Science & Technology

Voice-Activated Technology Must Advance to Support Hybrid Workplaces

The pandemic altered everything about people’s lives, including how they interact with voice technology. The Smart Audio Report from NPR reveals that more people use their smart devices daily; the number of people using voice commands at least once per day increased by 6 percentage points from December 2019 to April 2020.

Before COVID-19, many workers were outside of their homes for eight hours or more. They didn’t have access to their smart devices, and they generally felt more comfortable using voice commands in private. But the shift to remote work meant more time at home and more opportunities to explore the technology.

This trend toward voice-activated tech shows no signs of stopping. More than 50% of employees would like to keep telecommuting, and about 25% want a mix of in-person and remote work, according to a study by Office Depot. As the routines people formed over the past year become firmly cemented, smart speakers and voice assistants will become mainstays of hybrid work.

How Voice Tech Can Evolve to Support Hybrid Workplaces

Voice technology has come a long way since Siri was first announced. During the pandemic, grocery stores and other retailers added voice tech and touchless payment options to self-checkout kiosks to provide safer experiences for customers. Researchers are also exploring how voice assistants can support the healthcare industry.

The future of voice technology is undoubtedly bright, but it will need to keep evolving to become a staple of the new hybrid workplace. People expect voice tech to fit naturally into existing workflows, so any obstacles or errors that dissuade adoption could spell trouble for the continuing uptake of voice-first technologies.

Here’s what will have to change as more remote workers purchase and use smart devices:

1. Algorithms need to be based on a variety of voices.

It’s clear that some voice recognition technology has been trained and programmed using perfect diction, “standard North American English,” and crystal-clear recordings. Unfortunately, these algorithms aren’t very useful in the real world.

Smart speakers and other devices need to be able to navigate ambient noise, background voices, regional dialects, international accents, imperfect pronunciations, speech impediments, and more before they can be helpful in the hybrid workplace. 

Thankfully, some companies are tackling these issues directly. I recently spoke with a woman whose child had a speech disability. They had spent hours in a Google recording studio to help improve the programming of the company’s assistants. Additionally, Apple has amassed a database of nearly 30,000 audio clips of speakers stuttering. Perfect voice recognition won’t happen overnight, but accounting for different ages, voice pitches, and other idiosyncrasies should help algorithms become as accurate as possible.

2. New users need a superlative experience.

A lot hinges on first experiences. When someone turns on their smart speaker or voice assistant and asks to place a call, they expect it to go through without issue. If the tech botches that first exchange, users will be less inclined to try it again in the future. This all ties back to basic learning behaviors.

While smart speakers tend to get all the press, the adoption rate of voice tech by smartphone users remains substantially higher. For smart devices to become more useful to hybrid workers, companies will need to prioritize the “wow” factor and pull out all the stops to make a great first impression.

For instance, can the tech be integrated with laptops and computers? Can devices be remotely controlled? These are the questions workers will be asking moving forward.

3. Voice technology training will need to become more diverse and inclusive.

There are plenty of examples of algorithms taking on biases, such as Amazon’s hiring assistant favoring men and a recidivism prediction tool called COMPAS misclassifying Black defendants as more likely to commit additional crimes. These inequities demonstrate that technology as a whole needs to do better as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In one study that looked at speech recognition tools from Amazon, Google, IBM, Apple, and Microsoft, the collective software was 16% more likely to misidentify words if the speaker was Black. This might not seem like a high percentage, but think about having to correct four out of every 25 words that you speak or type. Unless it’s addressed, this issue will prevent people from embracing voice technology.

As it did in numerous other areas, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of voice-activated technologies. With employees around the world demanding increased flexibility and safety precautions, voice tech has likely secured a permanent spot as a mainstay of the future of work.

David Ciccarelli

Founder and CEO of Voices

David Ciccarelli is the founder and CEO of Voices, the No. 1 creative services marketplace with more than 2 million registered users. David is responsible for setting the vision, executing the growth strategy, creating a vibrant culture, and managing the company on a day-to-day basis. He is frequently published in outlets such as The Globe and Mail, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal.

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