Introduction

Will the metaverse radically transform working life, or just exacerbate the challenges posed to employers by hybrid and remote working?

In the short time since Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Meta, announced the company’s “vision of the metaverse as the successor to the mobile internet”[1], much has been said about how the metaverse will impact the working world and some commentators see it as having potential for transformational change. However, with the technology currently in its infancy (Zuckerberg himself has estimated that it will take 5-10 years before the metaverse becomes mainstream), it is difficult to predict in what exact shape or form employers will engage with the metaverse, and therefore what challenges and opportunities will present themselves to those who embrace it.

Despite the present lack of clear form, there are still some interesting questions that can be explored at this stage, as well as practical steps employers can take to ensure that when the time does come, they are equipped to embrace the metaverse in a way that suits the needs of their business, creating benefits and not headaches.

This article explores: (i) what the metaverse is; (ii) the challenges it will bring; (iii) the opportunities it will afford organisations in terms of workplace evolution; and (iv) what employers can do now to get ahead of the curve.

What is the metaverse?

Simply put, the metaverse is a 3D iteration of the internet. It is an online virtual world existing in parallel to the physical world, where users will be able to perform activities or share experiences that might otherwise be done in real life and/or through a computer or smartphone. Possible activities include socialising with friends, shopping in digital marketplaces for real-world and virtual products, playing games, or going to work and meeting colleagues in virtual office spaces[2].

The metaverse is accessed through programmes loaded in Virtual Reality (“VR”) headsets which allow users to see, hear and interact in their virtual environment. Individuals are identified and represented by a 3D avatar, an animated version of themselves which is fully customisable in appearance; users can choose for their avatars to resemble their physical appearance closely, or look completely different. Haptic technology (technology that can simulate the experience of touch by applying forces, vibrations or motions to the wearer) embedded in wearable items such as gloves or bodysuits will provide sensory experiences, allowing users to move, touch and feel in the metaverse, bringing a further sense or reality that isn’t available over 2D interfaces.

Metaverse or Virtual Reality?

Whilst the term ‘metaverse’ is often conflated with Virtual Reality, these aren’t necessarily the same thing. Whilst VR technology is used to access the metaverse, the concept of the metaverse is an open world in which participants are free to roam and contribute to the virtual environment. VR however can be used to portray a closed off, purpose-built, functional space which is only accessible to specific users, e.g. employees of a company in an office space.

The extent to which virtual office spaces will be connected to and accessible in the wider metaverse remains to be seen, and it is not yet clear whether employers will utilise VR technology to create closed-off space separate to the metaverse. Although the distinction between VR and the metaverse is potentially a significant one, for the purposes of this article we have not necessarily distinguished between working in the metaverse and working in a closed-off VR office, as we consider that the associated opportunities and challenges will to a large extent be very similar.

The metaverse and proliferation of VR technology will clearly have significant implications in the post-pandemic working world. Organisations will be able to reduce their physical footprint and shift to virtual workspaces. In theory this will provide greater opportunities to engage with a diverse remote workforce who, whilst working from home and potentially from different countries, can work in the metaverse as if they are present in the same office. At a time where the narrative around office-based and remote working is polarised between a push for employees to return to the office on a more permanent basis and a shift towards a more fully remote “work from anywhere” operation, could working from the metaverse bridge the gap?

Below we examine what could be the largest opportunity that the metaverse will provide employers, which is the ability to facilitate fully remote working whilst providing for an increased level of human interaction and collaboration, something which the existing video-conference technology available to employers does not fully achieve.

Bridging the gap between remote work and human interaction

In a recent interview with TIME Magazine, Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, declared “I think that the office as we know it, is over. It’s kind of like an anachronistic form. It’s from a pre-digital age”[3]. Undoubtedly there has been, and will continue to be, a shift towards hybrid and fully remote working, particularly in industries which lend themselves more easily to these working models. Oft-cited benefits to an all-remote or majority-remote workforce include reduced office-space costs, the ability to hire global talent, and an arguable increase in workers’ work-life balance and productivity[4].

Naturally accompanying the rise in remote working has been a rise in the “work from anywhere” concept, with employers offering their employees the ability to work from other countries for extend periods each year[5]. This has shifted from being a necessity for employees stranded abroad due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, to a sought after ‘perk’ that many employers are starting to consider as a talent-retention tool.

Despite the perceived benefits of remote working, as outlined above, there are a number of widely perceived disadvantages. These include reduced communication and collaboration between colleagues, a decrease in socialisation with knock-on detrimental effects on employees’ mental health, and a decline in corporate culture, with suggestions that hybrid / remote working reduces employee loyalty and increases their propensity to switch jobs.

