While Amazon Echo is common in American households, it isn't in the workplace. That's about to change, as more and more organizations are building Alexa skills to encourage their employees to bring their Echo devices to the office and raise their productivity.
What would you call a co-worker who brings their own smart speaker to work, talks to it more than they do to their colleagues, asks it to tell a joke, and even laughs at it? They're a geek. They're socially awkward. Are they suffering from dementia?
While bringing Alexa to work may not sound like the best idea, a few organizations are already insisting their employees bring their personal Alexa devices to work and make them part of a workplace network along with other personal and shared Amazon Echo devices. The idea is to make the workplace more productive and organized.
Why Amazon Echo?
The "bring your own device" (BYOD) phenomenon isn't new; it's been there since the first iPhone. The question is, why Amazon Echo when we have similar offerings from Apple and Google (Apple Pod and Google Home)?
Amazon Echo has a commendable position in the smart speaker market. Its user base currently stands at 72 percent. Google might have made big strides with Google Home, but its market share is still less than 20 percent.
Will workers be comfortable using Alexa at work?
In Unit4's 2017 Enterprise Tech End-User Sentiment Survey, 38 percent of professionals affirmed that they use a digital assistant like Alexa for personal reasons; only 11 percent asserted to be using it in their professional lives. When that 38 percent was asked whether they would trust a digital assistant like Alexa for a work-related task, 54 percent of them said they would.
Dimension Data's The Digital Workplace Report: Transforming Your Business indicates 62 percent of organizations expect virtual assistants to have a place in their companies within the next couple of years. In addition, 58 percent of organizations expect to start actively investing in technology that powers virtual advisors in the next two years. Amazon Alexa's business platform could significantly cut down on those investments.
Given Alexa's current domination of the smart speaker market, it's obvious Alexa will be the virtual assistant of choice in the workplace, at least in the beginning. Amazon is already pitching businesses its Alexa for Business offering, which will provide tools and resources for organizations to set up and manage Alexa devices at scale, enable private Alexa skills, and enroll users.
Public vs. private skills
Alexa responds to many commands right out of the box. However, if you want it to play music, pull weather info or read the news, it needs extra skills. Alexa skills are apps that give the personal assistant, built into Amazon's smart speakers, additional voice capabilities. Skills enable users to create a more personalized experience with their Amazon Echo devices. For example, Starbucks, Uber and Apple Music are the skills that enable Alexa to order coffee, book a ride and play music respectively. Skills are developed via the Alexa Skills Kit and published in the Alexa Skills Store after a certification process.
Starbucks and Uber are public Alexa skills and, thus, available to anyone with an Echo device. For workplace deployments, however, Amazon lets developers use the Alexa Skills Kit to publish skills privately to Alexa for Business organizations without going through the tedious certification process and make them available in the Alexa Skills Store. Private Alexa skills give business users a lot of flexibility with what features they can develop.
Wondering what sort of Alexa skills could benefit your business? Here are five of them.
1. Alexa, start the meeting.
Alexa can talk to authorized smart devices. For example, Amazon Echo devices can dim lights in a room, switch off the ceiling fan, raise the temperature on a thermostat, call or message someone, turn on the videoconferencing system, etc.
Within a skill, you can preset the course of action you want Alexa to execute whenever you say, "Alexa, start the meeting." So, next time you ask Alexa to start the meeting, it will create the perfect atmosphere in the conference room to host a meeting, switch on the right pieces of equipment, dial into the conference call and get the meeting going. Once the meeting is over, you just say, "Alexa, end the meeting," and it will restore the room to the previous settings.
If there is an employee who should be in the meeting but can't be there in person, they can tell the speaker placed on their desk, "Alexa, join the meeting," and Alexa will connect them to the shared Alexa device in the meeting room. Once connected, they can not only listen to what's going on in the meeting but also share their input via the shared Alexa device.
2. Alexa, read priority inbox.
I would love it if somebody could read my unread emails as soon as I'm in the office. Well, Alexa could be that somebody in your work life. The IT administrator just has to link your work email to your personal Alexa device and assign a set of commands to activate the function.
Once that is done, you just have to tell the Alexa device placed at your desk, "Alexa, read priority email," "Alexa, read all my unread emails today," or, perhaps, "Alexa, is there any email from Paul in my spam folder?" If you encounter an important email, you can ask Alexa to read it aloud.
With a little modification to the private Alexa skill, you can even make Alexa reply to emails when you're unavailable. You can also dictate emails to Alexa just as you could to a personal assistant. Echo's 360-degree microphone setup, AWS-powered cloud computing and Alexa's AI capabilities give Echo devices state-of-the-art voice-to-text functionality.
3. Alexa, schedule a meeting.
For employees of large corporations, getting an appointment with the senior management is tougher than getting an appointment with the mayor. They are always busy, and you have to go through their calendar, find an empty space, add an entry and wait for them to accept the appointment request.
If your organization has defined the right Alexa skills, this could all be a cakewalk. You just say, "Alexa, schedule a meeting with the VP of marketing." Alexa will go through the VP's calendar, look for an available slot and try to set up an appointment. If the VP accepts the invitation, it informs you too.
With the right setup, the Alexa skill can book an appointment with anyone in your organization. This could be you, someone from senior management or the CEO himself.
4. Alexa, book an appointment.
With the right Alexa skill and each employee having their own Amazon Echo device, appointments could become a breeze to manage. Whenever a client tells you to call later – let's say 8 p.m. the same day – you say, "Alexa, book an appointment at 8 p.m.," give a few details, and Alexa creates an entry for the appointment on the cloud. When the time of an appointment approaches, Alexa reminds you to call the client. In fact, you can simply say, "Alexa, place a call," and Alexa will make the call to the client.
Thanks to the cloud storage, Alexa can create entries for virtually unlimited appointments.
5. Alexa, find an open conference room.
In many organizations, the number of conference rooms available per employee is lower than that of healthcare centers available per citizen in central Africa. If each conference room has a shared Amazon Echo device assigned to it, then learning which room is available is as easy as saying, "Alexa, find an open conference room." Alexa will communicate with the Amazon Echo devices assigned to each room and answer you with something like, "The conference room near the designers' deck is empty."
With little alteration, this skill can also book conference rooms for you when you have a scheduled meeting. You just say, "Alexa, book conference room" with the time and date.
Now, when you want to find a conference room for a two-hour meeting, you say, "Alexa, find a conference room for two hours." Alexa will find a room that no one else has booked for anytime within those two hours.
Still uncomfortable carrying Amazon Echo to work?
I know it's not yet socially acceptable to carry a speaker to work. The only device that we carry not just to work but everywhere we go are our smartphones, which are a lot sleeker. But if we look at the various benefits Alexa for Business brings to make workplaces more productive and organized, it's worth giving Alexa a try at your business.
Of course, your business has to enroll in the program before everyone can start bringing the smart speakers to work. If your company both insists on bringing Amazon Echo devices to work and places a few shared Echo devices in the workplace, any team member who owns an Echo device will likely support the initiative and appreciate the convenience features.