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Teamwork: How Echo Show can boost your business communications

CNET@Work: Get all the details on how Amazon's Echo Show can help you to effectively communicate with team members in a small office -- plus stay on task, get informed and much more.

With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.


Teams looking to streamline how they communicate should consider the Echo Show.

This Amazon device, which is basically an Echo speaker with a built-in Fire tablet, offers both video calling and voice calling, as well as access to Alexa and Alexa skills, all of which you can use to communicate with members of your team -- whether you want to check in with them or hold a conference call. It also works with the Alexa app, so even if you're away from your desk, you can accept a call from your boss or co-workers and essentially stay connected.

Sure, there are several enterprise-level chat apps available that also provide video calling for teams, but Amazon delivers some advantages, thanks to its AI assistant Alexa, with its growing library of skills. 

Here's how you can draw on the power of Amazon's latest Alexa device to transform your office.

Read also: Amazon Echo Show: A smart speaker that shows up the competition

Alexa calling and messaging

Imagine if everyone in your team had an Echo Show sitting on his or her work desk. They'd all be able to keep in touch, even if they walked away from their desks for a minute. You see, the Echo Show supports Alexa-to-Alexa calling and messaging in the US. It's a free feature that provides calling and messaging between supported Echo devices and the Alexa app on compatible iOS (9.0 or higher) and Android (5.0 or higher) phones. And it doesn't use mobile plan minutes.

Once your team members have set up their Echo Show devices, ask them to share their contact information with each other and to download the Amazon Alexa app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. From there, in the Alexa app, they'll need to select the Conversations icon from the navigation bar at the bottom of the app and follow the onscreen prompts. They must confirm their names, enable access to their contact lists and verify their phone numbers through SMS. Amazon will use their address books to find people they know who use the Alexa app or supported Echo devices, so it should, at this point, find every person in your work team.

Read also: Amazon Alexa calling: How to set it up and use it on your Echo

Place a video or voice call

To place a call via your Echo Show, all you have to do is say, "Alexa, call [name of contact]." The contact will need to be listed under the Contact screen of the Alexa app, and you have to say the name exactly the way it appears in the app so that Alexa can understand your request. When you call a team member, it will ring through to his or her Alexa app and Echo Show device at the same time -- and your contact can answer on either. 

To toggle the video aspect after the call has started, say, "Video [off / on]", or you can touch the on/off video button on your Echo Show's screen. So, with this setup, you can quickly place a video or voice call to a team member to, for instance, talk about an ongoing work project, rather than having to stop what you're doing and walk across the entire length of the office.

When you receive a call from a team member, your Echo Show will sound a soft alarm and glow green. You can answer or ignore any call from your Echo Show by saying, "Answer" or, "Ignore." Alternatively, you can tap the answer or ignore button from the Alexa app on your smartphone. To end your call, say, "Hang up" or you can select the end button from the Alexa app. 

The beauty of this feature is that you can have one-to-one video or voice calls with any team member from your desk, and it won't take up any workspace on your laptop. You can continue doing what you're doing, and the Echo Show sitting next to you will handle all your calls. Also, if you should leave your desk at any moment, your calls will automatically be routed through to your smartphone, allowing you to stay remotely connected.

Send a voice message

Sending a message is a lot easier than having a full-on phone call with a team member. Better yet, sending a voice message is quicker than typing one out. Amazon's system allows team members to fire off voice messages, eliminating the need to manually type out a complex thought or place a call to explain something. 

To send a voice message via an Echo Show, simply say, "Alexa, send [name of contact] a message," and then say your message. Team members can access their voice messages by saying to their Echo Show, "Alexa, play my messages." They can also send voice messages and play them back from the Conversations screen of the Alexa app (just tap the blue microphone button in a contact's conversation thread to send a new voice message). When you receive a voice message, you get a notification from the Alexa app on your phone and the lights on your Echo Show will glow green.

boss-peeks-in-door

Team supervisors will love the Echo Show's Drop In feature, but team members might come to hate it.

istock.com

Send a text message

You can also send a text message to a team member in your contact list -- but you have to use the Alexa app. Under the Conversations screen, tap the New Conversations icon, then pick a contact from your address book and select the text field to open your keyboard. From there, type your message and tap the Send button. Team members will get a notification and can read your message as well as respond with a text themselves via the Alexa app.

Drop In

Team supervisors will love the Echo Show's Drop In feature, but team members might come to hate it. Drop In lets Echo Show users instantly connect -- hands-free. You can enable Drop In via the Alexa app and grant permission to team members from your address book. Then, to Drop In on a team member, just say, "Drop In on [contact name]" via your Echo Show. Alternatively, from the Conversation screen in Alexa app, select the Drop In bar and choose the contact you want to Drop In on. Although you can use the Alexa app to Drop In on other devices, other devices can't drop in on the Alexa app.

When you Drop In on a team member, the light bar on that person's Echo Show will pulse green, and you will automatically connect and can hear anything within range of that device. Your team member should see a frosted glass video that transitions to clear video shortly after connecting, which gives him or her time to prepare for the video call. But anyone can turn off the video at any point during the Drop In simply by saying, "Video off" or by selecting the Video Off button on the screen. In other words, with this feature, your boss can virtually pop into your office to say "Hi" -- wonderful, right? (Sarcasm.)

