Do you remember the metaverse?

In the latter half of 2022, the hype surrounding the metaverse had reached an all-time high. Employers and HR professionals were preparing to usher in this digital working world, and had begun to examine what considerations would have to be taken into account when working with an avatar of oneself.

However, as quickly as the metaverse came around, it seems to have faded. Disney and Microsoft are both closing their metaverse departments, and Tinder announced that it was abandoning its plans for virtual world dating.

This may be in part due to the fact that the concept of the metaverse started gaining traction in a time where we had only just emerged from global lockdown. With the pandemic making employers realise that remote working was a necessity, it was no wonder that Meta wanted to capitalize on this realisation by soft launching the metaverse on the back of it. After all, it was teed up to be the next step in the evolution of working from home.

But now, the world has started to fall back into old habits. We are seeing return to office mandates in all corners of the working world, and the hybrid model seems to be the ideal balance for most employers and employees.

This is all without mentioning the fact that AI has seemingly dethroned the metaverse as the latest technological craze, with 93% of employers expecting to use generative AI in the workplace in the next five years.

But why has AI stuck whilst the metaverse has waned?

The most obvious answer is that generative AI is relatively easy to use, and readily accessible for all. Leading voices in AI like ChatGPT have made it so that the creation of original(ish) content is at your fingertips, and it doesn’t cost anything. As long as employers are taking the time to invest in the learning and development of their staff around optimizing the use of generative AI, then they will be able to use it to optimize productivity by having AI absorb the more monotonous, admin-based tasks.

AI continues to make strides in the corporate world – at the end of last year, we were introduced to Harriet, an AI virtual assistant tailored to help HR professionals – but this does not mean that we have seen the end of the metaverse. After all, generative AI has been around for quite some time, and after years of development, has finally gained the capabilities needed for it to be used on such a large scale.

So maybe what we are seeing is not the metaverse fading away, but rather taking an educated step back whilst AI settles cozily into our everyday working lives. At this moment in time, there isn’t a clear need for virtual working worlds, but as we continue to digitalise, we may well see the metaverse come back into fashion in a few years’ time.

Until then, if you would like to discuss the training services we offer around the integration of generative AI into your workplace, please get in touch with us.

Recently, Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg laid off more than 11,000 employees due to a drop in profits, and this saw shares in the company sink by almost 20%. This is all without mentioning the anonymous reviews being left by former Meta employees on Blind – with one of them claiming that “the metaverse will be our slow death”. Suddenly, after months of being told that the metaverse is going to be the next step in the working world, people have begun to question this sentiment.

The metaverse is being marketed as the saving grace of hybrid, remote and global working. A digital space where users can interact with a face-to-face element from the comfort of their homes, allowing for company culture to remain intact, as well as revitalizing the ability to socialise with colleagues. It’s great on paper – but the whole point of the metaverse is its paperless allure.

Which brings me to the question – do we actually need it? Aside from the new wave of HR-related issues that would have to be navigated, seeing the sudden drop in its financial potential has spotlighted the fact that the metaverse may be a solution looking for a problem.

When we look deeper into what it is offering, it is presenting itself as the next step after Zoom and Teams, but is it more of just a sidestep? Video calling allows for face-to-face communication and global communication with ease, and now, after lockdown, most people have been trained and come to terms with the ins and outs of remote work. Introducing the metaverse into the workplace – which does the same thing but sounds cooler – could bring on more confusion than it’s worth. It would require an entire new set of training for colleagues to understand how to use the virtual reality headsets, as well as the purchasing of said equipment.

And while avatars are meant to make interaction in the metaverse more personable, will they be able to capture the non-verbal cues that are just as telling as someone’s verbal communications? Or will it require employees to become fluent in Cybernese, the emerging non-verbal language of the digital world? On Zoom, we can still see facial expressions and, to a degree, examine body language, but would this be the case with an avatar that is mimicking your behavior, or would it require a new set of knowledge entirely?

There is obvious attraction for a digital world – and the strides that could be taken in more hands-on jobs (such as mechanical engineering and biomedicine) could be life-changing for the future. But in terms of office jobs, it may be pulling at the wrong lever. A recent poll that OrgShakers conducted seemingly confirms this, as 50% of respondents did not want to use the metaverse, 22% didn’t know what it was, and no one said they were excited about it.

And with products like Sneek – which allows remote workers to see their fellow colleagues as they work and jump into instant video chats with them – the concerns that hybrid work has brought are already being solved without the need to venture into a digital landscape.

As it stands, the metaverse’s integration into corporate life could go either way – but while up to this point I had been viewing it as a huge step forward in the way we work, I am now beginning to think that we all might be blinded by its hype.

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

The mass adoption of remote and hybrid working has brought with it concerns around a loss of company culture, a lack of social cohesion and struggles with onboarding. What seems to be emerging as the golden solution to these problems is the metaverse – the virtual reality (VR) space which allows users to interact with each other’s avatars in a digitalised office from the comfort of their home.

However, there are still many HR-related concerns surrounding the metaverse, and one such issue is virtual presenteeism.  

