMs overlap with Admins in a lot of ways: keeping things organized, making sure people have what they need to do their jobs, making sure people talk when needed, and ensuring notes are kept for important meetings. It’s vital for a PM to do these things because the details, in most projects, really matter. Someone has to keep track of things or the project could easily spiral out of control.
If push came to shove, and a developer needed to either take an hour to book her travel or let the PM do it for her so she could finish installing an important code update, the PM is going to book the travel. Similarly, if the team needs a huge batch of files organized, the PM is likely to be the one to do that administrative task, not a developer or a graphic designer.
PM vs. Admin: Differences
PMs do or direct anything that needs to be done to make a project successful, in much the same way that an Admin does whatever is necessary to support the person or people they’re working for. And therein lies the difference: a PM does these administrative tasks in lieu of having someone else to do them, for the benefit of the project. An admin is doing them because that is, largely, his job. A PM is doing this to move things forward and be able to do her own job, which has a much different purview.
If it seems like the lines are blurry, that’s because they sometimes can be. My rule of thumb, though, is asking myself “am I doing this because no one else will, or am I doing it because it is important for my project?”
It’s not your job as the PM to pick up every last task that no one wants to do. You’re not the default note-taker. You don’t have to make sure the conference room looks presentable before every meeting. You don’t have to worry about who sets up the conference line next time. You can worry about these things if you have time, if you feel like it’s warranted, and if you want to take it on. But you don’t HAVE to. Make sure you’re spending your time on things that generate value for your project and your company—and, like others on the team, on things you’re the only one uniquely qualified to do. PMs are great delegators—don’t be afraid to offload tasks to people for whom it makes the most sense.
Here’s the rub: the PM can oftentimes get pigeonholed into doing certain admin tasks all the time, simply because they are looked at as the least-important member of the team, or because they feel like they have to do them since no one else will. Anyone can take notes, but not everyone can write code. Anyone can ensure the conference room is cleaned up after a meeting, but not everyone can design the front end of a website. It sometimes feels like a no-brainer: if non-essential work needs to be done, give it to the non-essential team member. Or the team member who always does it. Or the team member who doesn’t complain. Or the team member who….is female.
A Note About Notes—Especially For Women
I want to specifically call out note-taking, because it’s a Thing. And I want to call out the dynamic of women habitually being the people to take on more than their fair share of admin work, because that, too, is a Thing. Since there are MANY female digital project managers, it’s of importance to our PM community to talk about this. Don’t think it’s a Thing? Forbes does. The New York Times does. The Washington Post does. Fortune does. Lots of people do.
Your role as PM, and/or the fact that you are female, does not mean you are the default note taker. It doesn’t mean you have to figure out who should take notes. It doesn’t mean you have to take notes for anyone other than yourself. The responsibility of notes, or delegating someone else to take notes, is the sole responsibility of the person who is running the meeting. Maybe that is you! In that case, yes, take notes! Or…ask one of the myriad people in your meeting, who may or may not be on their phone or laptop multitasking, to do it this time.
At work, your gender doesn’t automatically mean you have to do anything. Your job description outlines what you do.
Women aren’t the only people who are relegated to doing the admin work no one else wants to do—entry level PMs, regardless of gender, often face the same problem. Anyone who was originally hired as an Admin or Intern and was promoted into a PM position is in danger of having this problem. And older workers, especially if they are seen as technologically incompetent due to their age are at high risk.
How To Make Sure You Don’t Get Stuck As An Admin
How do you maintain your role as a PM and the project leader when you feel like you’re doing an awful lot of admin work? The line is much clearer if there actually are admins at your company. In that case, you’d treat the situation like any other role-overlap, where you can sort out who does what and what is more appropriate for which role.
But if you don’t have Admins, and you’re doing all that work as the PM, how do you maintain your role—the expansive role that extends beyond the administrative work that you find yourself doing? It’s not easy, but the solution lies with clearly-stated boundaries that you adhere to and hold your team accountable to adhere to as well.
