While some might have you believe that the metaverse is this virtual reality version of the internet where we interact with each other using funky animal avatars, the reality is a bit more sedate. Truth be told, we are already living in the metaverse and have been doing so for quite a while. This is not some crazy alternative world where we are plugged into the Matrix. Instead, it is about delivering a more human environment where people share experiences in the era of remote and hybrid work.
Even Gartner is cautious about the buzz generated by the metaverse, naming it as a noteworthy trend but one that falls outside its typical eight-year timeframe of impactful technologies to watch. That is not stopping a global surge in spending on augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality technologies which many consider the building blocks of the metaverse. Expectations are that the market for these technologies will grow from $28 billion last year to more than $250 billion by 2028.
So, why is this such a promising concept for the future of work?
The answer can be found in how companies have visualized the workplace over the years. The 2D floor plans of the past have given way to 3D views of the office that can be spun around, zoomed in and out and adapted in real-time. But software that has been enabling this enhanced workplace experience has been around for a while.
The difference today is that as organizations increasingly shift to hybrid work, the focus has turned to how they can deliver a shared experience for their employees who are spread across different geographic areas – and no longer limited to just singular office premises. According to McKinsey, ‘workers are hungry for trust, social cohesion, and purpose.’ Furthermore, employees are looking for a combination of physical and digital environments that allow them to achieve a better work-life balance than was possible pre-pandemic.
Pre-Covid, the person who worked from home could have quickly feel disconnected from the rest of the team that was largely based in the office. And if a baby cried or a dog barked in the background while on a call, they could have very well been shunned. This occasional interruption is now more accepted and even an expected ‘flavor of life.’
A Virtual World
These shared experiences extend from the physical workplace environment to the digital environment as well. Software solutions like Microsoft Teams and Zoom are evolving and adapting to this change, so conference calls feel less like a classroom style and more like ones that mimic people sitting next to one another in real life.
With so many employers finding they can maintain productivity while giving people their time back, hybrid work has exploded in popularity and, dare I say it, has now become expected by many coworkers. But with this more occasional attendance at the office comes a lack of familiarity with the workplace. So much so that our coworkers are starting to behave more and more like visitors.
They no longer intuitively walk the halls knowing where the scheduled conference room is or where to find their workspace. Some of the real, near-term value of the metaverse comes from providing those coworkers/visitors with a digital view of the workplace to help guide them to the right rooms or workspaces; giving them a 3D view of their workplace not only familiarizes them, but also makes them more comfortable and more efficient once they arrive onsite.
This gives employees the ability to walk through the virtual office, get a feel for where everything is and show them their desk location within the context of the metaverse. Even in the virtual environment, these remote workers are part of the office, and they then have software that enhances and brings the sought-after engagement and shared experiences among their coworkers.
Most of our clients have already begun leveraging some form of the metaverse to enhance their employees’ experiences by visualizing the workplace in two or three dimensions. As coworkers are coming in more infrequently to the office, this 2D or 3D environment can help them feel less like visitors when they do go in. By using the metaverse to familiarize themselves with the office digitally, employees develop feelings of being there every day.
And while the use of avatars may have been intended to humanize remote work experiences, I expect the corporate environment will shy away from these and instead invest in prioritizing how to best provide a shared experience and building familiarity. If the goal for a company is to create a workplace atmosphere for culture building, ideation, creativity and collaboration, there really isn’t room for distractions like avatars depicting all sorts of strange creatures.
The ‘business’ case for the metaverse will be a human, shared and familiar experience that easily translates to what is happening in the physical office environment. So, when an employee goes into the workplace, they not only recognize coworkers, but can more seamlessly collaborate and be productive – as they have already experienced the environment in 3D. Rather than feeling like a visitor, they can jump right into work, whether it be to solve a business challenge, brainstorm ideas with coworkers or plug into existing teams.
Some of the more technical aspects of operating a building have also already been migrated to the metaverse, including facility maintenance, space management and asset management. A facilities technician can virtually pick up a piece of equipment like a two-ton HVAC chiller, take it apart and identify the problem area they must fix. This view of the metaverse is available today and has been providing real value for some time.
Beyond that, the workplace functions that will bring the most value for organizations when moving them into the metaverse revolve around how best to enable employees and position organizations to achieve objectives. It is very much about building trust, culture building and problem-solving. The more an organization can achieve by enabling that mission to be solved, whether in the metaverse, in person or through a hybrid approach, the more successful it will be.
For corporations and government agencies, this extends to adapting the workplace to enable collaboration, ideation, and culture building. For universities, it is about certification, research and education; and for healthcare, it is about improving patient outcomes and reducing patient costs.
Business adoption of the metaverse faces cultural roadblocks before becoming more mainstream. Decision-makers are asking how to translate the flexibility of hybrid work into the metaverse and ensure employees remain productive when operating in this digital environment.
A big concern is still the lack of trust in employees to get the job done while operating in the metaverse. For us, the emphasis has been on refocusing the workplace around the organization’s mission. It has been a constant theme in what we believe would happen and what we are currently seeing. The metaverse isn’t new, but we’ll see it continue to evolve as a great tool organizations can use to create human, shared experiences within a hybrid workforce.