A boy singing loudly into a microphone - workplace voice technology concept
PHOTO: Jason Rosewell/Unsplash

Over the next four years, Gartner predicts that 25% of employees will use voice to interact with applications in the workplace, a clear indication that voice technology is poised to dramatically change the digital workplace — for better or worse. Experts share their thoughts on the pluses and minuses and how companies can manage the transition.

Voice Has Already Changed the Workplace

As with using text-based automation tools for simple work tasks, the workflow for voice will be new to most companies. That’s because voice is still an emerging technology, so its use varies greatly among organizations.

“While voice technology is used mostly for simple tasks today, like playing music, asking about the weather, or adding items to a shopping list,” explained Steve Stover, VP of products and strategy at SolarWinds, “the technology has clear benefits that can help employees increase productivity and efficiency.” There are many similarly trivial tasks in the workplace like organizing files or setting reminders that can make employees’ lives easier.

Jonathan Duarte, CEO of GoHire also believes voice technologies will initially succeed as virtual assistants. “The automation behind the voice to text solutions is already being applied to redundant administrative tasks within companies,” he added. These tasks include scheduling interviews, for example, which is a time-consuming, yet low-value task.

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How Voice Can Benefit Organizations

“Voice applications, done well can create new experiences that both delight users and dramatically improve productivity and customer loyalty,” said Ashley Stirrup, CMO of Algolia.

Employees can have the device complete tasks while they work on other things. Multitasking with voice-enabled devices lets employees focus on more complex projects, or tasks that require human interaction. That’s why voice devices improve the productivity of organizations, and the experiences of their customers. “Voice technology essentially gives employees a second set of hands,” Stover said. 

“Additionally, approximately 50% of the US workforce is non-desktop,” said Duarte, “meaning they don't work behind a computer throughout the day.” Workers in industries from hospitality to retail or construction can benefit from hands-free tooling. Voice-enabled automation, therefore, can give employees better support and services while reducing the costs for companies to provide them.

Voice Technology Challenges

Voice-enabled devices can only improve productivity for workers if they work well. This means they must be able to understand a variety of voices, and offer conversation-like interactions.

The workplace has become increasingly diverse, and this means employees speak different languages with a variety of dialects and accents. This can be challenging for today’s voice technologies to handle. “Employees become easily frustrated with tools that don’t do their job,” explained Stover, “so if a device fails to respond to someone’s voice, it could create more pain points than it set out to solve.” The technologies companies choose, therefore, need to be tailored to their specific workforce.

"Although voice technology stems from human to computer interactions, it should not be a direct mirror of such," Stirrup said. She believes voice technologies need a conversational tone that feels natural for employees to interact with. If the experience isn’t intuitive, companies may add complexity and slow employees down instead of increasing productivity.

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How Can Companies Manage Voice?

While the benefits of voice are clear and the drawbacks are few, many organizations have concerns about how they’ll manage the compliance challenges and bring about company-wide adoption.

When it comes to compliance, the most common concern is that voice technologies have no paper trail, but that’s not entirely true. “Actually, voice does have a ‘paper trail’, but it's a digital [trail],” Duarte said. Voice commands can — and should — be transcribed to text and stored in a database automatically. “Enterprise corporate voice applications would still be required to communicate with the existing systems of record,” explained Duarte, “and that means a digital footprint.” If companies are diligent, therefore, voice can remain compliant in the workplace.

“Adoption of the technology by employees is what can make or break the success of an organization implementing voice technology in the workplace,” stated Stover. Employees will only use an emerging technology like voice if the benefits of doing so are clear. “The technology should remove inefficiencies, but if it’s not managed correctly, it could create distractions in the workplace,” added Stover. That’s why he recommends that companies start at a smaller scale, so they can properly train employees and better manage the use of voice.

“My guess is that personal voice assistants, on mobile watches or personal mobile phones will enter the market first, while ‘always listening’ systems in a workplace will take a longer adoption cycle,” Duarte said. In the end, voice technology may be great for simple tasks in the office, but mass adoption of fully voice-enabled apps in the workplace may be optimistic. For now.