What virtual office life could look like

In the context of work, the digital divide is less about access to devices and connectivity and more about skills and mindset. Many seasoned professionals have never learned more than the rudimentary basics of email, web search, and Microsoft Office. Instead, they rely heavily on nearby colleagues or the IT help desk when things go wrong.

In contrast, young people have already shown a competitive advantage in the virtual workplace. They are equipped with a more intuitive understanding of digital technology and the initiative to solve problems through YouTube tutorials, social media and subreddits.

As a generation, they are also bigger gamers. As more and more work is done in virtual reality—and one doesn’t have to share the somewhat eccentric vision of the metaverse Mark Zuckerberg last year to believe it will—be familiar with massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like Fortnite and Robloxnot to mention the ability to manage multiple digital identities will sharpen that edge even more.

Much of the metaverse has yet to be built. VR, of course, has long been used in training for certain physical jobs, from astronauts and pilots to law enforcement, surgery and manufacturing. When it comes to specialized machines or complex sites, the relative safety and cost benefits of training are pretty much clear. But it is in knowledge work, from software engineering to law to design, where the changes will be most drastic.

How virtual workplaces can improve communication

For most people, remote work during the pandemic was characterized by alt-tabbing between communication apps and video conferencing platforms such as Slack, Teams and Miro. And there is certainly still a lot of room for improvement.

Academic studies have shown that collaboration between colleagues suffers when they work remotely. Exchanges via email or Slack are increasingly replacing real-time face-to-face conversations, hampering communication.

Google itself has claimed that casual chats at coffee machines and lunch tables on its campus were responsible for innovations like Street View and Gmail. But with remote work, this kind of chance encounter has all but disappeared.

And of course there are costs associated with remote working, including in terms of individual well-being. Stanford University researchers have found that so-called Zoom fatigue is caused by a combination of intense eye contact, lack of mobility, self-awareness about one’s own video feed, and the cognitive demands of having to provide exaggerated feedback for understanding, agreement, or concern.

Advances in technology enable solutions to these remote working problems. Collaboration software such as Meta’s Horizon Workrooms and Microsoft Mesh, which allow colleagues to meet as avatars in VR or join a real-world meeting as a photorealistic hologram, are already available.

The metaverse 1.0 will undoubtedly see organizations create enduring VR workplace environments, in which employees can interact in real time as embodied avatars. VR versions of office spaces can be designed to encourage casual encounters and gang chats.

For example, imagine moving from one remote meeting to another, requiring you to exit the conference room and cross a bustling virtual atrium. That may sound far-fetched, but keep in mind that Korean PropTech company Zigbang has already opened a 30-story VR office called Metapolis. Employees choose an avatar and navigate through elevators and corridors to their desks. When they meet a colleague’s avatar, their webcam and microphone are activated so they can have a conversation. The webcam and microphone will then automatically turn off if their avatar walks away.

Meanwhile, the ability to use and read body language and actively participate in group discussions by writing Post-it notes or drawing on a virtual whiteboard would make remote meetings in VR more engaging and less sedentary. They require a much more active use of the neck, shoulders, arms and hands than a normal hour on Zoom.

How to work as an avatar

It seems likely that a new set of workplace norms will emerge as the metaverse develops. Team games, including virtual bowling nights and virtual ping-pong tournaments, may supplant Zoom drinks as the standard social event for remote work.

When it comes to hiring, meanwhile, VR can offer clear benefits. “Blind” auditions have been shown to significantly increase the representation of female musicians in symphony orchestras. It follows that interviewing as an avatar can reduce the effect of bias — conscious or unconscious — against people based on their gender, age, or appearance.

Just as custom “skins” (outfits) are a feature of many MMOs, the virtual work world can also demand creativity in virtual fashion and accessories as people try to express their personal brand within the confines of professional dress codes for avatars. Gucci has already sold virtual hats, handbags and sunglasses on the MMO platform Roblox.

Young people have been hit hardest by the disruption that COVID-19 has caused in the labor market. While some struggled to work productively from a shared home or their parents’ home, others were scammed into joining companies that didn’t even exist.

Nevertheless, the pandemic has also provided exciting glimpses of how remote working could evolve. Due to concerns about public health and climate pressures, the latter is here to stay. As it evolves into the metaverse, it will continue to bring capabilities concentrated in younger people to the fore.


Sam Gilbert is a researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge.

This article was republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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