The average employee sent and received 103 emails per day in 2013 and spent almost two hours and a half per day on emails, according to a survey by The Radicati Group. Mimecast estimates that two out of three emails received are non-essential. A 2005 analysis by Basex revealed that interruptions consume almost thirty percent of the workday, resulting in a cost of $588 billion per annum in the US alone. LexisNexis found that sixty percent of employees have a hard time locating the information they need. The list goes on and on. The modern employee is overloaded with information, over-solicited all day long, and even at home. The need for an assistant may not be as important as for top executives, but there is one. Needless to say, it is unlikely that organisations will double their workforce to provide a personal assistant for each of their employees, given they are enough of them in the job market. Neither will they employ part-time or shared assistants because of the cost. Fortunately, there are other ways to ease this workload and save the day.
The Virtual Assistants
Virtual Assistants (VA) are real individuals working remotely from their homes or in a shared office. They are generally self-employed but can also be part of a VA firm. They can perform the same range of tasks remotely, from answering phone calls to tracking expenses, sorting emails, planning meetings and ordering lunch. The advantage in terms of cost is substantial, as they do not require extra office space and equipment for a similar result. This solution is ideal for small businesses and busy entrepreneurs, as it is much more flexible and cost effective. Virtual Assistants can be hired per month, from $10 plus $15 per hour, or even paid per task and request, from $10 per five tasks (Wall Street Journal). A Virtual Assistant could be hired for 160 hours of work per month for an astounding amount of $1,000.
Yet this is solution is still not concerning the poor average employee, struggling to get his/her emails sorted and unable to allocate a $300 budget for a VA. To accomplish simple tasks such as sorting emails, this poor employee can still enjoy the satisfaction of human help with crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is about outsourcing a task to an undefined public. Such process has been used by a team of researchers from Stanford University HCI Group to develop EmailValet, a service to crowdsource email management. More precisely, EmailValet gives control of one mailbox to anyone willing to extract important tasks from incoming emails in exchange of a tiny payment.
Interestingly, the unknown and numerous assistants allowed EmailValet users to complete twice as many tasks than the non-users in the control group. The problem of confidentiality has been tackled using privacy settings. Yet not everyone is comfortable with another human being scrutinising personal emails and sensitive data if this assistant is unknown and anonymous. Surprisingly, we are much more eager to willingly share our sensitive emails to Google’s algorithms so they can provide us relevant ads. We prefer to trust thousands of machines than a couple of unknown and paid human beings. So what kind of assistance could the computers offer us?
The Intelligent Software Assistants
In some sense, everybody has a secretary available in terms of word processing and in terms of e-mail. We don’t send faxes. We don’t ask somebody to fax things. We don’t ask somebody to create or send a letter. We can do it ourselves conveniently. But, for example, in terms of organizing our lives, we don’t have a secretary who knows everything and can make obvious judgments without asking us, follow up on things–all of those tasks that a good executive secretary would be doing. I think that will be available in 5 or 10 years. It will be an app.
Do you remember Clippy, the nice Microsoft Office assistant always willing to help? Talking about Clippy, Bill Gates recently said that “it was a little bit premature, but I think it will re-emerge with a little bit more sophistication.” In fact, it did. Individuals can now get assistance from Apple’s Siri, Google Now, HTC’s Hidi, Samsung’s S Voice, etc. These software assistants can help scheduling, sorting emails, finding relevant information, and even monitoring health. They are merely regrouping in a single app features that already existed in many different software. One of my previous award-winning article looked into how these software assistants will be able to adapt to ourselves, to shadow and mimic us just like executive assistants of CEOs already do when they can take decisions in their names. They will be able to read our minds and know what we are thinking before ask, maybe even better than Richard Branson’s assistant. How long before this technology becomes available to employees? They need it desperately. Even if these software do not provide company to employees, are not part of the family, do not make them smile and laugh, they at least could help them take back control of their workload.
Ideas of features for a business-oriented Software Assistant
- Seamless integration with corporate information system: connects to intranet, corporate emails, agenda, contacts, social networking tools, etc. Compatible with various devices used by employees.
- Queries tool: answers complex text and oral queries using information from both the intranet and the Internet (Wolfram Alpha).
- Summarising tool: creates executive summaries of documents (Word 2007, Mac OS X, or web tool), intranet, web pages or even the Web.
- Advanced email filters: sorts, deletes, archives emails automatically.
- Content analyser: analyses the content of incoming emails and extracts important tasks.
- Intelligent automatic replies: replies to some emails automatically.
- Speech recognition: allows employees to dictate creative content.
- Automatic reminders: common but precious feature.
- Meeting automatic filtering and scheduling: accepts or rejects meetings, schedules meetings depending on availabilities.
- Phone calls handling: provides Interactive voice response (IVR) to employees being frequently solicited on the phone.
- Files sorting: sorts and archives files automatically.
- Proof-reading: auto-corrects mistakes.
- Travel arrangements tool: books travels based on a few criteria and a budget, warns about traffic and provides information on public transport.
- Isolation tool: lets the employee focus on the task at hand without being distracted by incoming communication and/or distractions.
If you are an entrepreneur or a self-employed worker with no corporate information system, you can already try one of the many smartphone apps on the market to manage your workload:
- Siri (iOS)
- Google Now (Android 4.1+, iOS)
- EasilyDo (Android, iOS)
- Speaktoit Assistant (Android, iOS, Windows Phone)
- OSITO (iOS)