Facebook’s metaverse, or Meta’s metaverse, isn’t just being touted as a better version of the internet—it’s being hailed as a better version of reality. We will, apparently, “socialize, learn, collaborate, and play” in an interconnected 3D virtual space that Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg describes as an “embodied internet.” This space, Zuckerberg claims, won’t be created by one single company, but rather by a network of creators and developers. First problem: 91 percent of software developers are male. Second problem: You’ve been living in a version of metaverse for years—and, having taken over video games, it’s now coming for the world of work.
Companies big and small have been testing avatar-based platforms for remote and hybrid working since Covid-19 lockdowns began. Using Oculus VR headsets, Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms envisages a near future in which people meet virtually in a soulless, floaty virtual world. Microsoft’s Mesh for Hololens 2 hopes to facilitate similarly corporate mixed reality meetups, and Canadian ecommerce platform Shopify just launched its browser-based game Shopify Party, in which employees appear as their chosen avatars to spice up one-to-ones, icebreakers, standups, and other team events.
Many have already pointed out how boring the Zuckerverse looks. Most of us have already been living in that future, be it through the organized fun of workplace social apps or through video games like Fortnite. And while the video game metaverse offers plenty of room for imagination and connection, the corporate metaverse risks repeating and potentially magnifying the flaws of the real world.
Whether a company adopts certain aspects of the corporate metaverse, or uses it for every aspect of remote work, there’s nothing to stop unconscious biases from seeping in. “It’s easy for companies to just invest in the technology, but businesses need to understand the psychology driving people to use it,” says Roshni Raveendhran, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “Can employees thrive within that sort of universe? What would allow them to thrive?”
Unfettered by the risks of mass metaverse adoption—or, less excitingly, lots of companies using remote collaboration tools—a gaggle of startups are piling in to sell the future. The most well-known virtual workspace tool is Gather.town, which amassed 4 million users in just over a year as the pandemic took hold. Its retro, pixelated design is intentionally basic, while Roblox’s Loom.ai and Teeoh use sophisticated graphics for more realistic virtual worlds. The preeminent simulation platform Second Life was adopted by Cisco and IBM over a decade ago. Despite virtual and augmented reality companies consistently promising the world and failing to deliver, a 2020 report from consultancy PwC predicts that nearly 23.5 million jobs worldwide will use AR and VR by 2030 for tasks such as employee training, meetings, and customer service.
For businesses, the most interesting benefit of avatars, a video game staple pioneered by NASA employees in the 1970s, is the sense of digital proximity, without needing to focus on facial expressions—the cause of the much-maligned Zoom fatigue. And while self-expression is the allure of video game avatars, it’s not yet clear what employees gain from being asked to exist in the corporate metaverse.
Those already there report mixed results. Eileen Quirk Baumann, president of tech marketing firm Uncork-it, a marketing and PR agency, works in a permanent Gather.town office, as well as the bricks-and-mortar space in Blacksburg, Virginia. Her main priority when choosing an avatar is to accurately match what she looks like in real life so an online connection can continue offline. “I enjoy the smooth youthful glow and sparkling eyes of all the avatars. No eyedrops, no makeup—just land and go,” Baumann says. She’s noticed that as colleagues spend more time on the platform, they also spend more time finessing their features to reflect their true selves.
“I sport a man-bun IRL and so does my avatar, albeit his is blue—my hair is actually red,” says Dan Corcoran, managing director of recruitment firm Reedmace Solutions. “Other people pick similar skin tones and facial features, but will have a huge bow in their hair or a bright outfit.” Gee Linford-Grayson, a partnerships manager at Patreon, has been experimenting with virtual worlds platform Virbela. For one event, she matched her IRL neon polo neck to her avatar’s and threw on a cowboy hat to match a colleague’s. “It was a kind of corporate uniform, but a silly one,” she says. “The difficulty with avatars is that the social norms haven’t been set yet, so it’s tricky to navigate.” She predicts that the tension between wanting to be professional and show personality could conjure as many gripes as it does in the real world.
And then there’s the tweaking. “The technology for getting a close fit of how you look isn’t there yet, but in the future I can see people choosing an avatar that’s better looking,” says Linford-Grayson. This could lead to baked-in aesthetic hierarchies, just like in the real world. That already happens in video games. A 2007 study of gamers conducted by researchers at Stanford University found that people assigned “attractive” avatars behaved more dominantly by standing close to other players. These attractive avatars also disclosed more personal details to strangers who had struck up conversation. Such oddities risk the metaverse—and particularly the corporate metaverse—suffering from what researchers call the Proteus effect. If we’re all like Proteus, the Greek god who could change his physical form as he pleased, then hierarchies and manipulation of our avatars could spell chaos.
Our choice of workplace avatars will change our behavior, but also affect how our managers and colleagues perceive us. Anita Williams Woolley, who teaches organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University, believes this is especially pertinent for women. “When people make comments about a woman’s appearance, it leads them to underestimate her ability, her intellect, and to see her as less competent,” she says. Sexist comments didn’t dissipate when more meetings took place virtually—a 2020 survey by employment law firm Slater and Gordon found that 34 percent of British women were asked to wear more makeup or change their hair, while 27 percent were told to “dress more sexy or provocatively.” If the internet has amplified societal flaws, the metaverse risks supercharging them.
As a result, some are choosing non-avatar-based virtual platforms to mitigate the strain of customization and transferral of prejudices. Teamflow, used by podcast app Shuffle and being considered by Reddit, represents users with their photo or a stream of a Zoom call instead. Natascha Morgan, operations manager at HeySummit—which has always been fully remote—picked the platform for its customizable office spaces, which include a space-themed room and a breakout zone plastered with memes. “How you present in our team doesn’t matter much anyway, but Teamflow takes away a lot of the pressure,” she says.
If businesses adopt any of the many virtual workspaces, working out protocol and how they should be doing things is key. And if something isn’t working, companies should be ready to adapt their approach—or drop a platform completely. Doug Safreno, founder of virtual meeting startup Pragli, which he refers to as a “metaverse provider,” wants to ensure his company delivers a fair representation of identity. “It’s incumbent on us to ensure we are champions of inclusiveness, and not further marginalizing certain communities,” he says.
If—and it’s a big if—the workforce heads into some kind of metaverse, Meta-owned or otherwise, then the rules and flaws of these virtual worlds will matter more and more. “At the end of the day, all of us are humans behind these avatars,” says Raveendhran. “We need to be conscious of our biases translating and understand the blows won’t be any lighter, just because it’s in the virtual world.”