A short history of virtual assistants and remote working

A virtual assistant (VA) is a person who works remotely online. With technological developments virtual assistants are now able to perform all the tasks a secretary or administrator would traditionally handle while working from home but how did virtual assistants come into being?

Isaac Pitman
Sir Issac Pitman

In the 1800’s Sir Isaac Pitman, invented Pitman shorthand and founded the first school for secretarial services. The school only admitted men, as women were not allowed in workplaces, however, with the invention of the typewriter, early technology paved the way for women’s entry into the profession and women went on to occupy office jobs and perform secretarial work. Historian Anna Davin records that when the British civil service took over operating telegraph and postal offices in the 1870s, female clerks were sought for their typing speed and dexterity, with the official in charge saying the wages ‘which will draw male operators from but an inferior class of the community, will draw female operators from a superior class.’ Women were favoured too because they could spell and type better, would raise the tone of the office, then marry and leave without requiring pensions. By the 1930s, men had disappeared from the industry and the role of secretary became a female one from then on.

A female typist operates a Sholes and Glidden typewriter, as depicted in an 1872 Scientific American article.

The word secretary originally meant ‘one entrusted with the secrets or confidences of a superior’ and is derived from the Medieval Latin ‘secretarius’. The Online Etymology Dictionary records the word was first recorded circa 1400 meaning a ‘person who keeps records, write letters, etc.,’ originally for a king. In the 1590’s the word referred to the title of ministers presiding over executive departments of state. The word is also used in both French and English to mean ‘a private desk’ or ‘secretaire’ in French, while the term ‘secretary bird’ refers to the bird found in sub-Saharan Africa, with a crest, which when smooth, resembles a pen stuck over the ear.

Vintage advertisement for an Underwood typewriter.

By the 1960’s ‘training respectable girls’ to be secretaries, focused on honing the relationship between the secretary and her boss but would-be secretaries at the Lucie Clayton school were also taught the importance of deportment and makeup, along with diary management. In her article ‘A Short History of the Secretary’ Claire Phipps writing in the Guardian quotes a letter published in The Times in 1969, advising that secretaries wear deodorant; learn how to make good tea and coffee; and always look beautiful, but not provocative … changing stockings was an activity best confined to the ‘powder room’. Typing pools saw large numbers of women find employment in a strict and disciplined environment, where a room of secretaries produced endless documents from shorthand notes.

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When exactly the secretarial services industry gave rise to virtual assistants and who coined the phrase is up for debate but technology was the driving force. The telephone and fax machine helped bring people and workplaces together around the world and in the 1980’s the typewriter evolved into the word processor making document production quicker and easier. In the 1990’s the internet made the world smaller again and changed the way all people lived and worked, with the demise of the typing pool, a computer on everyone’s desk and at home, laptop computers, tablets and mobile phones for working anytime anywhere and an increase in remote working. Remote working may however have began earlier than you think, with IBM allowing five of its employees to work from home as an experiment in 1979, an experiment that by 1983 saw roughly 2,000 of its employees working from home; in the mid 1980’s the US department store J. C. Penney allowed its call centre staff to work from home; and by 2018, 70% of the worlds population was believed to work remotely at least once a week, with 55% working from home at least half the week.

Man working from home holding baby.

In the 2015 Financial Times article ‘The case of the vanishing secretary’, Emma Jacobs wrote of the dying secretarial services industry, reporting administrative jobs were in decline, however in 2020, it was not technology but a global pandemic causing a global reset, forcing people to work at home and to find new ways of working. Up until then it was estimated office workers spent 90,000 hours of their lives at the office. Collaborative software that enables the sharing, processing and management of files, documents and more among several remote users and/or systems, allowing them to work jointly on a task or project, was suddenly in huge demand.

Since the 1800’s office work, the people who do it and how they do it has come a long way and today, yet again, the role of the office is undergoing more disruption. How this works out long term is currently much debated, however, post pandemic, as things hopefully begin to return to normal, many people, myself included, have re-assessed their lives and the things that are important to them, liking their work life balance more and are open to the opportunity for change.

Further information

Sources

Bee.

© Toni Louise Abram at Izzy Wizzy. All Rights Reserved.

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