In the debate over the future of work, we’ve principally focused on the number of employees who will physically return to an office. Will we return to the pre-pandemic model of near-universal in-person work or embrace the hybrid of working from home and in the office? Or should we take the lead of high-profile companies like Yelp, Twitter and Airbnb, which have fully bought into remote work?
But the fact that employers struggle to land on—or enforce (paywall)—one of these options indicates that the choice isn’t so black and white. Missing from the debate is an alternative made possible by new technologies, offering businesses an exciting way to marry the current environment of remote and in-person workplaces.
For the first time, companies are weighing the possibility of opening office space in the metaverse. Although it’s still in its early stages of adoption for many companies, the metaverse has the potential to meet workers’ greatest demands. According to the results of Randstad’s 2022 Workmonitor research, these demands include flexibility, which includes remote work options.
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, predicts we’re no more than five years away from working in the metaverse. His company has assumed leadership in building a digital future in which everyone lives, interacts and works together in virtual reality (VR). Apple, another leader in this space, prefers augmented reality (AR), in which people stay grounded in the real-world environment but benefit from computer-generated perceptual enhancements (think Pokemon Go). Whichever version you subscribe to, the metaverse is (almost) here and poised to become an $800 billion market by 2024.
At its most basic level, the metaverse is a series of digital interactive worlds that are accessed through VR headsets. Users create avatars through which they move about and physically interact with others. A virtual workplace in the metaverse replicates the experience of being in an office but from the comfort of an employee’s own home. They can even visit clients and colleagues in other states or countries and be immersed in the work unique to that location.
Certain specialized jobs—such as astronauts, pilots, law enforcement, surgeons and manufacturing—have a long history of using VR for training. The next stage will be translating this experience to other types of work.
There’s interest from workers to more fully embrace the metaverse as a permanent part of the workplace. Results of a recent Morning Consult survey found that almost two-thirds of tech workers would be interested in using VR technology for professional development and training, and three in five say they would be somewhat or very comfortable in using digital avatars for virtual meetings.
It couldn’t be timelier that VR technology has advanced to its current capabilities. Although it was a shock when the pandemic forced most office workers to suddenly transition to remote work, over two years later, many have taken a liking to the flexibility to work from anywhere and want remote work to continue post-pandemic. The results of a recent McKinsey survey, for example, show that when offered the opportunity to work flexibly, 87% of workers would take advantage of this opportunity. Randstad’s 2022 Workmonitor report also found it to be a top consideration for American workers, with 83% of respondents reporting flexibility in terms of working hours as important, and almost three-quarters (71%) see flexibility in terms of location as important to them.
The metaverse offers a tool for businesses looking to bring back the face-to-face engagement of in-person work while satisfying a workforce that enjoys the flexibility of remote work. In the virtual office spaces of the metaverse, employees can get the best of both worlds by stepping in and out of home and office with the aid of a VR headset.
Holding meetings that allow for more hands-on collaboration is an obvious entry point, although working in the metaverse also creates opportunities for greater engagement than in the typical remote environment. This can serve as a lifeline for workers who have experienced feelings of isolation due to the loss of community that comes with working in an office. It’s also an innovative solution for workers hired during the pandemic to connect with teammates and supervisors they may not have a chance to meet in the physical world.
There are, of course, challenges to opening a corporate office in the metaverse. The cost of purchasing VR headsets and other related technology can’t be downplayed, nor is it an easy task to get employees used to wearing them. HR divisions may take affront with the privacy and monitoring challenges around tracking workers’ performance and the fact that companies must set rules and governance mechanisms for behavior in the metaverse. Others may fear that turning to this kind of work environment equates to the tragic story of automation taking away the jobs of yesterday—although working in the virtual world still requires the same level of participation as in the physical world, just with different boundaries.
With these potential downsides in mind, it’s imperative that companies consistently gauge employee sentiment and gather feedback as they begin to test what an office in the metaverse would look like. An early study of the impact of working full-time in VR found decreased productivity, increased levels of burnout and negative health outcomes. Experiments at Accenture (paywall), on the other hand, have pinpointed a 30-minute session in the metaverse as ideal. As such, business leaders will need to determine the most effective ways to integrate VR and the metaverse within their existing work models.
Still, the metaverse offers a unique opportunity for companies to meld the experience of working in person while maintaining the flexibility of remote work. Given that the burgeoning platform is already shaping what we think of the future, I believe the adoption of related technologies could be integral to the workplaces of the future—and leaders need to think seriously about what this means for their businesses.