How Amazon Alexa can be a helpful office cubicle companion
Every day can be bring-Alexa-to-work day
Amazon's Echo smart speakers and their Alexa voice assistant are best known for what they can do at home — but they can be just as helpful at work. Whether you have your own office, a cubicle, or sit in a shared workspace, you can hire Alexa as your new personal assistant.
Naturally, using any voice assistant and smart speaker in a potentially sensitive office environment is going to raise some privacy concerns. We will aim to address these through this article, but the obvious should go without saying; if you work at the NSA, or if the Oval Office is just down the corridor, then always-listening Alexa should probably be left at home.
But for the rest of us, there are numerous benefits to having Alexa on your desk. Here's how to get started:
Ask for permission from the IT department
First and foremost, if you plan to use an Echo smart speaker or display at work, you should ask for permission from your IT department, as the device will need adding to your office Wi-Fi network. Unless, of course, you have your own office, or are based in a shared workspace from the likes of WeWork.
You will also want to check that your employer is okay with you bringing a device with an always-on microphone to work. Echo devices are only supposed to start listening properly when they hear you say "Alexa," but the technology isn't foolproof and Alexa has been known to make some high-profile mistakes. It is also worth checking that co-workers nearby don't mind an Echo device being within earshot.
This sounds like a lot of hurdles to clear, but common sense should prevail. It depends on the nature of your work and the setup of your office, as well as the rules imposed by your employer or shared workspace.
Don't forget your headphones
Your colleagues might not appreciate Alexa talking all day, so you should bring along a comfortable pair of Bluetooth headphones. These can be paired to any Echo device in the same way as a Bluetooth speaker, or you can plug a pair of headphones into the Echo's auxiliary socket.
Of course, if you have a private office or work from home then you don't need to worry about Alexa disturbing anyone.
Turn off voice shopping and create your voice profile.
Alexa's voice shopping can be a useful way to buy household items from Amazon when they run out, but in an office environment with other people around it might be best to switch this off. Or at the very least, put a PIN code on this feature, so items can't be bought by anyone but you — whether accidentally or as a prank.
To do this, head into the Alexa smartphone app, then tap the menu icon in the top-left corner, followed by Settings -> Alexa Account -> Voice Purchasing, and either switch the feature off, or create a PIN to protect it.
While you're in that menu, you can also switch on Brief Mode. This replaces Alexa saying "okay" with a quiet chime every time you issue a command. Hopefully this will help stop Alexa's voice annoying your co-workers when you don't use headphones.
Next, you should create a voice profile if you haven't done already. This helps Alexa pick out your voice from the crowd and only respond to you, hopefully cutting down on the number of times Alexa mistakenly responds to someone else nearby. In the Alexa app, go to Settings ->Alexa Account -> Recognized Voices, then have Alexa learn your voice by following the instructions.
Add your contacts and calendar
Quite possibly the most useful work-focused skill in the Alexa's toolbox is calendar integration. First, you'll need to add your existing calendar to Alexa by opening the Alexa app and going to Settings -> Calendar, then pick the calendar you use (there's Google, Outlook, Office 365 and iCloud to choose from), then log into your account.
Now, when you say "Alexa, add an event to my calendar," the assistant will do exactly that. You can also ask about your upcoming schedule by saying: "Alexa, what does my calendar look like today?" or "Alexa, when is my next event?" You can get more specific and check if you have anything in your calendar at a certain time on a certain day.
Set timers to have regular breaks
We all know the importance and getting up from our desks and taking short breaks throughout the day, but it's often easy to forget, or be tough on ourselves when a deadline is looming.
Alexa can help here with its countdown timer feature. Just say: "Alexa, set a timer for one hour" and the alarm will sound in 60 minutes' time. You could also say: "Alexa, remind me to take a break at 1 pm", and the voice assistant will chime, then say aloud: "I'm reminding you to take a break."
You could also use the reminder feature for all manner of other work tasks, like making phone calls or replying to emails you will otherwise forget about. These reminders can be configured to repeat, so Alexa could remind you to go for a walk at 3 pm every weekday afternoon, for example.
Make a to-do list
Adding items to your to-do list, or making one from scratch, is as simple as speaking out-loud. Just say "Alexa, add presentation planning to my to-do list," and you're set. The list can be read out by Alexa on command, or viewed through the Alexa smartphone app.
Play ambient noise for concentration
If you work in your own office (or remembered those headphones) you can ask Alexa to play a wide range of smoothing ambient sounds. There are several skills for this, with them offering sounds like rainfall, distant storms, or white noise, helping you focus on your work.
Alexa can also be used to take some time out and meditate, with guided meditation classes available through free skills like Headspace and Calm.
You can also use Alexa to play music from services like Amazon Prime Music and Spotify, radio stations from TuneIn, and podcasts or audiobooks.
Look up currency and unit conversions
Instead of reaching for the calculator or opening a conversion website, Alexa can be used to quickly find the answer, and all you have to do is ask aloud. Sure, asking for 200 miles in kilometers isn't groundbreaking, but it's fast, convenient, and can be done hands-free, or while you are busy typing.
This also applies to a wide range of questions you might otherwise waste time on typing into Google. Alexa doesn't always have the general knowledge skills to match the Google Assistant, but for basic facts — capital cities, for example — she's a helpful asset for any office cubicle.
Alexa For Business
So far, we have only looked at what individuals can do with an Alexa device in the workplace. But what if your employer wanted to go all-in on the Amazon assistant? That's where Alexa For Business comes in.
This platform allows companies to create Alexa skills unique to their workforce, and make them accessible only for their employees. This also means Echo devices can be shared by anyone in the company, or across one office, instead of being tied to the account of one specific Amazon customer.
Such skills could allow employees to lower the blinds in a certain office, call a shuttle to a specific office building on the campus, locate an available conference room, or order more paper for the printer. Routines can also be created; for example, the command "Alexa, start a meeting," could be configured to dim the lights, lower the blinds and power up the projector.