Many HR professionals will be focusing on getting hybrid working right, but could the future of work lie in the metaverse? Jo Faragher looks at how increasingly layered virtual workspaces will impact everything from learning to diversity and inclusion.
For many people, the concept of the ‘metaverse’ conjures up a virtual world filled with clunky digital avatars floating aimlessly between different realities. A video showing how supermarket giant Walmart envisioned its customers shopping in the metaverse recently prompted hilarity on social media, with one viewer claiming he’d rather “poke out his eyeballs” than buy wine from an awkward-looking digital ‘employee’.
But despite this scepticism, a growing number of businesses are looking into how the metaverse – a term originally coined in Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash in 1992 – could enhance how employees work together, particularly as work arrangements become more hybrid thanks to the pandemic.
Its proponents argue it will transform how we train employees, foster closer collaboration regardless of location, and reduce carbon footprint because we can be with each other virtually rather than flying across the world.
Not surprisingly, there was much media fanfare surrounding Facebook’s name change to Meta in 2021 – staking its claim to where it sees the direction of its future business – but the metaverse will be owned and populated by a whole ecosystem of developers.
Technology and change
“Facebook, of course, chose to rename their entire company to make a point,” explained HR analyst Josh Bersin in a recent blog post on the subject. “But it’s going to be far bigger. In fact, every tech company, retailer, and entertainment business wants in.”
BMW, for example, has partnered with artificial intelligence and gaming company Nvidia to build a ‘digital twin’ of one of its factories – a virtual representation of the physical assets, systems and processes of that site.
Accenture, meanwhile, has built an entire “virtual floor” dedicated to mixed reality working, based on Microsoft’s Mesh tool, due to be released later this year.
In it, workers can replace themselves with personalised avatars, create virtual rooms and superimpose themselves onto presentations while interacting with colleagues from anywhere in the world.
For most of us, however, the closest representation we have in our day-to-day lives of a metaverse-like space is in online games such as Fortnite and Minecraft, which involve users building and populating their own virtual worlds, moving across those different environments at will.
At work, unlike a two-dimensional video conference or Zoom call, objects and identities could theoretically move between these spaces from one virtual world to another, and incorporate the physical world too.
Danny Stefanic, CEO and founder of virtual events and learning platform MootUp, describes it as a live version of a platform such as Microsoft’s Sharepoint. “It’s a unified repository where you can find everything – your training, meet your colleagues, get hold of resources,” he explains.
A survey by Owl Labs, a video hardware company, recently found that almost half (47%) of people want companies to adopt an “office metaverse” in the future. And it’s not just because they want to build new avatar identities when they’re at home working in their pyjamas – 52% believe it will improve hybrid working policies, and 41% think it will boost diversity and inclusion at work.
An emerging range of hardware and software will create these three-dimensional worlds, such as virtual reality headsets (Oculus already offers a workspace range) and interactive tools such as digital whiteboards and ‘Igloo’ rooms. (Accenture has implemented the latter, essentially a wraparound screen where viewers can feel immersed in a presentation, in its own metaverse project).
“Everyone has a different perspective on what the metaverse is, but the theme in our research is consistent; that a large part of the workforce want to feel like ‘they’re there’, whether that’s through virtual or augmented reality or ultimately the metaverse,” says Owl Labs CEO Frank Weishaupt.
“In hybrid working, we’re always going to have to work out how to bridge the gap between those who are in the room and those who aren’t. The remote participant wants to be immersed in the environment.”
Workplace psychologist Sarah Clarke, from the Occupational Mind Group, argues that this is something that organisations have started to miss since the pandemic pushed many workers into home offices in 2020.
“We’ve seen engagement go down and the ‘great resignation’ appear and that’s down in part to the fact that people don’t feel like they belong. If you look at social identity theory, humans only survive if they’re with others, and that’s why we often gravitate towards groups,” she explains.
In hybrid working, we’re always going to have to work out how to bridge the gap between those who are in the room and those who aren’t. – Frank Weishaupt, Owl Labs
Working in the metaverse would bring back some of the spontaneity employees would get in an office, she adds: bumping into someone in the corridor or asking a nearby colleague a question rather than the more formal nature of video calls. “You’re not forcing someone to be in a breakout ‘room’, they can walk around, talk to other avatars and interact on a more realistic level. This creates a greater sense of belonging.”
Sense of connection
Overcoming that sense of disconnection will be crucial in boosting inclusion, according to Ujjwal Singh, Workplace head of product for Meta. “It begins with connection and community but also enables collaboration and continuity,” he says. “Remote and hybrid work is here to stay and a key part of that is equity. It’s easy to lose presence in these difficult times but avatars can help people feel more connected with you and have a sense of presence.”
