Damir Khabirov - stock.adobe.com
While hybrid and flexible working offer many advantages to both employers and their staff, there are downsides too.
One of the biggest is so-called “distance bias”, which refers to the preference everyone has for whatever is closest to them in time and space. In a workplace context, this means that those managers unaware of the phenomenon are likely to demonstrate a positive bias towards employees who are working in the same office as them, which can lead to unconscious discrimination.
Data from the Office for National Statistics confirms this situation. It reveals that people who worked mainly from home during 2012 to 2017 were less than half as likely to be promoted as their office-based colleagues, and were also less likely to benefit from training. Between 2013 and 2020, it was 38% less probable that home workers would receive a bonus.
But 3D immersive communications platform provider PixelMax claims its technology could offer a means of levelling the playing field. In a whitepaper published towards the end of last year, it laid out the idea that the hybrid workplace of the future could take the shape of an always-on, 3D, metaverse-based virtual office where both remote and office workers would interact on an equal footing in real time.
Employees would be represented by avatars that used non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrencies to buy goods and services, and accessed applications, such as Slack or Dropbox, within this virtual space in order to communicate and collaborate. Operating as a platform-as-a-service offering, this virtual office would be based on technology ranging from augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to digital twins and would integrate with third-party tools and applications to create a truly immersive environment.
But as to whether such a concept is likely to take off any time soon, Iain Fisher, director of the Northern European digital strategy and solutions practice at research and advisory firm ISG, is not convinced – although he does believe it could have a role to play in certain, predominantly creative, industries. For instance, he sees computer gaming being a “huge” market, while the immersive nature of the technology means it could appeal to retailers, entertainment providers and advertisers keen to offer new customer experiences.
Other potential use cases include teams of designers in the manufacturing and engineering spaces who could benefit from collaborating in 3D, the adult industry, and military planners using the technology for virtual mission walk-throughs. A further area, in which VR is already employed to great effect and which could be expanded into a broader metaverse environment, is learning and development relating to both hard and soft skills.
Solving the human problems
But Fisher is not so sure this approach will be able to solve the social problems thrown up by hybrid and flexible working, which include employees feeling disconnected and disengaged from their colleagues and workplace.
“I don’t think this solves the problem – it just moves it elsewhere,” he says. “It’s an interesting proposal, but it’s at least five years out and employers have bigger problems to tackle with hybrid working right now.”
Jayson Darby, director of science at talent assessment platform provider Thomas International, is also sceptical. “Technology is meant to make our lives easier, so the big challenge for the metaverse is: what problem is it solving?” he says.
While Darby believes that virtual environments enabling people to interact have some potential in helping to solve the “human connectedness” challenge, in reality, implementing the metaverse is likely to go one of two ways.
“The question is, is it a utopian, accessible environment that brings people together and, because it feels and looks real, are there better working relationships and engagement?” he says. “Or is there a danger that it simply replicates the problems we already face today, such as the blunt communications often experienced with email or social media, or presenteeism because people don’t feel they can log off?”
An important consideration in engagement terms, for instance, is the notion of “visual acceptance”, says Darby. “Unless an avatar looks real, it feels like a proxy, which generates all the same problems we have with online communications because it doesn’t feel like you’re talking to a real person,” he explains. “This means your communication is never going to be as good as it is face-to-face, which will be a significant barrier to adoption – apart from maybe among geographically dispersed groups, where video-conferencing isn’t ideal, but meeting physically is impossible.”
Tackling the technical issues
But there are other, more technical, problems too. For example, not only are VR headsets still relatively expensive to buy, particularly for an entire workforce, but they are often not as user-friendly as they might be.
As a result, Duncan Roberts, manager at Cognizant’s Centre for the Future of Work, does not believe the metaverse as a concept is likely to take over the workplace world, at least in the short to medium term – although, given the amount of investment going into it, he does expect it will have a role to play.
