The Rise of the Virtual Assistants

Jan 15, 2016
9 Min Read
virtual assistant robot

virtual assistant robotDoes a human or robot virtual assistant (VA) make knowledge work easier?

Human virtual assistance has been a booming business for almost a decade, and now, with the wide launch of Amazon Echo, you can have a robot as well. However, just because technology grows ever more sophisticated doesn’t mean our lives as knowledge workers are getting any easier. We will have a variety of needs that aren’t being met with existing process and tools. In this piece, we’ll examine the productivity pros and cons associated with all kinds of virtual assistants, answering the question: are they worth it?

Dan Ackerman at CNET thinks the Amazon Echo was the breakthrough product of 2015. For those who don’t know, Echo is an internet-connected wireless speaker wrapped around a digital personal assistant named Alexa.

Why does Ackerman love the Echo so much? He claims that, unlike any other voice-recognition technology he has tried, Alexa understood what he was saying at least 80 percent of the time, and very often offered logical, informative replies. He was also able to speak to Alexa in an everyday, casual voice that puts Siri’s required mega-enunciation to shame.

Echo makes sure you’re dressed appropriately for the weather. It can access audio streams from Pandora, TuneIn and other providers; answer general interest questions, often by quoting Wikipedia; access your Google Calendar information; and even control some of the most popular smart home devices including Philips Hue and Belkin's WeMo products.

Just this week, Amazon announced some new features for the Echo. One is a fitness option. You can now ask Alexa to start a seven-minute workout, for instance, and she will provide "a set of exercises designed to increase metabolism, improve energy, lower stress, and remove fat." Another is "Ask Fidelity," which will pull up stock quotes by name or ticker symbol, and you can also ask for information about the latest political debates.

VAs: When robots catch up to humans

It’s only a matter of time before the Echo and Alexa can do nearly all administrative tasks associated with knowledge work – including setting up and transcribing meetings, organizing your online files, managing projects, creating reports, building databases, summarizing articles and books, publishing your writing, managing your social media accounts, processing invoices and expenses, and booking business travel.

Many start-ups and small businesses have been using human virtual assistants (VAs) for years. But during the recession, when full-time, onsite administrative help became scarcer, remote human VAs made their debut in larger and more established organizations. Increasingly, virtual assistants are being hired by companies on a work-from-home basis to help out executives and teams with admin, creative, and/or technical tasks.

Like other independent contractors, remote VAs provide services using their own space and equipment, and typically do not enjoy company benefits like insurance. Terms and contracts are fluid, and many VAs never meet their clients in person – communicating instead via a bevy of videoconferencing and project collaboration tools.

As of this writing, I’ve briefly used both types of available VAs – human and robot – and I’ve noted a few productivity pros and cons. Let’s start with the pros.

VA productivity boosters

Flexibility is a huge benefit of VAs. Humans can be hired on a per month or per contract basis, so you can bring someone on during your busier periods. Many human VAs also don’t mind working off hours or even on holidays, and presumably this isn’t a concern for Echo or any other machine VA. I found it especially helpful not to have a full-time, in-house person when my work took me overseas for a year. The VA was remote, so it didn’t matter where in the world I was located.

Using a VA, I was able to delegate more tasks so that I could focus on more critical knowledge work that required my expertise specifically. This in turn led to a better quality of life and more hours to spend with my loved ones.

Hiring a VA cost a fraction of a full-time assistant or coordinator, and I was able to cut out the niceties associated with employing someone in my office. I didn’t waste time chit chatting or building too much rapport.

VA productivity busters

The catch is, human VAs aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be, and machines have even greater limitations. I found that explaining things to my VA and ensuring that I provided clear, step by step instructions in many cases took much more time than if I had simply done the task myself. Then, I would have to stop working every time my VA pinged me with a question. Robot VAs are not likely to be any better at quickly getting things right for a long time.

Given that I was also hesitant to provide a VA with confidential and sensitive information, I had to make sure I did a careful selection process. Researching options and hiring an actual human took time, and frankly, if I were to employ a machine today I’d still want to make sure I vetted the technology so all my passwords didn’t get hacked and my identity didn’t get stolen. All of this takes time and distances me from my knowledge work.

On a related note, bringing VA human or technology on board in an established organization might open up a can of worms. If your company is not set up for and accustomed to offering virtual assistance to employees, the legal, IT, and operational hoops could be substantial. Think BYOD on steroids.

Overall, I think every knowledge worker needs to determine for themselves whether their work is well-suited to virtual assistance. For me, it wasn’t quite worth it. However, I’m keeping an open mind. I imagine that the robot VAs of the future will drive a hard bargain.

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