Voice assistants are going to make our work lives better—and noisier

Your workplace is about to get a whole bunch noisier.
Your workplace is about to get a whole bunch noisier.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn
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The average person types around 40 words per minute but can speak approximately 125 words in the same time. With stats like these, it’s no wonder that the world is waking up to the productivity-boosting value of voice.

This year, it’s estimated that there are more than 133 million smart speakers in the US. One in four adults now has access to a smart speaker, which represents a 40% ownership rise in 2018. In our homes, we use smart speakers to ask general questions, listen to music, check the weather, set alarms, and set timers. We use our smartphones for more location-dependent activities, like understanding traffic, getting directions, finding a place to eat, and researching products.

We’re already using voice more and more in our homes and personal lives. But what about the office?

In an enterprise environment where the big focus is how to take productivity to the next level, we will start to utilize voice interaction as an enabler in the office. We won’t hear the change overnight. Vision is such a powerful sense that we’ll continue to use computer monitors and screens—but voice will enable new and faster collaboration with them. It won’t replace computers, but it will vastly extend them.

Voice assistants like Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, and Google’s Google Assistant will eventually change the way users work. A shift to two-way communications will take place, in which we not only invoke our voice assistants to perform tasks—like telling us the weather or what song a string of lyrics belongs to—but to engage with and prompt us to streamline our workflows.

What might this look like? Your voice assistant could summarize whiteboard scribbles and spoken minutes from a meeting and prompt you to send the notes to all participants. It could also suggest calendar optimizations and workflow management, or offer to generate data insights based on spreadsheets you’re working on.

Thanks to widespread consumer adoption, people are getting used to talking to machines. Nieman Lab has reported on this phenomenon, known at the Gutenberg parenthesis, in which we are returning from a state of textuality to orality in our media culture. While it still may feel strange for another year or two, when that behavioral instinct takes over, we can mobilize it and focus on further delivering richer voice experiences. And once we begin to use a smart speaker in our personal lives, over half of us say we wouldn’t go back to life without them. I anticipate a similar response to the use of voice assistants in the office.

When our offices begin streamlining based on voice suggestions, we’ll see major time being shed. But there’s one big problem still to be solved: more conversations pump up the volume.

Noise in the office

Voice assistants will benefit individual productivity but could threaten overall office productivity. If we’re talking more to our devices, there will be more distractions for those around us.

Noise is already an office problem. Open-plan office designs have introduced sounds and interruptions that stunt our productivity. Interruptions from colleagues and noise levels affect productivity, and notification alerts and colleagues listening to media without headphones also contribute to a distracting environment.

However, many workplaces have begun to tackle noise in the open office while still maintaining the workplace’s flexible feeling. Copenhagen-based research and design lab Space10 recently collaborated with architecture firm Spacon & X to redesign its headquarters. Elements such as hybrid workspaces that combine open-office concepts with semi-cubicle designs maintain flexibility while addressing the noisiness of a fully open office.

But as redesigning the office isn’t in the budget for every company, how do we enable voice in the workplace to increase productivity, not decrease it?

Active noise cancellation and AI-powered sound settings could help to tackle these issues head on (or ear on). As the AI in noise cancellation headphones becomes better and better, we’ll potentially be able to enhance additional layers of desirable audio, while blocking out sounds that distract. Audio will adapt contextually, and we’ll be empowered to fully manage and control our soundscapes.

Naturally, there’s a concern around the social impacts of everyone wearing headphones in the office. How will we interact with our colleagues in the future if we can’t hear them?

The short answer is that how exactly this will unfold remains to be seen—but we also shouldn’t make preemptive judgements on evolving business culture and workflow. For example, open-plan offices have resulted in 73% less time in face-to-face interactions and a 67% increase in email and messaging, according to a Harvard study. That likely surprises some who would expect open-plan offices to foster collaboration, so we should be cautious jumping to conclusions. As we use our voices in different ways, we’ll change the ways we work in order to interact with our technology.

In an ideal world, technology won’t be something we experience at all. Rather, it will work for us as opposed to getting in our way. It’s a statement that leads to many more questions, but it all comes down to solving the challenges we face in a time-poor world.

We are all challenged to focus on the right things to get the most out of a finite period, but future technology changes could free up time by simplifying our personal and work lives. Right now, most of the technology we use requires active engagement from a user, but increasingly, voice tech will feed time back into our days by helping us in less visible ways.