robot on a desk
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Move over intranet. Technologies like chatbots, digital assistants and smart speakers are the new and exciting way for employees to interact with enterprise systems. However, while tech giants like Amazon, Google, Microsoft and other, smaller innovators are working to remove the barriers to entry, have we stopped to consider why we want or need these tools in the workplace?

Where Do Conversational Interfaces Fit in the Workplace?

It's true that employees say they want consumer-like technology experiences in the workplace. A recent survey by Kronos asked this question and found that:

Nearly half of employees (48 percent) surveyed worldwide wish their workplace technology performed just like their personal technology. Fewer than one in five (18 percent) do not want their workplace technology and personal technology to function similarly.

However, is it enough to infer from our desire for a more personal-like technology experience using conversational interfaces, which includes solutions like chatbots, digital assistants and smart speakers, that this is more than a case of a technology looking for a problem to solve? Can we trust them to make our workplace experience better?

Like the many disruptive digital tools that preceded these solutions into the workplace, their mainstream use in our personal lives is an indicator of future demand. Unfortunately, in the case of conversational interfaces, reflecting on consumer behaviors makes it a little harder to predict what their killer application will be in the workplace. For example, a 2018 survey by Adobe found the most common smart speaker activities include asking for music (70 percent) and the weather forecast (64 percent).

Luckily, emerging activities — which include making calls, home automation, and shopping or ordering items — provide clues. These all point to people taking action, not just seeking information.

Related Article: The Rise of the Digital Workplace Chatbot

Let's Not Revisit the Clippy Days, Shall We?

I like to think about the potential for intelligent conversational interfaces in the workplace through the lens of a maturity framework. This framework takes us from supporting a single function or activity (like a human resources support chat, which can answer payroll and benefits questions) to a fully integrated digital assistant, that should let an employee ask it anything and be able to take action.

The fully integrated digital assistant is still an aspirational goal for chatbots and smart speakers, but I have my doubts about the long-term business value of the simpler solutions because they only target a single function or activity. A poorly designed voice or chatbot user experience could also see us repeating the problems of Microsoft’s original and often parodied digital assistant for Microsoft Office, Clippy.

Another particular challenge for smart speakers and voice interfaces in an office setting is how their mainstream use would work in open plan environments. We could see them being relegated for use at reception desks, in meeting rooms and for the lucky few with private offices.

These issues aside, I believe there are still many opportunities to explore and target business problems that impact the employee experience with these tools.

Related Article: Workplace Chatbots: Too Little, Too Soon?

Think Big When it Comes to Voice Interfaces in the Workplace

At a practical level, our physical office spaces are becoming more connected, yet frequently the systems we use in them offer a lousy user experience. Poor usability of the technology embedded in the physical working environment can impact not just how we work, but also the efficiency of elements that are designed to reduce the environmental impact of modern buildings. Conversational interfaces give us the chance to create universal interfaces that eliminate proprietary controls in everything from meeting rooms to air conditioning.

Moving up the value chain, we could also use chatbots and smart speakers to solve not just simple information management problems but higher order knowledge management needs. Situational awareness drawn from different systems could be used to create opportunities for serendipitous knowledge sharing. It is one thing for a digital assistant to help you find relevant information in a knowledge base via natural language query, but another to tell you someone with expertise is currently available in another meeting room down the hall.

Chatbots, more so than smart speakers, can also be used to support employee well-being. We can use them for discretely offering support to help people manage their stress levels and ward off depression, as well as to offer proactive coaching on effective work practices and healthy lifestyles. The differentiator is scalability, which means each person can have equal access to tailored support.

Finally, we can also look to use them in innovative ways to support workplace placemaking, which can be thought of as how we go about connecting people and activating organizational brand and values. Done well, chatbots and smart speakers could work as another channel for employee digital branding, not just sharing news, but by becoming a brand avatar who encourages people to use the facilities available, access resources, and participate in activities that help bring people together.

Related Article: Will Intranets Disappear With the Rise of the Bots?

Ask Yourself: Will This Improve the Employee Experience?

These examples are neither an exhaustive list of possibilities or proof that the chatbot and smart speaker solutions currently on the market can deliver everything we might want today. However, for these tools to be successful in the workplace in the long-term, we need to actively seek out the use cases that are problems worth solving. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if we end up being underwhelmed by expensive and clever tools that do little more than the equivalent of checking the canteen menu.