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Amazon launches Alexa for Business, but will office smart speakers take off?

The new voice-activated business functions include booking meeting rooms and giving reminders

The Amazon Alexa smart speaker could soon be appearing on your office desk after the company launched a range of business skills for the device.

The tech giant claims that the new voice-activated skills for its smart assistant, which were first announced in 2017, will make meetings more efficient and employees more productive.

Announcing the firm’s new business feature, Amazon product marketing manager Ben Grossman said: “Customers want the same productivity boost at work that they get with Alexa in their everyday lives, by asking questions such as, ‘Alexa, ask Office Helper, what days are we off for Thanksgiving?’ or ‘how do I process my contractor’s invoice?’.”

Alexa for Business was launched in the US today and means that companies can teach the smart speaker new, work-related skills without having to code.


Smart speakers in the office: help or hindrance?

Businesses were able to create custom skills for the smart speaker before but the method has now been simplified.

Mr Grossman added: “Starting today, organisations of any size can create private skills using Alexa for Business Blueprints, regardless of budget, without needing developers to write a single line of code.

“Skills created from these blueprints can answer work-related questions such as ‘What’s the guest Wi-Fi password?’, ‘What are the hours for IT?’, or ‘When does open enrolment start?’”

But, it remains to be seen whether employees take to asking such questions aloud in the office.

Kyle Dent, a scientist at Silicon Valley innovation hub PARC, said: “Many of us will ask Siri or Alexa to help us out at home with everything from directions to cooking instructions and playing our favourite music.

“But can these types of personal assistants be useful in the workplace to make knowledge workers more efficient and help them in their day-to-day tasks?

“Some things are already helpful. For example, you can add an appointment to your calendar with a moderate saving in time.

“But to be true collaborators requires a deeper understanding of communication.”

Amazon Alexa for business
(Credit: Brother UK/Flickr)

Visualsoft, a London-based digital marketing agency, is one company that is already using a smart assistant in the office.

However, its uses remain limited to selecting the music, checking the weather forecast and providing traffic updates.

Isabella Coombes, outreach executive at the company, adds: “It remains to be seen whether Alexa will be adopted in the same way as our daily reminders or Google calendars.

“I can certainly see it being used to remind staff members to lock up properly and ensure the end of day routine is completed, but I can’t foresee it being used to give out instructions in this particular working environment.”

With the latest update from Amazon it’s possible that businesses will continue to find new uses for the technology.

Publishing company Condé Nast has trialled the new business functions.

Craig Holland, CISO and vice president of infrastructure and operations at the firm, said: “We have this goal of going fully wireless, with the least amount of touch possible.

“Employees should be able to walk into a conference and focus on their meeting, and not worry about how to start it or whether the TVs are set up correctly.

“With Alexa for Business we have built a fully voice enabled conference room and are marching towards building a fully voice enabled smart office.”

Similarly, insurance company Propel claims that the voice-activated tech has improved productivity and made routine tasks simpler.


A future without keyboards

New research from voice authentication company Pindrop suggests the trend for using smart assistants in the office is set to grow.

Its report found 48% of people believe that keyboards will be used very infrequently by the year 2023, as voice-activated technologies become more advanced.

The survey also suggested 56% of people in the UK think that voice-enabled technology will have a positive impact on their work life and make them more productive.

Some of the use cases they anticipate voice technologies to be used for include dictating emails (46%), interacting with a virtual PA (43%), using voice recognition passwords (44%) and operating their laptop or computer (41%).

Vijay Balasubramaniyan, CEO and co-founder of Pindrop, said: “The last few years have seen early adopters rush to bring smart devices and speakers into their homes, normalising a technology that was once seen with scepticism.

“These results point towards a future where the way we engage with technology fundamentally shifts to a hands-free model.”