How the Metaverse Could Change Your Work
Mark Purdy, HBR 62 Times 42 People

While defying precise definition, the metaverse is generally regarded as a network of 3-D virtual worlds where people can interact, do business, and forge social connections through their virtual “avatars.” Think about it as a virtual reality version of today’s internet.

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While still nascent in many respects, the metaverse has suddenly become big business, with technology titans and gaming giants such as Meta (previously Facebook), Microsoft, Epic Games, Roblox, and others all creating their own virtual worlds or metaverses. 

The metaverse draws on a vast ensemble of different technologies, including virtual reality platforms, gaming, machine learning, blockchain, 3-D graphics, digital currencies, sensors, and (in some cases) VR-enabled headsets.

How do you get to the metaverse?

Many current workplace metaverse solutions require no more than a computer, mouse, and keyboard keys, but for the full 3-D surround experience you usually have to don a VR-enabled headset. 

However, rapid progress is also taking place in computer-generated holography that dispenses with the need for headsets, either by using virtual viewing windows that create holographic displays from computer images, or by deploying specially designed holographic pods to project people and images into actual space at events or meetings). 

How Could Metaverse Change Work?

The metaverse seems set to reshape the world of work in at least four major ways: 

  1. New immersive forms of team collaboration;
  2. The emergence of new digital, AI-enabled colleagues; 
  3. The acceleration of learning and skills acquisition through virtualization and gamified technologies; and
  4. The eventual rise of a metaverse economy with completely new enterprises and work roles.

Like Being There: Teamwork and Collaboration in the Metaverse

The metaverse promises to bring new levels of social connection, mobility, and collaboration to a world of virtual work. NextMeet, based in India, is an avatar-based immersive reality platform focused on interactive working, collaboration, and learning solutions. Its mission is to remove the isolation and workforce disconnectedness that can result from remote and hybrid work. 

With NextMeet’s immersive platform, employee digital avatars can pop in and out of virtual offices and meeting rooms in real-time, walk up to a virtual help desk, give a live presentation from the dais, relax with colleagues in a networking lounge, or roam a conference center or exhibition using a customizable avatar.
Other metaverse companies are emphasizing workplace solutions that help counter video meeting fatigue and the social disconnectedness of remote work. PixelMax, a UK-based start-up, helps organizations create immersive workplaces designed to enhance team cohesion, employee wellness, and collaboration. 

Remote work can be stressful and workers experience difficulties in separating home and work life. Virtual workplaces can provide a better demarcation between home and work life, creating the sensation of walking into the workplace each day and then leaving and saying goodbye to colleagues when your work is done. 

New possibilities for office and work environment. The metaverse opens up new possibilities to rethink the office and work environment, introducing elements of adventure, spontaneity, and surprise. 

A virtual office doesn’t have to be a drab, uniform corporate environment downtown: why not a beach location, an ocean cruise, or even another world? Gather, an international virtual reality platform allows employees and organizations to “build their own office.” 

Introducing Your Digital Colleague

Our work colleagues in the metaverse will not be limited to the avatars of our real-world colleagues. Increasingly, we will be joined by an array of digital colleagues; highly realistic, AI-powered, human-like bots. These AI agents will act as advisors and assistants, doing much of the heavy lifting of work in the metaverse and, in theory, freeing up human workers for more productive, value-added tasks.

Recent years have seen tremendous progress in conversational AI systems — algorithms that can understand text and voice conversations and converse in natural language. Such algorithms are now morphing into digital humans that can sense and interpret context, show emotions, make human-like gestures, and make decisions. 

Emotions are the next frontier in the metaverse. SoulMachines, a New-Zealand-based technology start-up, is bringing together advances in AI (such as machine learning and computer vision) and in autonomous animation (such as expression rendering, gaze direction, and real-time gesturing) to create lifelike, emotionally-responsive digital humans. 

Its digital humans are taking on roles as diverse as skincare consultants, a covid health adviser, real-estate agents, and educational coaches for college applicants.

Digital human technology opens up a vast realm of possibilities for workers and organizations. Digital humans are highly scalable — they don’t take coffee breaks and can be deployed in multiple locations at once. They can be deployed to more repetitive, dull, or dangerous work in the metaverse. 

But digital humans will also bring risks, such as increased automation and displacement of human work for lower-skilled workers who generally have fewer opportunities to move to alternative roles, or possible erosion of cultural and behavioral norms if humans become more disinhibited in their interactions with digital humans, behavior that could then carry over to their real-world interactions. 

Faster Learning in the Metaverse

The metaverse could revolutionize training and skills development, drastically compressing the time needed to develop and acquire new skills.
AI-enabled digital coaches could be on-hand to assist in employee training and with career advice. In the metaverse, every object — a training manual, machine, or product, for example — could be made to be interactive, providing 3-D displays and step-by-step “how to” guides. 

Virtual reality role-play exercises and simulations will become common, enabling worker avatars to learn in highly realistic, “game play” scenarios, such as “the high-pressure sales presentation,” “the difficult client,” or “a challenging employee conversation.”

With deep roots in online gaming, the metaverse can also start to tap the potential of gamified learning technologies for easier and faster skills acquisition. The game becomes the learning activity. 

Virtual-world learning can also make use of virtual agents, AI-powered bots that can assist learners when they get stuck, provide nudges, and set scaled challenges. 

New Roles in the Metaverse Economy

The internet didn’t just bring new ways of working: it brought a whole new digital economy — new enterprises, new jobs, and new roles. So too will the metaverse, as the immersive 3-D economy gathers momentum over the decade ahead.

IMVU, an avatar-based social network with more than 7 million users per month, has thousands of creators who make and sell their own virtual products for the metaverse — designer outfits, furniture, make-up, music, stickers, pets generating around $7 million per month in revenues. 

Alongside the creators are the “meshers,” developers who design the basic 3-D templates that others can customize and tailor as virtual products. A successful mesh can be replicated and sold thousands of times, earning significant income for its developer. 

Looking further ahead, just as we talk about digital-native companies today, we are likely to see the emergence of metaverse-native enterprises, companies entirely conceived and developed within the virtual, 3-D world. And along with that will likely bring a vast swathe of new roles that we can only imagine today.

Challenges and Imperatives

Despite its vast future promise, the metaverse is still in its infancy in many respects. 

Significant obstacles could stymie its future progress: the computing infrastructure and power requirements for a full-fledged working metaverse are formidable, and today’s metaverse consists of different virtual worlds that are not unified in the way the original internet was. 

The metaverse also brings a thicket of regulatory and HR compliance issues, for example around potential risks of addiction, or unacceptable behaviors such as bullying or harassment in the virtual world, of which there has been some concern of late. 

While still in its early stages, the emergent metaverse provides an opportunity for enterprises to reset the balance in hybrid and remote work, to recapture the spontaneity, interactivity, and fun of team-based working and learning while maintaining the flexibility, productivity, and convenience of working from home. 

But three things are clear. 

  1. First, speed of adoption will be important. With most of the technology and infrastructure already in place, large enterprises will need to act fast to keep up with metaverse technologies and virtual services, or risk being outflanked in the market for talent by more nimble competitors. 

  2. Second, the metaverse will only be successful if it is deployed as a tool for employee engagement and experiences, not for supervision and control. 

  3. And, third, metaverse-based work must match the virtual experiences that workers, particularly younger workers, have come to expect of the technology in their consumer and gaming lives.

Guided by these principles, business leaders can start to imagine and create their own workplaces of the future.

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