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The metaverse is coming, but what does this actually mean? Beyond virtual DJ sets and the unavoidable social media presence of Mark Zuckerberg’s avatar, headlines surrounding this corner of our digital future can often feel a little Black Mirror-esque.
The reality is that it will feel like an intangible prospect until we are all further involved in the metaverse and until it stretches beyond the reach of those directly building it. For now, its far-reaching applications remain mostly theoretical, so it’s difficult to envision the metaverse being as fully integrated into our daily lives as it promises to be.
When it comes to the world of work, our offices are becoming increasingly digital. The pandemic accelerated our journey towards a remote world of Zoom and Slack. Media narratives often proclaim that remote working is only going to increase and the metaverse will be the middleman between the workplace and the worker, with our offices living entirely in the cloud. This isn’t necessarily the case.
Hybrid working is now, quite clearly, the new norm — and it makes sense as to why. Beyond the joys of cutting commute times and costs and waving goodbye to the soggy pre-prepared sandwich for lunch, working from home can make us 9% more productive.
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For this reason, workers globally are demanding better hybrid policies from their companies. This does present the question: Are we heading for a working culture that is fully virtual? And is the metaverse the route to this?
The benefits and pitfalls of VR in the workplace
Clips and soundbites from Meta would have us believe that we are hurtling towards an entirely virtual working world, where 1-1s with your manager and quick coffees with colleagues take place in cafés and office spaces resemblant of The Sims, fully immersed through VR headsets.
In suitable instances, this virtual office does have its benefits in improving communication between employees working remotely, providing a space for interaction that is more natural and collaborative than video conferencing platforms and a more concrete community for telecommuters. While perhaps the prospect of a VR office is neither good nor bad, it is also not set in stone.
The VR office is currently being tried and tested as a tool for remote work, and the results are mixed. An experiment at a German university found that, from a full week working entirely in VR, task load increased by 35%, frustration shot up by 42% and anxiety 19%. Therefore, it perhaps is not the most exciting prospect to imagine a world where we are so intensely immersed in the stresses of everyday business.
This being said, the role that technology will eventually play in our day-to-day work depends on how we choose to integrate it. We can, for instance, consider the HR and D&I benefits of incorporating AI and VR into recruitment. VR interview training models could allow candidates to test their interview skills against AI and reduce inherent social biases when interviewing an avatar.
When done correctly, VR in the workplace can save employers time and money, allowing for further investment in salaries, benefits and training, and can also facilitate a more inclusive hiring process. This balance and the integration of these technologies doesn’t necessarily mean that the workplace has to live in the metaverse; businesses can integrate VR into their operations gradually and to an extent that best suits their needs.
Applications of VR in industries and businesses
One only need look to a handful of examples to see how transformative VR is to certain fields. Medicine and healthcare, for instance, have made revolutionary discoveries using VR technology, enhancing surgery procedures and devising customized treatments through VR patient digital twins.
We have also seen the beginnings of a revolution in product development, with developers integrating the benefits of VR into their workflows, with the technology providing samples, tweaks and alternatives to products without the need for expensive and time-consuming physical mockups. This is one example of how integrating VR to a suitable extent can be hugely beneficial — the products delivered are still sold and mocked up physically, but VR can speed up the process and reduce costs along the way.
Additionally, companies that provide almost any form of training can enhance this with VR. This can make the costs of training up to 11 times cheaper and means trainees can retain 70% more information than from traditional classroom learning methods.
This new way of training can benefit a range of workers, from firefighters to retail assistants, making certain jobs and skills more achievable and accessible. In many cases, a blended learning balance between VR and in-person training has proven optimal, not too unlike the benefits of striking a balance between in-person and remote working.
More flexibility, availability
VR innovation is also not a one-size-fits-all solution; platforms allow customers to adapt content and interactivity depending on their requirements. This, in turn, makes training across a variety of fields accessible to many learning styles and needs. By taking advantage of this flexibility, staff can comprehend the inner workings of VR themselves and create opportunities to see how the technology can solve problems unique to their workflow. Despite the skepticism of the ‘virtual office’, this will be crucial for companies in the future, not only for the end consumer but for processes and communication.
Companies need to consider the underlying technologies that will build this metaverse and anticipate the incorporation of these into their business models. Much like when businesses had to adapt to the growth of the internet, they now will need to incorporate a strategy for the metaverse in general.
Shiny new technology and the potential that this holds are both hugely exciting, but businesses will see the most success here when they have a measured and purposeful integration strategy.
Molding old and new working practices
Bringing the metaverse to the world of work will be a challenge and needs to be done in the right way. While the hardware is developing quickly, it is understandable that many of us approach the subject with a degree of apprehension. We will need to find a middle ground to get the most out of the metaverse.
Enhancing technologies can clearly be incredibly useful: they can improve safety in a variety of fields, and make many features of work more accessible and efficient. These technologies will also be implemented increasingly into day-to-day business practices: For example, elevating customer service and sales experiences and processes. Fields such as fitness and medicine will no doubt also see revolutionary changes in the next decade through these technologies, which is something that we should be ready to embrace.
This does not mean, however, that companies should disregard the value of human-to-human interactions. While the metaverse is coming, this does not mean that with it we will see 8-hour work days in VR headsets, nor does it mean that all of our meetings will take place via avatars around virtual roundtables. The future of the workplace should still incorporate immersive technologies in training, entertainment and in research, and we would be foolish not to utilize such technologies to an extent.
The future of work lies in the middle ground here: In a working society that both makes the most of transformative technologies and does not disregard the value of the Zoom call or the in-person catch-up. Much like hybrid working, VR can aid us in the workplace with and without direct metaverse involvement. No one is exactly sure as to what this will look like, but with appropriate parameters and boundaries in place, the future of immersive work is certainly bright (and sometimes dons a VR headset).
Emma Ridderstad is CEO of Warpin.