But Roberts points out: “The technology has a long way to go before it would be comfortable and useful enough to spend your working day, and possibly your social life, in. Wearing a device on your face or a screen over your eyes can lead to information overload and some people get headaches, nausea and motion sickness if the software isn’t well designed.”
Another important consideration for IT leaders is understanding where it might be possible to obtain a return on investment based on a particular business case, such as skills development or travel reduction, says Roberts.
Ultimately, though, from a financial point of view, ISG’s Fisher believes that “the metaverse is not a priority right now” for most employers, who have their hands full dealing with the nitty-gritty of moving to a hybrid, flexible or even fully remote working model. This means they are not spending significant amounts of time pondering the whys and wherefores of new-fangled tech.
“Because people are changing the way they work, there are technical issues to deal with, such as upgrading systems and changing architectures and support models,” says Fisher. “Companies are also adapting their existing premises to make them into more collaborative spaces, and the third element is adapting HR policies and management styles, so there’s a lot to think about.”
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But Mark Rolston, founder and chief creative officer at product design consultancy argodesign, is convinced that arguments against widespread adoption of the metaverse in a workplace context go deeper than that.
“PixelMax want people to adopt this vision as it enables them to create a single platform they can bring other vendors into,” he says. “It’s not a response to what the technology can or should be, or even what people want to do. I don’t see much passion from consumers in wearing goggles to connect to others.”
Instead, Rolston considers the platform supplier’s ideas positively “dystopian”. He says: “If a small number of corporate entities create a simulated world, they’re the architect, carpenter, landlord and police of that state. They’re God in a situation like that and it’s not acceptable – people aren’t asking for it and they don’t want it. They want to play games and use this kind of technology to repair jet engines at specific moments – but that’s it.”
Rolston also does not believe there is any demand among employees for “going into the computer” in the form of a virtual world.
“When I think of the future, I think of extending those capabilities that, in a sense, give us superpowers by putting the entire world within our reach without requiring us to leave it,” he says. “If you look at what platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have done with technology to date, it’s to allow people to connect with others when they’re not in the room with friends or colleagues, so it’s more of a co-presence and enhancement notion.”
So, rather than immersive virtual worlds, Rolston believes it will be augmented, or mixed, reality experiences based in the real world that will predominate.
“So, if I’m in a room, it would be able to hear and see me using a virtual camera assembled out of many real ones, which meant it could follow my face,” he says. “It would give me permission to enter or exit based on my digital identity and, if I was talking, it could generate transcriptions or hyperlinks to any references I make – this is what the ‘omniverse’ offers the opportunity to do, which means you don’t need 3D virtual spaces.”
What is the metaverse?
US author Neal Stephenson first coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. The protagonist was a hacker who was able to jump between life in a dystopian Los Angeles and a virtual world – the metaverse – peopled by avatars.
Thirty years on and the BBC is now describing it as a virtual world that connects “all sorts of digital environments” that people could move seamlessly between and interact in, covering “practically anything – work, play, concerts, cinema trips – or just hanging out”. But the broadcaster adds: “Because it’s still just an idea, there’s no single agreed definition of what it actually is.”
But someone who is trying to get in early and craft a more solid definition to his own ends is Mark Zuckerberg, who even changed Facebook’s name to Meta last October to signal its intent of becoming a leader in this evolving field.
But he is unlikely to have the market all to himself. Microsoft, for example, recently put an eye-popping $68.7bn on the table for gaming platform Activision Blizzard in a bid to propel itself to the forefront of a market that investment bank Goldman Sachs has valued as an $8tn opportunity. Microsoft also plans to add 3D avatars to Teams to make meetings more immersive as a first foray into the business world.
Elsewhere, sportswear provider Nike has created its own virtual world, called Nikeland, within online gaming platform Roblox, which was valued at an astounding $41bn when it went public last year. UK broadcaster ITV has also invested in agency Metavision, which is helping it to access the space in a bid to ensure its programmes appeal to, and reach, younger audiences.
So, even though the metaverse may not yet actually exist, it would appear to be a highly desirable market of the future, in which the stakes are already high.