The use of voice assistants, and voice technology more generally, has been on the rise over the past few years thanks, in large part, to consumer adoption of smart speakers and devices.
However, the coronavirus pandemic is making clear the fact that in order to return to a semblance of normalcy, voice technology has now become imperative where it was once simply a nice-to-have.
For businesses and workplaces, the implementation of voice technology will no longer be a novelty or a simple means of asserting a commitment to innovation. As businesses reopen and later in a post-pandemic world, it will come to signal a commitment to employee, customer and community health.
As states reopen and many of us begin to contemplate a return to shared workspaces, we’re taking this opportunity to look at the role of voice technology.
The voice-activated office
The pandemic has caused a dramatic shift in many human behaviors and it’s turned navigating everyday tasks into a minefield of possible viral exposure. Consider the doorknob, for example. What was once a completely innocuous object is now a potential harbinger of deadly disease.
Virtually every hard surface we touch has some potential to carry and transmit the virus. Knowing this, companies are scrambling to find ways to retrofit offices to reduce the number of surfaces employees touch throughout any given workday. Voice technology has a huge role to play in redesigning office spaces so employees can feel safe returning to work.
In China, for example, the government is redesigning elevators in high-traffic public spaces with voice-activated controls to eliminate the need for button-pushing.
Shared devices in offices — think conference room computers and monitors, conference call speakers, and projectors — can also be upgraded to voice-assisted models which continue to enable collaboration while simultaneously reducing the amount of equipment multiple people touch in a shared space.
Contactless keycards, facial recognition and voice recognition also will likely form at least part of the building security picture in the near-term and post-pandemic workplace.
Voice technology powering customer service and experience
It seems likely that most consumers will experience a greater level of anxiety and wariness around germs at least until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available. Restaurants, retailers and other service providers will have to do everything they can to mitigate these concerns if consumers are going to return in the meantime.
This means that things like contactless chip card payments will almost certainly see greater rates of adoption. Kiosks powered by voice technology will begin popping up in places like airports, limited-service restaurants, mass transit hubs and high-traffic retailers. Stores using technologies like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Google Pay and other contactless transaction options are already widely available in most US cities.
Models like that of Amazon’s contactless grocery stores, which have received a lot of press but are still nothing close to widespread, may begin to proliferate at a greater rate as consumers seek to avoid as much human interaction and contact with high-touch surfaces as possible.
Voice assistants fill a gap when human contact isn’t an option
The pandemic has put tremendous strain on call centers, a problem which in turn has created long wait times and frustrated customers. Virtual assistants will increasingly be employed to fill this gap. Chatbots and voice AIs can respond to customers at all hours of the day without interruption, substantially alleviating the burden on call centers and improving customer satisfaction.
Connected speakers and devices also have a role to play in keeping people connected, happy and entertained even as we self-isolate or shelter at home. For example, the Amazon Alexa “Drop In” feature allows users to check in easily on elderly relatives who are isolating. These devices can provide entertainment for the whole family, but are particularly useful for children, the elderly and people with disabilities who may otherwise have difficulties using a traditional device.
The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting behavioral norms and changing the nature of human interaction across the board. As we look toward reopening the economy, businesses are contemplating how to do so responsibly and with an eye to the future.
In general, we expect the pandemic to play a role in accelerating digital transformation across industries as companies try to safeguard against future disruptions. Voice technology is one of the most relevant and essential components of digital transformation in a post-COVID world.
Brian Byer is vice president, GM of Blue Fountain Media, a PacteraEDGE Company. He has 20 years of operations, technology, marketing, management and business analysis expertise. He manages the New York City agency’s activities relating to the creation of professional content and commerce websites and facilitates the growth of the company’s technology partnerships.