The metaverse: a whole new world of work?

People Management explores whether our experience of the workplace could be enriched by learning and interacting in online virtual environments

Meta press/Horizon workrooms

It’s 9am and you’re logging into work: you put your headset on and appear in the metaverse as an avatar – a virtual representation of yourself. As other avatars appear, filling this digital 3D space, you exchange small talk with the person next to you as you find your space at a virtual desk ready to collaborate with your colleagues from across the globe. While it sounds like science fiction, companies such as Disney, Meta (formerly Facebook) and retailers Nike, Forever 21 and Selfridges have already started exploring the potential of the metaverse for customer experience – and it might not be long before it comes to a workplace near you. 

The metaverse is a “shared virtual world”, explains professor Bob Stone, human factors specialist and director of the University of Birmingham’s Human Interface Technologies team. In workplace terms, it’s a 3D computer-generated version of what firms do on the likes of Zoom and Teams. “It’s a pervasive, simulated world in which people from across all different cultures can get together for work, education, leisure activities and retail,” he says.

Companies could use this technology to collaborate across different branches of an international firm; the travel industry could use it for L&D to simulate on-location experiences; and health and safety training via the metaverse could allow managers to guide staff through critical points and potentially even test employees, says Stone. One example of how it is being used in the workplace is found at Accenture UK, which built a virtual campus called the ‘Nth floor’ where remote teams can learn and work together, irrespective of where they are.

“While nothing can replace the value of a face-to-face meeting, we do see how these workplace experiences can evolve how we meet and work together online,” says Lisa Rose, Accenture’s HR lead in the UK & Ireland. “People tell us they feel more present in a meeting in our virtual office than they do in an [traditional] online event – free from the distraction of an instant message or email that pops up in the inbox.” This year, the company expects to use the metaverse to greet 150,000 new hires on their first day, says Rose, explaining that employees are likely to retain “as much as 33 per cent more information in immersive learning environments than with more passive online training”. 

And the metaverse is not just limited to recruitment, says Hayfa Mohdzaini, senior research adviser at the CIPD. “The metaverse could be useful for activities that are more expensive or dangerous to do in real life – like going out for a team snowboarding trip in summer – or too troublesome to do online in 2D – like tailoring a uniform to fit the new employee,” she says. 

It can also support company health and wellbeing policies too, suggests Nick Diamond, membership director at Business in the Community. “The metaverse could offer a new arena for employees to talk about their wellbeing, such as mental health,” he said. “People crave human interaction, so for some colleagues who are working remotely, the metaverse could be a new step toward offering those connections that the workforce has missed.”

But, for all of the hopes for businesses using the metaverse, Stone cautions against employers rushing to get in on the action. For one, employees may struggle with the technology, which consists of screens, headsets and different interfaces. “If you don’t understand your corporate population but you put a [route to the] metaverse in place and expect everyone to don low-cost virtual reality headsets and come together, that’s a recipe for failure,” he says. “The metaverse is all very well, as is [Meta CEO] Mark Zuckerberg showing his avatar and waxing lyrical about the wonders of the future metaverse… But if companies don’t think about the people who use it and different cultures, I think it’s going to come to a sticky end,” says Stone. And just because the metaverse is in a digital space does not exempt it from the rules and regulations of the real world. There is the risk that staff who feel “emboldened” by appearing in avatar form may behave in ways that are not appropriate for the workplace, warns Barry Ross, director and partner at Crossland Employment Solicitors – a concern that already has precedent in the way people behave on social media. “We presently have a culture where comments of a hateful or discriminatory nature happen on [online] platforms that would not happen in real life,” Ross says, suggesting that it is not a great leap to assume that this could happen within the metaverse unless it is managed.

Employers will also need to think about how to monitor employees in the metaverse to ensure that they take downtime, says Ross, noting that a virtual workplace has just as much potential to see employees burn out. 

But, the move to the metaverse is still in its infancy, meaning it might be too soon to write it off, says Mohdzaini. “Adoption of the metaverse is in the early stage, so I would expect how people use the metaverse and the technologies that support it will evolve.”