You might think the metaverse is the domain of the tech whizzes in your organisation, but HR needs to understand how it will impact the way we work.
Mention the metaverse to a group of people and you’re bound to get mixed responses. The gamers and tech-lovers will likely light up with excitement about the possibilities the metaverse could offer. The other portion will range between feelings of caution or disinterest to absolute fear.
Wherever you sit on that scale, it’s probably not until recently that you considered the metaverse to be something HR needed to be across. It always felt like a far-flung, futuristic world that would only be frequented by a select few people – those who readily dive headfirst into the latest tech advancements.
But then, as HRM reported earlier in the year, Gartner released a report that brought this issue closer to home. It predicted that by 2026 – yes, just three years from now – at least a quarter of the world’s population will spend up to an hour each day in the metaverse to shop, play games, attend events and work. And this is just the emerging stage.
By 2030, Gartner predicts we’ll have reached the ‘mature phase’ where most of the physical world will be mapped and indexed via spatial computing.
“The changes that are coming with the metaverse in the next three to five years are going to blow away everything we’ve known and seen before,” says Duncan Wardle, former Head of Creativity and Innovation at Disney and recent speaker at AHRI’s convention. “Unless we learn to do things differently, we’re gone.”
You only have to look at how we’ve embraced new platforms in recent years to get a sense for what lies ahead, says Wardle.
“We used to go to restaurants, now they come to us. We used to go to supermarkets, now the supermarket comes to us. We used to go to the gym, now Peloton comes to us.”
Just as we’ve quickly acclimatised to a stranger dropping a bag of (almost) hot food at our doorstep, we could soon feel totally comfortable with a digital replication of our workspace in our living room.
Don’t fear the metaverse
If you’re concerned about Gartner’s prediction of a world where almost everything we interact with has a metaverse component, try not to worry. Even though the technology is advancing quickly, a layman’s life becoming totally consumed by the virtual world will be a slow process, says Maia Gould, Strategic Services Lead at the School of Cybernetics, part of the Australian National University.
“The vision of the metaverse as a digital place where you jack in as your avatar and have access to everyone in the world is very far off,” says Gould.
“For example, think about the development of autonomous cars. We have the capability for cars to be largely autonomous now. In some environments, such as mine sites, fully autonomous vehicles are already driving around interacting with human operated vehicles.
“The changes that are coming with the metaverse in the next three to five years are going to blow away everything we’ve known and seen before.” –Duncan Wardle, former Head of Creativity and Innovation, Disney
“That works because it’s a closed system. But if you think about autonomous vehicles out on the road, they’d have to interact with wildlife, poor road infrastructure, the weather and unpredictable people. So even though we have the capabilities, it’s not ready yet. It will be the exact same for the metaverse.”
Before we embrace virtual workplaces, there’s a huge knowledge gap that needs to be addressed. Earlier this year, Gartner found that 35 per cent of people hadn’t even heard of the metaverse before, and 38 per cent had heard the term but didn’t know what it entailed. Only six per cent said they were “very familiar” with the metaverse and could describe it to someone else.
Making the metaverse work
So if interaction with the metaverse is inevitable, what does that look like from a work perspective? Meetings, training and team gatherings will be where companies first step into the metaverse, McQueen predicts.
“The thing that’s likely to make the metaverse go mainstream will be conferences or meetings. It’s more likely to be the latter. From an HR perspective, that’s significant. If you’re developing a team and thinking, ‘What does collaboration look like over the next five to 10 years?’ the metaverse will have to be a part of that discussion.”
And even though you’ll be an avatar, it won’t feel like a passive experience, says McQueen.
“It will be immersive. If people speak to you from a certain part of the room, you’ll hear them from that direction. It will mirror your body language, your vocal inflections and how that all affects your facial expression.
“[People] say that within about four minutes, you forget it’s virtual reality. It feels like you’re together.”
Gould says there are still some teething issues to get through at this stage.
