As workplaces grapple with the realities of reopening amid the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, voice technologies and contactless interfaces could provide the answer to re-establishing safe working environments.

Social distancing measures are still required in most countries and could remain in place until at least the end of the year to prevent fresh coronavirus outbreaks. And while there has been an enterprise focus in recent months on collaboration and videoconferencing software as work-from-home necessities, companies now need to start think about bringing workers back in, according to Anthony Mullen, senior analyst at Gartner.

“There has definitely been an expectation of change,” Mullen said. “And it’s not just from staff, it’s managers and HR teams, too. Certainly, a lot of the larger organizations were already taking a conservative look at what the future of work was going to be like – but now they’re really obsessing over that.”

The result is that voice assistants that have so far gotten little traction at work – Alexa for Business, Microsoft’s Cortana or Google Home – biometrics, and even chatbots that use AI for speech recognition, could play prominent roles in keeping business going while helping workers keep their distance.

Having the right tools in place

In mid-March, when white-collar workers suddenly found themselves having to work from home en masse, a large number of organizations found themselves unprepared when it came to offering employees the necessary tools to remain productive.

After wide-scale spending on laptops, collaborative platforms and video-conferencing software, businesses caught short three months ago appear keen to get office re-openings right. That could mean a shift in spending from remote work tools to technology needed for workplace safety.

With that backdrop, 451 Research in a recent report predicted sees voice assistants and other contactless interfaces could become top investment choices for organizations, with the wide-spread adoption of voice user interfaces, intelligent assistants and biometric authentication.

Andrew Halliwell, product director for Virgin Media Business, is already working with companies to prepare them for a “rebound period” later this year when they will need the right technologies in place to support business elasticity. Virgin Media is a UK-based firm that provides telecom and internet services to a variety of enterprises and small businesses, including NHS trusts, police forces, TUI and Nottingham Building Society.

Clients need to be able to “support partial returns to work, as well as possible future lockdowns in the autumn,” Halliwell said.

The pandemic has highlighted gaps in corporate technology stacks and Halliwell expects one of the biggest question marks to involve call centers – specifically, how do companies communicate with customers effectively if they only have two-thirds of their employees available or can no longer access the office?

A lot of enterprises, including Virgin Media Business, already have voice assistants as part of their contact center capabilities, he said. And as businesses continue to transition towards using cloud-based operations, an uptake in AI-orientated voice tech will follow.

“Once you have your cloud comms in place…, the ability to extend that out through APIs for a consistent digital experience or an automated AI experience is much greater,” Halliwell said. “I’m optimistic that the shift into remote working and much broader adoption of digital cloud collaboration tools will also enable that next phase of voice assistants and AI assistants more broadly across enterprises.”

Mullen echoed that view. Before the pandemic, many employees already had some familiarity with tools such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Webex or Zoom, where workers can use simple chat bots and other speech-based technologies like voice-to-text transcription.

“Three or four years ago, when a lot of this technology was just starting to be rolled out to enterprises, it wasn’t the norm to have an HR bot or an ERP bot or a business analytics bot, working with customers, or doing handovers between speech-based interfaces – that was all pretty new and pretty novel and seemed to be high risk,” he said. “But now, a couple of years down the line, a lot of these vendors have worked with scores of clients and have learned a lot in terms of how to develop these business processes and how to train these things.”

The workplace of the future

Even before this year’s sweeping work-from-home regulations rolled out, Mullen had been speaking to organizations already thinking about the potential for voice technology. While many plans were side-lined in March, he expects them to resume as offices start to re-open.

Though voice-based digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home have often been seen as home-based, Amazon has been pushing Alexa into the corporate world with Alexa for Business in the U.S., offering integrations that use voice commands for tasks such as managing meetings, controlling conference room devices and even setting the room temperature.

Pre-pandemic, many businesses may have seen those capabilities as “nice to have” features, according to the 451 Research report. But if social distancing measures remain in place long-term, these integrations could become critical for any company wanting to bring employees back into a physical office space.

“Beyond the idea that [a company could] bring in a third of the workforce for month one, and then bring in another batch of the workforce, or rotate the workforce, I don’t think people have started to look at the different contact points of, say, the furniture or how employees will be engaging with the built environment,” Mullen said, adding that it’s likely the business handshake is now a thing of the past.

It’s important that organizations strike the right balance, Mullen said.

“I think at one point we thought: ‘Wow, voice is going to be the interface to absolutely everything and voice is amazing!’” Mullen said. “It’s one of the richest signals that we can possibly generate. But you don’t want offices full of people talking to computers.”

This story, “How voice tech could shape the post-pandemic workplace” was originally published by Computerworld.

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