The pandemic has catalyzed the migration from offline to online which started 10 years ago with the rise of social platforms and the shift to a mobile-first economy. Today, we are on the cusp of the next technology paradigm shift - the metaverse. Dubbed the next version of the Internet, metaverse could potentially weave together physical atoms and digital bits to construct a tactile, sensory-rich experience that creates the feeling of being physically present without being actually on-site. The depth of immersive experiences that it offers allows us to connect and collaborate in whole new ways - between employees, customers, suppliers and stakeholders.
From Facebook to Nike, JP Morgan to Toyota, the business world is obsessed with the metaverse with corporations betting big on the concept of shared worlds powered by virtual products and digital experiences. Still early in its evolution, almost every company has its own vision of a metaverse archetype - which is part of what makes it exciting. Microsoft and Facebook look to layer virtual, immersive worlds onto their existing platforms. Fashion brands like Ugg grapple with what it means to make significant new revenue streams selling virtual clothing on Zepetto. While we'll have to have to wait to see its full potential, all these visions may coexist in the future.
The world is still coming to grips with the reality of the science-fiction "Snow Crash" universe, businesses are already scurrying to define the area, build storefronts in virtual lands, and claiming to be metaverse companies.
Companies are “experimenting in the metaverse” and they “can't afford to wait two years to see what happens”, says Hong Kong-based future of work strategist Diana Wu David. They are experimenting with new ways to market, to train employees via virtual reality and develop whole new business models. Diana Wu David believes that "for some, the metaverse will be a big part of their business. What is certain is that ignoring it is the wrong way to go".
The metaverse promise for work
Consider a physical workplace in which you collaborate with robots, humanoids, and other intelligent devices. Metaverse colleagues will not be confined to the avatars of our real-world counterparts. Instead, they'll be joined by a slew of digital coworkers, including AI-powered, human-like bots.
Gartner expects that by 2026, 25% of people will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, etc. By linking real and digital lives, metaverse can deliver interoperable opportunities in the new world of work establishing a community where we can work, play, transact, and socialise eventually helping organisations achieve better engagement with their employees through augmented workspaces.
Some jobs required weeks of onsite training in the past, but VR and AR have reduced the training time and made it more flexible where and how people can be trained. “VR has proven particularly effective in training specialized skills for the manufacturing and healthcare industries. It has also been used in soft skills training,” adds Diana Wu David.
Remote employees struggled to delineate between their work and personal life, finding it difficult to unplug from the daily grind. This is where virtual workplaces can liberate, argues Soumyasanto Sen, Co-Founder of Metafow and People Conscience. "From the point of view of employee experience, metaverse might serve as a training center, an employee lounge, and a wellness area," Soumya adds.
In addition to the experience, there is an economic incentive structure for engaging in the metaverse, which is one of its key differentiators. Soumya believes the multi-dimensional reward mechanism based on cryptocurrency tokens might boost their earnings.
Will organisations be able to build a compelling virtual work environment in the metaverse to address the current issues faced by organisations in managing the workforce? “It all hinges on the employer’s understanding of and ability to adapt business models to employee preferences, emerging behaviours and expectations, asserts Samir Bedi, EY Asean Workforce Advisory Leader. This requires employers to put humans at the core and deliver people-centric experiences,” according to Samir.
Metaverse and the role of HR
Metaverse can transform the way we do business, with knock-on effects on the way we work – given its ability to transform the way we recruit and train. However, the human aspect - from mental health and workplace safety to altering job descriptions - is sometimes downplayed as an afterthought in tech-driven projects. And hence, HR has a key role to play as a pioneer in using new technologies to strengthen existing projects, argues Diana Wu David.
“The current generation of social media technologies and virtual working have already made employee well-being a key employer concern and the metaverse could exacerbate these existing problems, asserts Samir. “Human resources executives should have a seat at the table for any metaverse initiatives that will change the way people work.” It is imperative that HR leaders prepare for the future workforce and workplaces, new working norms, and changes in employment laws, Samir avers.
The bottlenecks and the way forward
Organisations need to make sure that their technology and innovation leaders are ready to design digital business strategies that leverage the built-in infrastructure and parties of the metaverse. Many business models, infrastructure, technologies, and opportunities will continue beyond metaverse, believes Soumya. Neither everything in the metaverse will be relevant for every business, nor will the metaverse dive into every business case. The web's future state will continue to evolve to support the internet economy, he adds.
Every new technology requires thoughtful regulatory and compliance oversight to mitigate bad behaviours. Metaverse may bring with it legal, privacy, regulation, and compliance challenges. "This is also an opportunity for companies to reaffirm their values, have clear rules around it and proper whistleblowing processes and triggers for escalation to appropriate parties in place," asserts Diana Wu David. Verified credentials are a must to enable the easier identification of the community and the prevention of cyberbullying. "Therefore, data privacy and ownership will be critical in the metaverse,” Soumya concludes.