Typically, virtual assistants like Amazon's Alexa have been widely adopted by end consumers, however, as of 2018, surveys reveal 11% of professionals use digital assistants at work, and Gartner expects this to reach 25% by 2021.

Beyond Gartner’s forecast, 58% of organizations said they plan to invest in virtual assistant technology within the next two years. With this in mind, we’ve asked voice and artificial intelligence (AI) industry experts to define what virtual assistants are and explain why more companies have started using them.

What is a Virtual Assistant?

A virtual assistant or virtual employee assistant is an application that can process natural language voice commands to perform tasks for users. The software is “much more flexible than a phone interactive voice system (IVR) and can offload mundane workflows that would be handled by a human agent,” explained Mahi de Silva, co-founder and CEO of Amplify.ai. Virtual assistants use AI to automatically complete tasks for the user from answering questions to scheduling meetings and booking travel. The most well-known devices currently available are Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Not only does virtual assistant software use emerging technologies like voice recognition and AI, but these platforms also take advantage of the vast amounts of data that they collect as input for machine learning algorithms. “Virtual assistants use machine learning to 'get smarter' over time and to be able to respond to more complex queries and interactions,” said Silva.

“Digital assistants in the enterprise more commonly leverage natural language processing and AI to assist employees in the form of chatbots and intuitive user interfaces,” said Brett Caldon, CEO of Workgrid Software. These virtual assistants can be accessed on mobile and web browsers, which make them more suitable for the office environment, because not only is voice technology challenging to use in offices with background noise, but there are privacy concerns to consider.

Why More Companies Are Using Virtual Employee Assistants

While virtual assistants rely on emerging technologies, their adoption in the workplace is growing. That’s because virtual assistants offer employees enormous benefits from greater productivity to more personalized experiences.

Greater Productivity

Caldon said virtual assistants can “drastically improve productivity by cutting down on context-switching.” Employees can quickly give virtual assistants tasks to complete in the background without stopping their workflow. This reduces the need for employees to remember where they left off and increases the efficiency of their workday.

Along with eliminating many tasks, virtual assistants can also greatly simplify more complicated tasks. Virtual assistant software can retrieve information and institutional knowledge from complex systems with ease to achieve results more efficiently. And simplified employee workflows are not only beneficial for the overall productivity of an organization, but Caldon believes it’s also crucial for attracting and retaining top talent.

Related Article: 7 Examples of Digital Workplace Chatbots

Learning Opportunities

Personalized User Experiences

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of virtual assistants is their bi-directional communication. This means virtual assistants have the capability where “information, content, or services can be pushed to the user proactively, with actions performed automatically, on the users' behalf, all through a single command,” explained Caldon.

This seamless communication enables a much more contextual experience that can leverage existing user data to get better at performing tasks for the specific employee. With machine learning, therefore, virtual assistants will become more efficient over time and improve employee productivity even more in the long run.

How Employees Are Using Virtual Assistants

“The opportunities for applying virtual assistants in the workplace are varied and growing every day,” Caldon said, “including the automation of tasks such as scheduling meetings, booking travel, initiating support requests, etc.” The majority of these tasks are low-level, but are time-consuming, which distract employees from more important work.

Beyond these tasks, virtual assistants are incredibly efficient at answering questions. Caldon said virtual assistants “are far more effective than common search methods because you can marry personal attributes with search intents to provide a much more intelligent search capability.” This means searches can be tailored to individual employees and their typical workflow.

While virtual assistants eliminate much of the mundane work for employees, the reason behind their adoption likely comes down to habit. “Employees are also demanding an assistant-like experience in the workplace because it’s what they have come to expect in their own lives as consumers,” said Caldon. As the major voice-enabled devices simplify the lives of consumers, employees realize that the benefits can cross over to the workplace as well.

But that doesn’t mean every company is ready for virtual assistants in the workplace. “Forward learning companies understand that you don’t just hit a switch and have a virtual assistant come to life instantly,” said Silva. It takes training and experimentation to better understand how virtual assistants can bring efficiency to the workplace. So while virtual assistant usage is growing, there are still many challenges for the technology to overcome before there’s widespread adoption in the workplace.