Inclusive or invasive? | Why the Metaverse could help some workers but hinder others

Why the Metaverse could help some workers but hinder others

Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, recently spoke about its latest project to transform the working world with its virtual reality platform the Metaverse.

Although incredibly ambitious, should the firm truly transform the way hybrid companies communicate, will it be for better or worse?

The answer... both, most likely.

During the Meta Connect 2022 keynote conference last week, CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg unveiled new plans for Meta to bring avatars (digital recreations of employees) to video chats within the virtual reality ‘Metaverse’.

For anyone unfamiliar, the Metaverse is a collection of digital spaces that, with the aid of virtual reality, allow people to work and socialise from wherever they are in the world. Think of it like a gamified, virtual reality-centric version of Zoom.

The avatars in this world can be heavily customised to recreate a person’s physical appearance, all the way from skin tone and haircut to their clothing choices.

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According to Zuckerberg, allowing these avatars to sit around a virtual meeting table together will bring some important benefits to the workforce. Specifically, it could break down the barriers caused by some employees keeping their cameras off during video calls. Instead, body language, eye contact and facial cues will be accurately recreated by the digital avatars, allowing them greater interaction with colleagues without needing to show their actual self on camera.

“You can still express yourself and react, but you’re not on-camera, so it’s kind of like a better camera-off mode,” Zuckerberg explained.

And while that may seem like a win for all parties, this plan to revolutionise the way hybrid teams work together comes with both advantages and disadvantages for both HR departments and the employees they are looking after.

Before we go on, let’s address the fact that the equipment required to get set up in the Metaverse comes at an eye-watering cost. The prerequisite Meta Quest Pro headset comes in at £1499 at most British retailers. So, given the current economic circumstances, it’s unlikely that many firms will be investing in the Metaverse anytime soon.

However, in the hypothetical world where firms have both the interest AND resources, let’s consider how remote workers might benefit the most from working in the Metaverse.

Could the Metaverse stamp out 'proximity bias'?

Whilst over 44% of professionals see hybrid working as a key benefit of modern working life, one in five are anxious about the prospect of missing out on both learning opportunities, and chances to progress when not in the office, a 2021 report from Momentive found.

One in five respondents said that remote working may well obstruct their ability to learn from their leaders and develop their own skills.

Simultaneously this group perceived that they may miss out on opportunities if they are working remotely in favour of those who are office-based.

Moreover, 25% also admit that they ask the opinion of those they physically work with more than their remote colleagues.

Young workers are most concerned about proximity bias, with one in three 18- to 24-year-olds worried that working remotely will mean they have less of a say at work and miss out on opportunities, compared to just seven per cent of 55- to 64-year-olds.

The research also discovered that the approach employers have taken to addressing employee needs and feedback has varied significantly depending on working structures.
Although 69% of hybrid UK workers say they have been asked for regular feedback during the pandemic, this number drops dramatically to just 41% of non-hybrid workers.

“Employees are more empowered than ever, and companies need to offer what matters to them or risk losing great talent,” noted Zander Lurie, CEO of Momentive, commenting on the research.

This sense of empowerment has also had an effect on ownership and agency; half of employees agree that their employers listen to their feedback more than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Yet there is a concern that, with the world moving towards a post-pandemic way of working, this increased influence could well be curtailed.

One in five UK workers are worried their employer will not take their opinions into consideration when deciding on working policies in 2022, with 12% concerned their employer will require a full return to the office next year.

“Creating a work culture that your employees want to be a part of every day requires listening. Feedback helps business leaders tap into what workers need to be successful,” Lurie concluded.

Too invasive?

Zuckerberg may see the introduction of worker avatars as a positive way to negate the communication barriers caused by staff having their cameras off, but requiring workers to present themselves even in a virtual environment may cause more issues.

Specifically, it could reignite the debate on the monitoring of remote workers. One in five companies has admitted either installing technology to snoop on staff or planning to. The software can log how long workers take to read and reply to messages, check attendance at meetings — or even secretly film them from their screen.

Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, told the publication: “Worker surveillance tech has taken off during this pandemic as more people have been forced to work from home.

“We know many employers are investing in tech to micro-manage workers and automate decisions about who to hire, and who to let go. Staff must be properly consulted on the use of surveillance at work and protected from unfair management by algorithm.

“As we emerge from this crisis, technology must be used to make working lives better — not to rob people of their dignity.”

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