The belief that managers and executives will subconsciously favour those they see in the office every day from morning until evening – even if these people are not being productive – is not a new one. And it is rooted in two psychological phenomena; the first being the ‘mere-exposure effect’, which states that the more one person is exposed to someone, the more they start to grow an affinity towards them. This is strengthened by the second, the ‘halo effect’, in which if a manager gets along with a colleague and considers them a nice person, they will also assume they are a good worker.

However, even though simply being present has no demonstrable correlation with the quality of an individual’s output and their overall productivity, a survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development found that 83% of people had observed presenteeism in their workplace.

Now, flashforward to the rise of remote working. Suddenly no one is in an office, and no one is in the eyeline of management without inviting them to a specific video call. By being forced inside, employers could only judge the productivity of their staff based on what they were outputting each day, and this helped significantly reduce the presenteeism ideology.

Until the metaverse comes along.

There is no set science on how much interaction employees can and should be having with the metaverse. As it stands, the most likely approach to it will be a new hybrid model – working partly inside the digital space as an avatar and working from home outside of it in the ‘real world’. But this presents an interesting issue – will presenteeism return in the form of a virtual, avatar-based counterpart?

Naturally, there are going to be some hesitations surrounding the metaverse. A study commissioned by ExpressVPN found that employees reported feeling higher levels of anxiety, suspicion, and confusion about the new digital space. This hesitancy stems from a variety of factors, and one of the most popular is the increased opportunity for surveillance, which in turn can lead to employees feeling like there is a lack of trust being placed in them. This is coupled with general health concerns, as using VR too much can lead to increased anxiety, depression and ‘brain drain’.

So, it would not be a leap to assume that some will be reluctant to interact with the metaverse daily, and yet will this mean that those who opt to use the metaverse less will be at risk of losing out on promotional opportunities? The space allows for the recreation of the office setting in a virtual world, so those logged into it can once again be seen and interact with their superiors on a more regular basis, which may see a return to the pre-pandemic ways of presenteeism.

And with a global study by Cienna finding 40% of businesses thinking they will move to more immersive and VR-based environments in the next two years, identifying this rise of digital proximity bias now can allow employers to start working with their HR teams to figure out how to approach this problem at its root.

That’s where we can help. The metaverse is quickly gaining popularity in the working world and is making its way towards ‘new normal’ status. If you would like guidance on how to start preparing and navigating this digital world, you can contact us here.

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

Hybrid and remote working have become a post-pandemic norm, and have paved the way for an entirely new working environment – the metaverse. This is a virtual reality environment where employees can meet and interact from anywhere around the world through avatars – digital versions of themselves – which they have designed.

The concept of the metaverse has started to gain significant traction, with a poll conducted by HR Magazine finding that over a third of respondents thought the technology was suitable for business, and that they were excited about using it. Many companies have even started rushing to buy virtual ‘offices’ in prime locations in these simulated universes.

On the one hand, the introduction of a digital working world can offer those working remotely the ability to interact with their colleagues more authentically. However, the rise of the metaverse also brings with it the question of how to approach it from a HR perspective.

How do you monitor diversity and inclusion when people can choose what they want to look like?

The process of designing one’s avatar is important for the metaverse to work. Having face-to-face interaction is what makes this technological development so attractive to organizations, but this will require a different set of people policies to those we currently have in the real world.

For example, when someone is creating their avatar, they will probably want it to look like them – but it will likely be an ‘enhanced’ version of themselves. After all, this is an opportunity to make yourself look the way you have always wanted! This is known as the ‘Proteus effect’ with employees adjusting their height, age, wardrobe, etc. to fit their desired self-image.

However, this risks creating an expectation that avatars should be physically ‘perfect’ which, in turn, could undermine the self-esteem and mental wellbeing of some individuals.

And while altering your avatar to have features which are manifestly different to your own might be considered harmful (or even offensive), organizations will need to decide whether there certain circumstances where significantly changing your avatar’s appearance might be acceptable. For example, if a wheelchair user were allowed to create an avatar which does not use one, would this create a workplace culture where people can be recognised for their ability to do their job rather their physical differences – or one where physical conformity is a requirement for an individual to feel that they belong? These are difficult ethical choices.

How do you design people strategies for people that are no longer physical?

Creating policies surrounding the creation of avatars is one thing, but the way employees behave towards each other in the metaverse workplace in another.

‘Trolling’ is a common internet phenomenon in which people will bully and harass others online through harmful comments. In the context of the workplace, if a colleague is offensive to you online it would probably be considered equally as severe if they were offensive to you in person. Most organizations already have procedures in place to deal with this type of verbal harassment – digital or otherwise.

But what about ‘physical’ harassment in the metaverse?

There have already been issues of avatars being assaulted by virtual colleagues, which begs the question whether this would (or should) be dealt with by employers in the same way they would respond to a similar assault in the real world. If I virtually strike your avatar, is that as bad as actually striking you?

So, the full implications of working in the metaverse are yet to be determined, but it is already clear that the HR strategies and policies we will require for this virtual workplace to be safe and inclusive for every employee will require careful consideration.

And although this may be a vision of the future, organizations should be starting to think about it in the present.

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

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