In offering a more immersive and tangible alternative to working and interacting over email and Zoom, where employees will be able to able to simultaneously work from anywhere in the physical world whilst working from the same digital workplace as their colleagues, the metaverse appears well poised to offer a solution to some the barriers to greater proliferation of remote working.

This of course will be role- and industry-specific: as far as we are aware you cannot manufacture a physical product in a virtual factory or transport real-world goods in a virtual cargo ship. However, for industries where remote working and global mobility is viable and increasingly linked to talent retention, the metaverse could be a helpful tool for employers.

Other benefits

In addition to the ‘big picture’ transformational benefits that the metaverse may yield on the working world, other potential benefits could include:

Harassment in the metaverse – the worst of both worlds?

Despite the prospective benefits, the metaverse will undoubtedly pose challenges to employers. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be harassment. Harassment, particularly sexual harassment, has long been a feature of the workplace and perpetrators of harassment have adapted their behaviours to suit the remote workplace[6]. The metaverse looks set to only increase this problem[7]; initial reports from journalists and users who have accessed the metaverse have reported numerous incidents of sexual harassment, in the form of both lewd comments and non-consensual, unsolicited physical contact with avatars[8].

It is a commonly held view that “anonymity online often facilitates and encourages abusive behaviours”[9] due to a combination of factors such as the increased likelihood that an anonymous perpetrator will not be caught compared to a known individual, and because of the disinhibiting effect of online environments. Therefore, whilst employees won’t necessarily be anonymous in a metaverse workspace, the semi-anonymity granted by an avatar operating as a ‘virtual buffer’ between the individual and their actions may only amplify the online disinhibition effect. This may lead to a greater incidence of workplace harassment in the metaverse than in a physical office space, or over a video conferencing tool where individuals are more directly accountable for their actions.

Employers will have to grapple with how to effectively regulate the behaviour of their employees in a metaverse environment, which arguably combines those aspects of both the physical and the online world which facilitate harassment the most, namely proximity to other individuals as in the physical world, and the (semi) anonymity and disinhibition of the online world.

Other challenges that employers are likely to face from the metaverse include:

What about the law itself?

The metaverse will not only bring about change from an HR and employee-relations perspective; the law will also need to catch-up. In the current absence of widespread adoption and concrete use cases, it is perhaps difficult to predict at this stage how legislatures will tackle the relevant employment and labour law implications of the move into the metaverse.

The below are just some of the areas which may be examined and some of the questions that may be asked:

  • Discrimination: how will current diversity laws and equality legislation stand up to a virtual environment in which an individuals’ 3D avatar may have certain protected characteristics which the individual doesn’t possess in the physical world?
  • Jurisdictional issues: with the possibility for employees located around the world to simultaneously inhabit the same virtual workplace, it remains to be seen how jurisdictional issues such as applicable law, will be resolved. What would happen, for example, if an employee located in France physically harasses an employee based in Spain whilst in the metaverse; under which country’s laws would the matter be dealt with?
  • The right to disconnect: will we see a more widespread implementation of ‘right to disconnect laws’ across Europe and other jurisdictions in response to the increased conflation of individuals’ work and personal lives that the metaverse looks set to cause?
  • Working time: is current working time legislation fit for purpose in a fully virtual environment? For example, what would constitute a rest break, would rest periods need to be spent in the metaverse or fully ‘logged-off’ in the real world?
  • Health & Safety: will health & safety laws need revisiting to reflect that employees will potentially spend more of their working day and then possibly their leisure time engaged with computer screens? Will mental health or the physical consequences of virtual working require new legislation?

What can employers do now to prepare?

It is an open question whether the metaverse will revolutionise the future of work whilst at the same time creating a wave of new challenges that employers will have to handle, or whether the same problems posed by remote and hybrid working will continue to apply.

In our view, problems that will be posed by the metaverse such as: (i) the implementation of effective policies and procedures to combat online (and in-person) harassment; (ii) the protection of confidential information in the remote-working era; and (iii) managing global mobility issues, are all familiar to employers as they were all largely borne out of or exacerbated by the pandemic.

The metaverse will not blindside employers like the pandemic did: there is time to prepare. In order to lay the strongest possible foundation for the transition from a post-pandemic working world to a metaverse workplace, organisations should therefore focus on making sure that their existing policies and practices are in the best possible shape, rather than gaze into the crystal ball for brand new areas of concern. After all, how can a company navigate issues in the metaverse if it cannot overcome them first in the real world?