The rise of Alexa creates a dilemma for your open plan office

As more of us start to use Alexa and Siri at work, our office spaces – and how we react to other people talking – will need to adapt

If you are reading this at work in an open-plan office, try a little experiment. Stand up and say out loud, “Remind me to chase that email tomorrow.” Did you do it? Probably not. You don’t want to startle the people around you. But the arrival of voice assistants in the workplace will make that a regular occurrence. And that will change the way we plan the rooms we work in.

Open-plan offices are noisy places. Originally meant to foster collaboration, these are fast becoming row upon row of headphone-wearing workers trying to hear themselves think. And in 2019, with voice assistants moving in to replace keyboards, that will only get worse.

Voice assistants are powerful tools. They remind us to send that email, chase that query and even remember the milk. But as we move into a world where everyone will be talking to Google, Siri or Alexa, we will have to rethink what the office is for. Do we want it to be a place of real human-to-human interaction, or will it become something of a call centre, in which everyone is whispering to their voice assistant through Madonna-style mics?

At first, the tools we use will not change. People will start using voice assistants with their mobile phone like they do for a phone call, but the frequency with which they speak will be much higher, making it a much larger problem. Interactions with voice assistants are intermittent, short and very direct instructions which, when unexpected, can feel directed at others and be very distracting.

2019 will deepen the need to treat each other’s voice as yet another sound to ignore. The more polite co-workers will wait until they are outside the room to whisper their to-do lists to prevent others being distracted. But, if history has anything to tell us, making an effort will be a hurdle for most, so we’ll need offices to be re-designed to counter the voice problem.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Voice assistants could transform the efficiency of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). The NHS remains the world’s largest purchaser of fax machines, uses ten per cent of the world’s pagers, and struggles to make its information digital and keep it up to date. Extremely valuable people currently have to sit in front of a machine doing data entering, but this archaic approach could soon be superseded by voice, saving resources and time. And, with most staff-to-staff interactions happening via voice already, hospitals will have for the first time in history the opportunity to leapfrog from pagers to a fully digital, traceable and easy-to-use voice solution such as Google Duplex to keep track of all hospital queries and information.

The challenge of voice assistants may be more than just volume. As they become more widespread at work, some people will see an Alexa as all-knowing office VIP and the rest of us mere serfs. Voice assistants also don’t have any of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They are ready at any time, don’t want chit-chat and can be talked to without sugar coating.

For some, this will make them better than actual people and lengthen the divide between colleagues. This is already happening, with some teenagers preferring video games to school friends and finding human relationships as a messy and uncomfortable part of the analogue world. In 2019, voice assistants will do to some adults at work what videogames did to teens in their spare time: provide a clear-cut, predictable interaction that they won’t want to trade for human time.

If each of us has a voice assistant in our ears, we are likely to give our colleagues less attention. We will need to find ways to counter this, most likely redesigning parts of the office as voice assistant-free zones where people can talk and socialise.

Next year, voice assistants will become widespread in the workplace. Offices will become noisier and the headphones we put on to counter that will only make the office a colder and more impersonal place to work. The latest office design trends are leaning towards more shared non-desk space for people to breakout into little chats. With Virtual Assistants joining the workforce, the need for such spaces will only continue to grow.

Until better soundproofing architecture catches up with the adoption of voice assistants, our workplace etiquette will have to adapt by making time for each other and being respectful of our airwaves. We’ll certainly have more voice-led digital working practices but we will also need to develop a very different way of running offices if we are not all to be driven to distraction by each other.

Eduardo Aguilar Peláez is the head of technology at the Helix Centre of Imperial College London

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