Do Not Disturb

Amazon offers a Do Not Disturb feature so that you can block Alexa from alerting you about incoming calls and messages. Obviously, this is handy if you're swamped with work and cannot be bothered by Joe in the next cubicle who wants to tell you about his fishing trip over the weekend. To turn on Do Not Disturb, say, "Alexa, don't disturb me." To turn off the feature, say, "Turn off Do Not Disturb," or you can tap the Do Not Disturb button on your Echo Show's screen. To schedule Do Not Disturb for a specific time via the Alexa app, select Settings from the Menu, then choose your device, and tap Scheduled under Do Not Disturb. Then use the slider to toggle Do Not Disturb on or off, and select Edit to change the time you want Do Not Disturb to start or end.  

Amazon has indicated it will update the Echo Show with more calling features in the future. Already, it has announced plans to introduce call waiting, as well as the ability to transfer calls between devices, place calls on hold, leave voicemails and place a three-way call. We suspect it will one day add the ability to do SMS texting and group video calls, making the Echo Show even more useful for team communications. Most recently, it launched multiroom music. However, as of September, the feature only supports tunes from certain streaming services. That means you can't use it to have a multiroom audio call (aka intercom) with several Echo devices in your office -- though, again, that feature could always be enabled down the road with an over-the-air update.

Read also: Back to school: Alexa in your dorm room (ZDNet)

Alexa productivity skills

alexa-skills

Over time, more Echo Show-specific productivity skills will become available.

David Grober/ZDNet

Alexa skills expand what you can do with the Echo Show in the workplace. Currently, there are only a few skills that take advantage of the device's screen, but, over time, you can bet more Echo Show-specific skills will be available to use. After all, the Echo platform is only a few years old, and as of January 2017, it had over 15,000 skills. Developers clearly see the potential and are actively creating new ways to make use of the platform.

Here are a few skills worth checking out now to see if they fit your team and its needs (you can enable any of them just by asking Alexa):

Join a conference call

Conference Manager by Vonage is a conference skill that interfaces with your Google calendar to identify your next conference call and save you the hassle of dialing in. Just say, "Alexa, start my call" and it will look at your calendar, then extract the conference information and dial the bridge number, meeting number and participant code. It will then call you, so all you have to do is pick up the phone. It currently supports WebEx, Goto Meeting, BlueJeans and Vonage Business conferencing. Check out the skill from here.

Send an SMS message

AT&T's Send Message skill lets AT&T customers send SMS text messages through their Amazon Echo devices. Once enabled, just say, "Alexa, ask AT&T to text David," followed by your message, such as "I am running late, but will be there in 30 minutes." Check out the skill from here. There's also a new Mastermind skill by Convessa that's in a closed beta. Although we have yet to test it out due to the waitlist, it promises to let Alexa users send and receive SMS text messages, make phone calls, get Caller ID, cast to a Chromecast TV, launch mobile apps, read and manage app notifications and more. Check out that skill from here.

Check your Twitter feed

For some people, Twitter is a distraction at work, but for other people, it's a necessary tool for real-time news updates and communication. If your team relies on Twitter for staying in the loop, consider trying the Twitter Reader skill. It's made by Twitter itself. When enabled and linked to your account, it can read your timeline, mentions, retweets and likes. It also lets you search tweets. To get started, say, "Alexa, ask Twitter what is happening." Unfortunately, it doesn't yet let you post tweets. Check out the skill from here.

Chat with Slack

If your team uses Slack to communicate, then consider Chat Bot for Slack. It isn't an official Slack skill, but after you link your Slack account, it will let you post to Slack -- hands-free -- using your Echo Show. All you have to do is say the Slack channel name and the message you want to post. We can see this skill coming in handy if you're doing something near your desk and can't easily get to your laptop to respond to team members. Check out the skill from here.

Read also: Slack adds screen sharing for video calls (ZDNet)

Set a reminder or timer

You can set reminders and named timers via Alexa, which is useful if you have trouble staying on task and need a nudge every now and then. Just say, for instance, "Alexa, remind me to call David at 4 p.m.," and it will notify you at the proper time. Reminders are tied to the device you set them on, so don't expect to set a reminder in your office and hear it on the Echo Show in your living room later. 

Alexa also now supports named timers, as well. You can check how much time is left on a certain timer by asking, "Alexa, how much time is left on my lunch break timer?" and it will let you know. Alternatively, you can use a third-party skill for your reminders and timers. The Cubic Reminder lets you set up reminders triggered by time, weather conditions and TV schedules, of all things. So, you can say, "Alexa, tell Cubic to notify me when next episode of 'Silicon Valley' starts." Check out the skill from here. We're not sure why you'd watch TV while at work, but these features are certainly helpful when it comes to trying to complete tasks on time.

Check your camera feed

Does your office use Nest's indoor security camera? If so, you can enable the Nest Camera skill to start streaming live video to your Echo Show. Just say, "Alexa, show the lobby camera" or, "Alexa, show feed from the lunch room." Check out the skill from here. Be sure to browse Amazon's skill library for other useful camera skills, such as the Ring video doorbell skill.

For more interesting Alexa productivity skills, see ZDNet's roundup here.

Amazon is actively expanding the ways we can use its Echo devices, including the new Echo Show, either by rolling out updates itself or by allowing developers to create new skills.  For instance, Microsoft and Amazon recently partnered to enable their respective personal digital assistants to work together. That means you will soon be able to say to your Echo Show, "Alexa, open Cortana." Or, if you use a Windows 10 device, you will be able to say, "Cortana, open Alexa." Already, the Echo Show is a useful device for one-to-one video and voice calls, voice and text messaging and conferencing with team members.

It's only a matter of time before Amazon adds even more features, making the Echo Show a go-to communications hub for businesses of all sizes. For now, however, we think it's ideal for small teams looking for interesting ways to spruce up how they keep in touch and stay productive.

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