Like close friends or relatives, we call them “Alexa”, “Siri” or “OK Google!” After just a few years of being exposed to digital assistants, we already act like as if they are real human companions. Always ready and happy to help, but never chit-chatting, voice assistants are starting to assisting us in just about every aspects of our lives. The voice assisted smart speaker market is projected to show major growth over the coming years. ComScore predicted that by 2020 50% of all internet searches will be done using voice rather than writing. To reach this growth these devices will need to be present in our homes as well as in our offices. This may change many things in our workplaces. Workers will start using voice assistants at a much higher frequency which could make them a real nuisance in an office environment. We will need to consider how to design space to minimize the disturbance caused by everyone shouting orders to their new digital helpers.
Imagine an office where everyone is constantly dictating their emails simultaneously. If you thought that the loud typer at the desk next to you wait until you have to hear them talking through their testy email to a colleague. Common areas where people gather and obviously co-working zones will likely become much louder and more distracting. Recent research showed that listing to just one side of a conversation (they use the cute term “halfalogue”) is actually more distracting than when you are subjected to the back and forth.
Plus, we will have to address the potential inconvenience of having everyone else triggering our assistance since they all share the same names. I am sure everyone with a smart speaker has a funny story about it coming on unexpectedly because of a nearby conversation or audio clip. This is likely why the name Alexa has been in a nosedive in popularity since Amazon’s release of their Ecco speaker.
Solutions to these problems will need to be physical, digital and cultural. Reinforcing soundproofing and having dedicated quiet zones in buildings will help but will will also need to adopt common rules defining how and when to talk to our code-based assistants. As AI gets better some have predicted that Alexa and Co. will also be able to do a better job at picking out when you are talking to them versus when you are in a conversation.
Voice assistants may disturb an office’s day-to-day life but the good news is that they may also transform the way we work. Powered by artificial intelligence, voice recognition (as well as facial recognition) systems may give companies the opportunity to leapfrog from traditional ways of working to new fully-digital solutions. “Duplex,” Google’s new generation voice assistant, epitomizes this change, thanks to a shockingly realistic human voice. The promising new technology would allow digital assistants to place phone calls and talk on a user’s behalf. This human-sounding robot could alleviate a lot of the time-consuming phone calls that most of us have to make daily.
More deeply, voice assistants bring up a more fundamental question of how we see future workspaces. Will offices be just a place from which we manage our digital work (and workers) or a place where real human-to-human interactions are available and, more importantly, encouraged?
To answer this question—no need to ask any voice assistant—we need to examine the purpose of a workplace in our lives. I think that when it comes to workplace design we should mainly focuses on how it “feels” to be at work. As a result, great office buildings need common areas for mingling, group work or having coffee (or wine as we do here in France) as well as quiet areas for concentration. Voice assistants are a powerful tool but at the end of the day they are just a tool. What really matters is that we create an environment where people can harness these tools to create their best possible work. In order to do that we need to think about how to minimize the distraction that digital assistants will likely bring.