• Lorri

Bringing Alexa to work? Here's what you need to know about Digital Assistants in the workplace.



With the rise in popularity of Digital Assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home, a growing number of us are living like we're on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (is there anything Star Trek hasn't predicted correctly? I, for one, am not looking forward to being assimilated by the Borg). As we become more comfortable, even reliant, on our Digital Assistants (DAs) to do tasks like run our appliances and help us binge watch episodes of Orange is the New Black, it's inevitable that DAs are finding their way into the workplace. There's a certain liberty to voice-activated devices; by using them, we're training ourselves to become less screen-dependent, so it's natural for us to be inclined to carry these new habits and behaviours into our work spaces.

In fact, many of us have been using voice-activated smart devices for several years. Since Siri made her debut in 2011, we've had ample time to become accustomed to using voice-activation on our cell phones and computers for simple tasks, like getting directions or responding to messages. Now as the DA landscape has expanded into new products like Amazon Echo and Google Home, so too has the potential for these devices to offer more robust applications and increased work-flow into the workplace. The ability to decrease employee disruption is a huge possible benefit of incorporating DA technology in the office, particularly for employers who are concerned with saving time and money by increasing productivity. Imagine working on a report without having to stop and search for sales statistics or losing time to searching the web for support materials. With voice-activated DAs, information is available to you instantly, decreasing time wasted on fumbling for what you need. Other efficiencies, like speech to text for email, creating calendar entries, to-do lists, reordering supplies and setting timers are potential benefits of using DAs at work. Anything that helps me to get through the mountain of messages in my email inbox or keeps me from mixing up meeting dates is okay in my book!

At the forefront of DA-for-work technology is the recently launched Alexa for Business. Watching Amazon's pitch video (https://aws.amazon.com/alexaforbusiness/), it's easy to get excited about the prospect of using devices to run meetings and virtually connecting to team members and clients. But what about security? Are DAs safe in the workplace? Is there a risk to exposing confidential information, or having your technology hijacked by a co-worker? You do have to exercise some caution when introducing this kind of technology into the office. The good news is that digital voice recognition is rapidly approaching the level of human voice recognition. Advances in artificial intelligence have improved the accuracy of speech recognition systems; both Google Home and Amazon Echo can, with amazing precision, recognize individuals by voice. Setting up your voice profile will help prevent others from giving your DA unwanted commands. You'll also want to enable a PIN for security and consider disabling voice shopping if you're concerned about others making unwanted purchases on your account ("Gee, I don't remember buying Foo Fighters concert tickets.."). Bear in mind, if Alexa or Google can hear you, so can the co-workers around you. Take care and use some discretion when saying your PIN aloud.

So which DA is the best choice for the workplace? Amazon Echo's Alexa for Business is the clear front-runner, but others are catching up quickly. Here are the highlight features of the top DA technologies:

Amazon Echo Alexa for Business:

The clever team at Amazon had the foresight to predict that people, once introduced to their product, will want to take 'Alexa' to work. Alexa for business works pretty much the same way she does at home, taking directions either from personal or shared devices located in common spaces. Alexa enabled devices can be turned on and off with voice command, making clunky remotes a thing of the past. In large work environments, Alexa can provide directions, find an open meeting room, order new supplies, report building problems, or notify IT of an equipment issue. Alexa can also provide important information, like inventory levels, and help with on-the-job training. Testimonials from companies like WeWork, Capital One, Mitsui & Co., Vonage, Brooks Brothers and BMC give us confidence that Alexa has proven to deliver an employee experience that is personalized, productive and seamless.

Cost: Alexa for Business is a pay-as-you-go service. Shared devices run $7/month, while there is an additional $3/month charge for every enrolled user.

Google Assistant:

With so many of us using Google apps to organize our lives, Google Assistant at work feels like a natural extension of what we're already doing. Google Assistant has some key strengths, including the ability to have interactive conversations and is a proven champion of answering questions correctly over its competitor technologies. There's no doubt that Google Assistant is an outstanding tool for individuals seeking to simplify and organize their lives. However, there isn't (yet) a version tailored specifically for the workplace. The Google Home Mini Speaker is pretty adorable little nugget, about the size of a doughnut and offers clear voice recognition but isn't a great performer as far as sound goes. The Google Home Smart Speaker looks a bit like an air freshener but performance-wise stands toe-to-toe with Amazon Echo's speaker.

Cost: A Google Home Mini will run you about $80, while the Google Home Smart Speaker goes for $180.

Cisco Spark Assistant:

Announced in November 2017, technology giant Cisco introduced Spark Assistant, their contribution to the growing landscape of voice-activated Digital Assistants. Optimized for the conference room, Cisco developed Spark with the specific goal of enhancing conferences and meetings. Released in a graduated introduction framework, phase one allows users to start, join and end meetings, and call co-workers, all through voice commands. From here, Spark will use feedback from this trial phase to make itself smarter. Eventually, it will teach itself to do more, like assigning action items and creating meeting summaries.

Cost: Your company will be shelling out the bucks for this one; Spark Assistant is offered in a packaged bundle with the Cisco Spark Room 55 or 70 (which includes sound and display hardware). With a 70-inch LED screen, the single Room 70 costs $55,900 without a monthly subscription, while a dual Room 70 can be had for $79,900.

Cortana:

If you're using a Windows computing system, you likely already know Cortana. For those who haven't yet made the acquaintance with this built-in Digital Assistant, Cortana can help you do basic tasks like deliver reminders based on time, places, or people,

track packages, teams, interests, and flights, send emails and texts and manage your calendar. The ability to find files, facts and do web searches by voice command comes in pretty handy when you're on a deadline and in the middle of writing a report. Cortana's speaker system, Invoke, is sleek and has great voice recognition capabilities, but sadly still can't connect to other smart home devices, but don't despair - Microsoft made an advantageous partnership with Amazon, promising that Cortana and Alexa would begin sharing skills with one another in the very near future.

Cost: Bonus! It's already on your Windows 10 device. Adding an Invoke speaker into the mix will cost you $100-$200.

Siri:

Let's not forget about ol' Siri, the familiar (if sometimes a little muddled) Apple device assistant. Similar to the above description of Cortana, Siri runs your Apple computer and phone apps via voice control. Adding an Apple Home Pod - a first-class speaker by all accounts - is great for basic tasks like playing music, setting alarms and checking the weather. Unfortunately, Siri isn't known for her reliability, and work applications seem limited. Despite being the oldest assistant in the group, Siri lags way behind its competitors in accuracy. (http://www.businessinsider.com/siri-lags-behind-rivals-in-accuracy-on-the-homepod-2018-2).

Cost: Siri is already on your Apple device, but a Home Pod speaker will run you about $350.

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