Artificial intelligence (AI) has made extraordinary progress since it was first coined in the 1950s; it’s now a formidable tool, set to revolutionize modern working. The technology is already used in the workplace to automate repetitive and time-consuming tasks, analyse vast amounts of data and provide instant access to information.
A recent breakthrough has led to the introduction of generative AI: algorithms used to create new content such as text, images, audio and video from human prompts. The past few months have seen a surge of players embedding generative AI on workplace tools in a bid to boost productivity.
Google’s been embedding AI in its Workspace apps since 2015. But in March 2023 it announced a new suite of generative AI features for these apps to rival main competitor Microsoft, currently accessible to users in its trusted testers programme. At Google I/O last week the company rebranded this offering as Duet AI, as well as teasing some new features (clients can read more of our Google I/O coverage here).
Duet AI directly challenges Microsoft’s AI-powered Office assistant, Copilot, which was also announced in March of this year. Although the new features of Duet AI are not yet generally available, its potential to radically change modern working practices heralds a new competitive front. This is a dynamic that will continue to play out over the coming months.
Identifying Workplace Productivity Barriers
Productivity issues can be a significant drag on an organization’s success. As such, it’s always been a major priority for business. Poor productivity can have detrimental effects, often resulting in reduced profitability, low employee engagement and poor well-being. Worse still, productivity dampeners can affect creative innovation, a proven competitive attribute. Harnessing the power of AI-embedded technology in a considered and responsible way offers new opportunities for many businesses combatting poor productivity.
With this in mind, we explore whether Google’s Duet AI has the potential to solve workplace productivity issues facing organizations today.
Improved Communication and Collaboration
Our 2022 Senior Leadership IT Investment Survey reported that the biggest priorities for companies shifting to remote and hybrid work were team collaboration and employee engagement. Collaboration tools continue to be critical to workplace productivity; this was reinforced in CCS Insight’s Employee Workplace Technology Survey, which saw Google Workspace adoption grow significantly, closing the gap on market leaders Microsoft and Zoom.
The value offered by collaborative tools is widely known. These tools can streamline teamwork, making it easier for employees to communicate and collaborate on projects regardless of location. International teamwork brings additional problems, with groups often made up of individuals from different regions and cultures. Language differences especially can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes. But AI-powered language translation tools, such as live captioning on Google Meet, can help break language barriers and support better communication among international employees.
With Google’s smart canvas capabilities being integrated on Docs, the tool can adjust writing to sound more professional in languages including Spanish and Japanese. Duet AI uses an upgraded neural model for grammar and introduces a proofread pane that helps control tone, style, repetition and voice. This could prove useful for those working in non-native languages who are looking to improve the quality of their communication.
Another significant obstacle to workplace productivity is the huge amount of an employee’s day spent on time-consuming tasks such as replying to emails, sifting through information or generating content. Here, Google’s new “Help me” features have the most impact.
The “Help me write” feature, upgraded from Smart Compose in Google Docs and Gmail, gives users the ability to generate drafts, rewrite copy, compose replies and create summaries by entering a short text prompt. The generative AI model powering the function generates text in seconds, allowing users to review, edit or request further refinements before using it. In addition, contextual assistance will also be added to the Gmail app, automatically filling in names and other relevant information.
“Help me visualize” in Google Slides and Google Meet will generate six to eight public domain, non-copyrighted images from a short text description, saving users an online image search. The “Help me organize” capability in Sheets automatically classifies data and creates custom plans for tasks or managed projects. Classification tools, which understand the context of data in a cell, can help reduce the need for manual data entry and enable better decision-making through the provision of clear insights. It can also be used in Google Slides to produce data illustration.
Although it’s critical that users ensure any generative output is reviewed for maximum accuracy, reducing the time spent on these tasks gives much-needed freedom back to employees. More effective use of time allows staff to shift greater focus toward the high-value aspects of their role, boosting overall productivity.
Focus, Focus, Focus
Workplace distractions are a significant barrier to workplace productivity. Occurring frequently throughout a working day, they commonly include colleague interruptions, telephone calls and background noise. And in today’s modern workplace, they can also include factors such as switching between different applications, capturing information during meetings and visual noise.
Distractions can increase the odds of missing important steps in a process, ignoring major details or updates, misunderstanding information, not engaging fully with others or failing to complete a task. Duet AI provides some opportunities to help combat distractions and enable employees to focus on their tasks more fully.
Features for Meet include the automatic generation of meeting summaries and creation of custom backgrounds for video calls. Automatic note generation provides reassurance that important points will be captured for review, allowing employees to fully engage in meetings.
Background customization levels the playing field for remote workers, putting the focus back on the employee by removing the distractions of a personal setting. It’s also worth noting that backgrounds can be used to protect an employee’s privacy, allowing them to communicate a professional image even if working in a difficult home environment.
Google’s smart canvas capabilities include “smart chips”, clickable objects that place relevant information directly on the collaboration canvas. AI-generated content will have smart chips and variables automatically embedded, providing suggestions to the user such as location alongside variables for details including company name and date. By clicking on smart chips, users can also open a preview of the link in a thumbnail or on a side panel without exiting the document. This helps teams remain completely focussed on the job at hand and complete their tasks more quickly.
Although AI-based tools have immense potential, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the deployment of AI in the workplace comes with risks that need to be carefully considered. AI systems such as Google Duet AI and Microsoft Copilot can be exploited if not careful, and reckless implementation could threaten organizations’ privacy and security.
Ethical concerns will necessitate the implementation of robust data protection policies, and users will need full transparency and control of AI’s engagement with their data. Diligent governance will be required to ensure services are safe, fair, align to an organization’s values and respect user privacy.
Google assures users that it follows a responsible approach and designs its products in accordance with its AI Principles, highlighting that it provides transparency on data collected and lets clients manage their privacy in accordance with their own policies. Time will tell how these principles play out in the real world as Duet AI becomes generally available over the coming months.
A particular draw for users of AI is that, as with anything where there’s a lot of information to digest, it’s extremely effective at sifting through and surfacing useful insights. However, organizations need to consider that the accuracy and value of outputs rely on the quality of the data being used, something they will be directly responsible for.
Google’s Duet AI for Workspace has features that will prove useful in helping employees optimize and streamline the way they work and remain engaged. Equally important is the scope for reimagining the way staff can communicate and collaborate throughout and outside the organization.
Competitively, Google’s Duet AI and Microsoft’s Copilot offer many similar functions, although user experience will undoubtedly vary because of the different foundation models used to generate outputs. However, with new features rolling out to general availability for both Google and Microsoft, the company demonstrating deployment of AI in the most responsible and considered way may find itself in a better competitive position.
Google will be hoping that its latest set of generative AI-enabled solutions will tip the balance in its favour. Our survey shows that 35% of businesses plan to invest in employee productivity tools in 2023, and senior leaders place Google as one of the top three AI leaders. This highlights the opportunity for the company in an emerging segment.
Although considered and responsible AI deployment is a rallying cry for many providers, Google’s investment and continued expansion of its Workspace portfolio points toward a commitment to unifying and empowering a smarter, more productive workforce.
For more information on any of the research we’ve highlighted here, please do get in touch.
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