It’s the word that to most people sounds intriguing at best – and dystopian at worst. Patents and acquisitions give us glimpses of what it might entail – but what will this mean for the future of work?
Acquisitions. Rebrands. NFTs. Web3.
The metaverse: it’s the word that to most people sounds intriguing at best – and dystopian at worst.
The intense hype surrounding the term, justified or not, has propelled it centre-stage into the public spotlight over the last few months.
So, what is the metaverse? The term was coined in a 1992 sci-fi novel, Snow Crash, where humans use avatars – virtual people – to interact with each other. This futuristic notion of the metaverse is a three-dimensional digital layer – an immersion that adds to our reality. This is achieved through virtual reality and augmented reality, and encompasses games, social media, work, shopping – much of what can currently be done on the web.
The metaverse is seen by many as a natural progression of the internet. In the business world, Web 1.0 was limited to emails and chat. Web 2.0 introduced more advanced video calling with layering. In Web 3.0, or Web3, you might meet your colleagues in a virtual meeting room as an avatar. Some companies already have versions of this, delivered by AI software: Altspace VR, Mozilla Hubs, Horizon, and recently announced Mesh by Microsoft, where avatars in video calls will be a first step to accustom workers to a new digital layer of reality.
A widely adopted decentralised version has yet to reach the market, but big tech companies are already working on securing their market shares of what is likely to be broadly adopted in the next three to five years. The recent acquisitions of companies like Activision Blizzard by Microsoft, and patents such as Meta’s give us further glimpses of what is to come.
Tamás Kádár, CEO of fraud protection platform SEON, points out that centralised versions of the metaverse (tending to be led by the likes of Meta and Microsoft) will spearhead technological advancement in VR technology – but that later decentralised, open-source versions will emerge.
Tushar Agarwal, CEO and co-founder of flexible workspace provider Hubble, says that the decentralised vision of the metaverse will also entail having its own economy, underpinned by blockchain technology. Such a metaverse is unlikely to be controlled by established institutions like central banks or to respect government borders.
What will the metaverse look like?
Tushar Agarwal maintains that the metaverse will become a crucial part of the hybrid workplace mix, and a key piece of the remote working software suite.
Tamás Kádár believes that the metaverse will primarily be used for meetings and conferences. He says: ‘You probably won’t spend eight hours of your workday in the metaverse. But it will be a good tool for meetings around brainstorming, town halls, and events.’
Danny Stefanic, CEO of 3D virtual events platform Mootup, describes what he sees as the sustainable imperative to embrace metaverse conferencing: ‘As the climate agenda continues to push forward, the environmental case for hosting in-person global conferences is getting harder to make. By hosting these events in the metaverse, not only will it reduce carbon emissions, but attendee numbers will likely increase as more people are able to attend.’
This poses the question of whether remote working will become ever more frequent. Stefanic believe that is where we are heading. ‘One of the most common arguments against remote working is the risk that it negatively impacts company culture, but I disagree. Lots of our customers now hold virtual team-building events to help with employee engagement initiatives,’ he says.
‘There’s so much scope to be creative with how you engage with your team virtually too. I’ve held team meetings on a beach, on a rooftop, and even in space! A strong team culture can be formed anywhere – it doesn’t need to be in an office.’
Productivity and engagement
Those who have immersed themselves in VR or classic console games know just how quickly you master new skills – only to execute them on a level that feels subconscious.
Early studies show that AR/VR can increase productivity by as much as 35 percent, especially in physical industries, according to Hubble’s Agarwal. What is particularly interesting is the impact it can have on training, workflows, and employee engagement.
‘Hybrid working has brought about its own challenges when it comes to onboarding new staff but imagine if everyone was given a pair of smart glasses or a VR headset in their welcome pack,’ he says. ‘We could have long-standing employees documenting how they work and providing IRL [in real life] commentary to daily tasks, all captured in AR, which can then be accessed by new employees via a headset.’
Agarwal points to an IBM report , where one manufacturer found that, by using AR instead of traditional documentation, it saw a 90 percent increase in the number of trainees with little or no experience who could perform a complex, 50-step operation correctly the first time around. ‘Why waste time creating document after document of training manuals when, in reality or to the contrary, in augmented reality the most effective and productive way is to show them?’ he concludes.
Mootup’s Danny Stefanic adds that data from PwC supports this. A PwC report on skills training found that staff can learn four times faster in virtual reality sessions than in a classroom, and are 275% more confident to apply the skills learned after training. ‘These are impressive stats we can’t ignore,’ he says. When a team feels engaged and motivated, an increase in productivity will reflect this. In the metaverse, there will be many ways to keep employees engaged and motivated.
SEON’s Tamás Kádár points out that the whole purpose of the metaverse is to complement reality, and that some elements will be better than they are in the real world. Otherwise, he asks, what is the point?
Wellbeing and security risks
When it comes to the metaverse engaging with wellbeing, Agarwal argues that there are two sides to the coin. On one hand, the metaverse could become a great leveller through globalism and anonymity – enabling people from all backgrounds and locations to work with each other. This would create more social mobility than any single government could ever imagine and could be a net positive for mental wellbeing.
On the other hand, you would have increased online time where all the problems in the real world might be amplified.
The biggest question mark over the metaverse for work is around identity. Most employers and employment contracts today require real identities for their workers. Any virtual interactions would require real names.
‘There is potential that as talent gets more fractionalised and decentralised and the concept of full-time employment at one company becomes a relic of the past, companies will have no issues employing anonymous workers, with avatars and pseudonyms, with digital-first work stacks that let us objectively assess performance,’ says Agarwal.
But with new technology and anonymity come security risks.
Kádár says that it’s important for companies to extend their IT security awareness training to VR and AR. New technology equals more surfaces that are vulnerable to phishing and scam attempts, especially when there’s a level of anonymity. He hopes that the companies leading the development of the metaverse will also invest in teaching users how to be safe and avoid scams, especially given that scam attempts will become even more obtrusive with AI.
It is easy to be doubtful about cutting-edge emerging technology. But despite some of the challenges, the metaverse can be a welcome addition to the world of work. Kádár, Stefanic and Agarwal all seem optimistic about the prospect.
‘The workplace will stop being one physical space, and instead become a collection of spaces and places, virtual and physical, where work gets done,’ Agarwal concludes.