“A colleague said to me, ‘I had a meeting in the metaverse the other day and I couldn’t take away the actions because you can’t write anything down. I didn’t have a pen and paper because everything was done wearing these big goggles.’
“I think the way it’s being used at the moment is slightly gimmicky; it’s almost just a showcase of the technology.”
However, she’s fascinated by the ways this technology will become more advanced, tending to more than just our visual senses.
“I know of an artist who created a virtual underwater world that you could move around in as a diver. You inflate your lungs with air to rise and deflate them to go down. The VR experience included a chest band with sensors, so you moved around with your breathing,” she says.
Risks to keep in mind
It would be remiss of us to write an article about the metaverse without acknowledging the potential risks it could pose for not only employees but the next generation.
“As a parent, what makes me nervous is the idea of my six-year-old son being more interested in the virtual world than the real one,” says McQueen. “The virtual world is hyper-personalised. That’s always going to be more engaging than the real world because the real world isn’t designed to be the way you want it to be.
“You have to work, share, wait and cooperate. And that requires character development. I’m mindful of how this could shape the way young people see themselves as part of society,” he says.
There’s also a risk this could perpetuate existing issues, such as ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ that prevent us from being exposed to views different from our own.
“You can just see how this can start to build on some of those more dangerous and dark tendencies toward tribalism and polarisation. We need to be mindful of that.”
It’s also important we don’t view the metaverse through rose-coloured goggles.
The anonymous nature of avatars is currently causing controversy in terms of the bullying, harassment and, in some instances, virtual assaults that are occurring.
“HR professionals are already systems thinkers because they’re managing people with complex personal and work lives. So they just need to ask, ‘Will this technology make us more productive?” – Maia Gould, Strategic Services Lead at the School of Cybernetics
However, with the right interventions, it can be a driver of empathy, says Gould.
“If you can put someone in an immersive situation, you can evoke empathy for the situation they’re viewing.
“I have a colleague who created a VR exhibition called Postcards from a Disaster. You put on a VR headset and go into a village that has been destroyed by a hurricane and floods. You walk down the street and people talk to you. It’s a full experience and it has been shown to increase empathy.
“If we are working from home a lot more, we need an embodied experience to prompt that empathy.”
Another thing for HR to keep in mind is the ways in which this could cause a further class divide between employees, as a seamless experience of the metaverse requires the funds and equipment to make it work.
“In the pandemic, when we tried to create online experiences for what had previously been amazing in-person concerts and conferences, everyone’s experience was dictated by the hardware, software and internet connectivity they had in their own homes, rather than what the conference organiser could manufacture,” says Gould.
Those things are unlikely to be consistent across all employees when you consider that a 2020 report commissioned by Telstra found that 2.5 million Australians don’t even have access to the internet.
Valuing HR’s voice in tech
Whatever your take on the metaverse is, it’s not to be ignored.
“You want to be ahead of the technology, but it can be incredibly daunting to say, ‘I understand the people side of the business completely. But now you’re telling me I have to learn all of this technology as well,'” says Gould.
“But HR professionals absolutely have to explore the metaverse.”
She cautions against making technology such as the metaverse “the villain”. You just need to be mindful of how you use it.
“If you apply a technology layer over something that’s not quite working, it’s not going to fix anything. It might actually make it worse. So rather than fixating on the technology, we need to go back to the principles of what makes work great.
“In that sense, the technology is almost irrelevant. What you really need to do is make sure you’re asking the right questions.
Select the technology solutions that are going to help you meet your goals.
“HR professionals are already systems thinkers because they’re managing people with complex personal and work lives. So they just need to ask, ‘Will this technology make us more productive? Will it make us happier? And if so, show me the evidence.’
“HR professionals are allowed into this conversation even if they are not tech experts. In fact, we need them in this conversation. We need a diversity of voices in the technology conversation.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the August 2022 edition of HRM Magazine.
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