No time to organise your life? Try a concierge service
Written by Jemima Whyte, Senior Reporter, Financial Review
Time-poor employees are enjoying a new kind of corporate support, from sorting out a birthday dinner to booking a family holiday.
Last May, when partners at professional services firms might have been expected to be focused on the next transaction or perhaps the US-China trade war, there was another frequent topic of conversation.
What did it mean that the managing partner of an Australian law firm had “liked” an article on LinkedIn about KPMG UK planning to axe one third of its administrative assistants? Did it suggest local firms might follow suit and expect partners to fill out their own expense claims?
It’s a constant threat. The executive assistant – who juggles diaries, untangles office politics and keeps one step ahead of demands – is becoming almost as unobtainable as a corner office for many in the big firms.
In Australia, there was a 14 per cent decline in personal assistant, executive assistant and secretarial roles advertised on online jobs site SEEK between 2012 and 2019.
For a chief executive, an EA remains a necessity. A CEO’s EA may even have their own assistant, says Martin Dineen of executive office-support recruiter MJD Executive.
But lower down the pecking order, personal assistants – particularly at legal and accounting firms – are being asked to look after seven or more partners or associates, he says. Sometimes they are shuffled around, depending on where the need is greatest.
Regardless of the set-up, non-work requests have become off limits. No more asking an EA to organise a party or dinner or to deal with household cleaners, nannies or drivers.
Step up the “concierge service”, a stand-alone offering being used by individuals seeking to outsource finicky personal tasks. On a broader scale, some companies are offering these services to employees to ease their administrative burden – and stop them surfing the web during business hours.
Mandi Ford, the founder of business and lifestyle concierge firm Essential Solutions, says she has seen demand soar.
“I started the business to help people to breathe,” says Ford, who has worked in events and marketing for 20 years. “We were always being asked to do things. ‘I’m getting married, on a family holiday, oh, can you do my gifting?’
“People are getting their heads more around outsourcing and thinking about how they want to spend their downtime.”
Essential Solutions, based in Sydney’s Double Bay, offers concierge services to individuals looking to outsource everything from buying children’s birthday presents to booking family holidays and getting someone to look after the pool.
Clients include an increasing number of senior businesswomen, and even executives who have separated from their spouse but don’t want their EAs to know.
Ford also offers a corporate solutions package, in which companies offer the concierge service to their employees, freeing them from time-consuming personal admin. This package is aimed at senior executives who sit just below the partner or CEO level.
Executive retention tool
The business is split 50:50 between individual and corporate services, and Ford says the personal concierge side has doubled in size over the past 18 months.
“Our service provides a useful tool for employees to have a better work environment that can optimise their work/life balance,” Ford says of the corporate package. “It is helping companies to take something off [senior management’s] plate.”
She hopes it will increasingly be seen as a retention tool for senior executives.
Aspire Lifestyles, which mainly runs concierge services for the customers of large companies, including big banks and credit card providers, recently moved into the employee benefits space.
Aspire’s Australian and New Zealand head, Michelle Avis, says the service is a way for companies to offer back-up to staff as part of their employee benefits, freeing up more of workers’ time and allowing companies to improve recruitment and retention.
Such employee perks have long been offered by tech companies, but there has been increasing interest from corporates, including insurance companies, healthcare companies and banks.
Aspire says companies are increasingly putting concierge services in the same bucket as parental leave benefits, regular social events, childcare, flexible working and professional development opportunities in terms of attracting and retaining employees. It is particularly important to Millennials, who will comprise a significant percentage of the workforce by 2025.
“Millennials want instant, digital, relevant. It has to be timely and make their life easier,” says Avis, adding that this can mean finding the best way to fix a broken iPhone, sorting out restaurant or hotel reservations, or arranging introductions to financial planners or mental health professionals.
It’s also about making staff more productive. Avis says employees spend an average of 2.5 hours a week on personal tasks during office hours. Based on an hourly wage rate of $30, that is costing companies with 1000 staff nearly $4 million a year.
At Essential Solutions, booking holiday flights is at the run-of-the-mill end of the client request spectrum. Other jobs have included saving food from a dead fridge and installing a replacement stocked with the salvaged food; hand-delivering champagne to someone as a thankyou; and even assembling a lookbook ahead of a trip based on a client’s wardrobe.
Amanda McMillan, founder of corporate wellness company Wellineux, first used Essential Solutions early last year when she needed to organise a friend’s 40th birthday dinner at her home in Melbourne and didn’t have the time to put it together. The Essential Solutions concierge desk managed everything from the invitations to RSVPs, decorations, flowers, catering and music.
Soon after, McMillan had a few other celebrations to organise and upgraded to Essential Solutions’ annual membership. She uses the service to find cleaners, organise gifts for family and friends, arrange dinners and make travel bookings.
She also uses the concierge service to arrange business events, corporate gifts and the like. Her business needs now account for most of her requests.
McMillan has been assigned one point of contact at Essential. “I give her the brief. She knows what kinds of flowers I like to give people and what shops I like,” she says. At Christmas, her contact came back with a handful of gift ideas for her children. “It was like having your own catalogue,” she says.
McMillan has an EA, but says a lot of the tasks she outsources to Essential Solutions, such as arranging private dinners, she would never have felt comfortable asking her assistant to take on.
Aspire, with its global reach, has been assigned some bizarre tasks. “We can do anything as long as it is legal, moral and ethical,” says Avis.
One Russian client wanted to buy a pair of earrings worn by Britney Spears in a film clip about 10 years ago. Aspire tracked down the jeweller and had an identical pair made and delivered in time for his wife’s birthday. Another wanted an elephant delivered to a temple in India.
More recently, a Sydney man asked for a cup of coffee – the right beans, strength and temperature – to be sent to his girlfriend in New York at the same time each day.
“If you are a client of ours, we are there to service whatever the need is,” Avis says. “That guy paid for the coffee.”
The cost question
So does a concierge service stack up? Financially, perhaps.
MJD Executive’s Dineen says a personal assistant supporting two or three senior partners could earn up to $90,000, while an intermediate assistant could earn between $82,000 and $87,000.
But there are few roles where a personal assistant comes with the territory. That means people are employing house managers or private EAs at home who can earn between $90,000 and $120,000 a year.
Ford offers individual clients of Essential Solutions an annual package costing between $250 and $1700 a month, and casual packages that cost between $150 and $500. For that, it will fulfil between five and 20 requests.
“If you’re using it as an individual, it’s kind of like we’re dating … it does take a little bit of time,” she says.
“Some people are experts – men find their groove really quickly. Women, especially if they are mums, can take a bit longer.”