Microsoft this month have introduced three new voice features to Outlook for iOS, bringing a welcome relief to users bombarded with emails and heralding a new wave of audio tools to enable more employee centric comms. With Zoom burnout, email fatigue, and Video Call etiquette impacting business users – the call for more audio has many origins and we expect to see a significant rise in the prevalence of audio apps and tools over the coming year.  

In their recent Work Trend Index annual report, Microsoft talked about the substantial change in the digital intensity of workers’ days. This intensity – driven in no small part by the global pandemic – is illustrated by a 2.5x global leap in time spent on Microsoft Teams, an increase in Teams chats (+45%) and the length of the average meeting rising by almost 30%.  The stand-out stat for us is the rise in emails received by commercial and education Microsoft users up by 40.6 billion in Feb 2021 against the same month in 2020.  

Within an unstructured day, no longer bookended by the pillars of a daily commute, this unstructured barrage of communication is – unsurprisingly – leaving workers feeling pressurised to keep up – a stunning 50% of people still respond to Teams chats within five minutes or less. With so much of the daily comms (62%) being unscheduled or ad hoc this ‘digital intensity’ could become unmanageable.  

Microsoft has determined that this trend shows no sign of slowing and indeed, even as people return to offices, a new hybrid model is creeping in with workforces collaborating across a wide range of locations: home, onsite, and on the move. They have focused their efforts on building solutions for mobile devices, solutions that support users to be as productive as they can be on a desktop but designed to work on smaller screens, on the move, utilising all the unique capabilities of a modern smartphone.  

This month Microsoft announced three new enhanced voice capabilities in Outlook mobile for iOS (soon to be made available on Android). AI-enhanced, mobile focussed and voice centric, these tools make are designed to be easy and natural to use. 

Voice scheduling  

At its simplest this feature employs Cortana to use AI to find files, connect with colleagues or manage your calendar. Simply hold down the plus sign in Outlook mobile and tap the microphone icon to ‘Use Voice’. If you are thinking about having a wee dram at the end of dinner and want to find out whether you need to be on top form at 8am, you can simply tap and ask ‘when is my first morning meeting?’. Cortana will contextualise your answer and let you know so you can make an informed choice about that single malt.  

Cortana can also use insights from  Microsoft Graph to learn how you work and who you work with, improving the speed and ease of using your voice to manage your diary. This enables you to set up invites in an even more natural, intuitive way – “Set up a meeting with Alex and his team next Thursday about Viva Topics” and then maybe “Add Amanda”. Cortana recognises correct co-workers and creates the invite.  

Natural language search 

Search with speech and easily surface Outlook content on your mobile. Give simple commands rather than relying on search terms – “Find the latest research data on Work Happy” – and return relevant content without having to pause and scroll.  

Dictate  

Dictation in Outlook mobile means you can use your voice to respond or write new email messages. Although this is something that has been available on desktop for Word and Outlook this speech-to-text and simple voice command-based tool gives you the ability to create content in Outlook without touching a keyboard. Dictation comes with a range of features including voice commands to create ‘new paragraph’ or to ‘delete that’ as well as auto punctuation and profanity filters, replacing them with ****. Simply speak naturally to create messages and content and you will be able to get more work done in a shorter amount of time. 

These new features sit amongst an increasing amount of adoption among audio-only apps that allow participants to join a conversation without having to dial a number, or log in. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, LinkedIn and Slack have all announced plans to add audio features to their products. LinkedIn and Slack are working on capabilities which are likely to be similar to the social media app Clubhouse (an invitation only network which is ‘part talkback radio and part conference call’). Businesses are starting to add audio-only rooms to websites to engage with customers and making it easy for shoppers to ‘step into’ live conversations, participate in live product drops or talk to customer service simply through the click of a link.  

Earlier this year we announced our partnership with Soundbite.ai the short-form audio, podcasting and micro-podcasting platform which – like Outlook for mobile – will integrate with your internal communications hub and give you the capability to create engaging audio to enhance your internal communication campaigns.  

Some call it the ‘Goldilocks’ medium: text is not enough, and video is too much. We certainly believe that audio is here to stay and that maybe, to give your employees relief from the digital intensity, it’s just right.  

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