First, find your boundaries. Are you willing to always set up the calls? Do you enjoy note taking? Figure out what you think will add value to the team while allowing you to stay in a leadership position, and figure out what won’t add value or what will cause you to lose your leadership status (and make sure your manager agrees with you!). List things as “Yes, I will do this” and “No, I won’t do this” in your notebook or on your whiteboard.
Next, convey your boundaries. During the next kickoff, status meeting, or wherever it feels most natural, let your team know the things you will and won’t be taking on regularly. Most of the time, your team won’t really know what to do to chip in on those tasks you’re offloading, so you’ll have to show them.
- If there are other people in your meeting who aren’t presenting and don’t have a pivotal role, which should be at least ¾ of the attendees, then you have a wealth of people that can take the meeting’s notes.
- You can easily look over your shoulder to let the last person rising from their seat in the conference room know to kindly turn off the lights and make sure the chairs are pushed in.
- You can suggest a different person to set up next week’s meeting.
- You can lobby your bosses to actually hire a VA to make travel arrangements for others if you’re doing this more than, say, ONCE in EVER.
Also, don’t overlook the other important thing here: if your team is so strapped for time and help that they have to constantly choose between getting their actual work done and doing their own admin work, you need to look at your timelines and resourcing. When a PM has to step in to help out, it should be just that—stepping in, occasionally, to help out. This is not part of the PM job.
How To Stop Being The Admin If You’re Already Stuck
So, what if you are reading this and you realize, “Hey, I’ve been doing a ton of admin work and I want it to stop”? Even if you’ve taken notes for every single meeting in the past 10 years, even if you’ve put together every single powerpoint presentation that your group has ever produced, even if you have organized every meeting for your team since the dawn of time, you can take this time to reset expectations. The key is to do it with the right tone: matter-of-fact, problem solving mode.
Tactic 1: Just Assign It
You can take the initiative to just go ahead and start assigning things out. No explanations necessary. Just start doing it.
“Greg, can you take notes for this meeting?” (If Greg looks confused or stunned, you can say “I take them the majority of the time and I’d like to focus today on listening for my own priorities. I think it would be great if we assigned new people each meeting. You get to go first!”)
“I agree we need a meeting to discuss. My calendar is up to date, so feel free to choose a time that works for you, Bob.” (If Bob’s mouth is agape, you can say “I know I usually schedule these, but I’m not able to sustain that any longer, and I’m swamped today.”)
Tactic 2: Be Transparent
If you want to be very transparent, and you know your team is receptive, you can reset all the expectations at once by announcing at the start of a meeting, or end of a meeting if something else needs to be scheduled, or any time the issue gets raised, “I know I’ve always done ______, but I can’t continue doing that as well as my own job duties. I think if we equally distribute all of this work, it won’t be a burden on any one person.” And if anyone asks you “Why?” you can always make them squirm by cheerfully asking “Is there a problem with taking on some of this communal admin work?”
Tactic 3: Help Others (And They Will Help You!)
Another way to ensure that the PM isn’t treated as the office’s Admin if you are not the PM in question (lookin’ at you, dudes), is to speak up in support. “Pam does always take the notes. I’ll take them this time, and then maybe Gus can do it next time. It’s not really fair otherwise.” Or “Why is everyone assuming Gail will set up this meeting?”
In fact, you can do that for anyone in your company who isn’t being treated fairly. Often it only takes one person to speak up about things like this for there to be sweeping change. And you never know when you’ll need that same support from your colleagues, who will be more likely to give it once you’ve shown them how it’s done.
So, to recap, Project Manager does not mean Admin, or Default Note Taker, or Doer Of Stuff No One Else Feels Like Doing. As a project manager, you don’t have to take on all the admin tasks for the project—just the ones that make the most sense. Speak up, draw your boundaries, and hold others accountable. Do it on your terms. Once your boundaries are drawn, use the tactics outlined (just assign it, be transparent, and speak up for others) and get yourself on the right track. And another reminder: if you see someone stuck in this role, speak up for them, too!
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