Key to this will be equity of access, he adds. So that means it should be as easy for someone to interact with their mobile phone or a portal device in the staff room as someone wearing an expensive virtual reality headset. “This needs to work across audiences and devices – we have to approach this through a lens of equity rather than just launching a cool new feature.”
The company recently published research on frontline workers’ perceptions of connection at work: 52% felt less visible than those working in office headquarters, so ensuring this tranche of workers has as much access to virtual connection is crucial.
As well as recreating those moments of serendipity, the metaverse could prove a game-changer for training. Three-dinmensional technology company PixelMax had been creating virtual workspaces and events before the pandemic, but has increasingly been focusing on building hybrid work set-ups for clients.
One customer is a not-for-profit first responder charity, and a key advantage of deploying immersive technology is the way it can bring together employees from different agencies to train them, which is critical if responding to a major incident. “Our client wants to reinvest in saving lives, and they can use a virtual working environment to train people together, going through exercises where they play out a scenario,” explains co-founder Andy Sands. Everything is streamed so hardware investment is minimal.
That said, Sands argues that many organisations are shifting their physical workplace investments into technology that will support a more metaverse-like way of working.
“They’re investing in their digital workplaces in a similar way they used to for the physical,” he adds. “They’re running calculations and offsetting this versus what they might spend on a desk or a chair, not to mention saving money on energy and corporate travel. This is more than a ‘nice to have’.”
Stefanic from MootUp points to the fact that many organisations have put off investing in virtual office set-ups because they’re worried about the cost of hardware or the need for high bandwidth, when in fact much of it can be based on any browser.
“We’ve designed our technology so it can work across all devices and there’s no coding involved, so instructional designers can build an experience and not have to worry about how it works on each device,” he explains. “The platform takes care of progressive enhancement if you do want to use VR, but the main thing is that the employee has agency over the experience.”
For example, an employee could be asked to make a choice in the virtual learning environment that changes an outcome. If they get it wrong, they learn through failure and can go back and do it again in an immersive environment, retaining that knowledge because they’ve experienced it. “Ultimately it reduces the time people need to train because they go through the experience and retain more, with more skills-based recall,” adds Stefanic.
The dark side
There are clear advantages in being able to bring together people across geographies and different work situations, but are there also risks in employees being able to hide behind digital identities? Equally, by pushing people into digital environments, could organisations be further blurring already shaky boundaries between work and home?
Ultimately it reduces the time people need to train because they go through the experience and retain more, with more skills-based recall. – Danny Stefanic, MootUp
Meta itself argues that moving into the shared virtual world of the metaverse does not necessarily mean spending more time online, but making the time we spend together online “more meaningful”. Barry Ross, director and partner at Crossland Employment Solicitors, believes employers will need some elements of monitoring in place to ensure employees don’t feel burnt out.
“It’s easy for someone to check emails on their phone at any time now, but will we be as tempted to plug in if you need to put on a VR headset? The rules around monitoring and data collection don’t change, but it will depend on how these things are implemented as to whether problems will arise,” he explains.
Ross adds that there are very minor risks that an employee could outsource their work to someone else if they are not required to be “physically” present, as well as the ability to hide behind an avatar to harass someone, but to a great extent these risks exist already.
“The advantage is that companies can recruit from anywhere around the world, and if we’re sensible about how we use the tech, most of the laws we have in place already will be sufficient,” he says. “One thorny issue may arise around what jurisdiction that employee falls under if they, for example, live in France but are under a UK contract. As the metaverse progresses, we may lose that jurisdictional element.”
Since Facebook’s name change to Meta, Stefanic says it has become easier to put a label on these virtual workspaces, which in turn makes it easier to sell to senior company stakeholders.
“Now people know what it is, it’s easier for them to make decisions about it,” he adds. “We’re getting companies asking for a metaverse version of their company headquarters or ‘digital twins’ of campuses that they can use for onboarding and training.”
Psychologist Sarah Clarke believes the edge that the metaverse has over our existing ways of digital communication is the element of control. “With Zoom, you’re ‘put’ somewhere rather than being able to move around or dip in and out. It doesn’t replace being physically present but you don’t always need that, and it’s more spontaneous than simply being in the office or at home,” she says.
Culturally, it may take some time to get used to digital representations of ourselves, but the pandemic has already accelerated that journey. Ross at Crossland adds that HR processes and policies “do not have to reinvent the wheel” and will adapt as new tools and approaches arise.
“We’re already thinking along these lines with hybrid working,” he concludes.”It’s about making sure employees have a safe environment to work in and the tools to give them the ability to do their job; that they’re not just an avatar being forgotten about.”