This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: Welcome to your office in the metaverse

Lynn Wu
The concept of a metaverse is really about extending our physical world into virtual reality world in a 3D format.

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So basically, we don’t have the typical physical boundaries that we have today, like country boundaries, like a road. In a virtual world the people can just interact with each other as they do like in a social media platform today, except you’re not you, you’re an avatar or a hologram of yourself. I think you can think of metaverse as kind of a flip of Zoom. On Zoom you are seeing a person’s real face, but you can’t move around, right? So on a metaverse it’s almost a flip. So you can move around using a VR or AR headset but you are not you, you are an avatar. You gain something by interacting in the 3D world, but you also lose some reality in a sense. You don’t see you as yourself as much as you do on Zoom.

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Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to Working It, with me, Isabel Berwick. Today we’re talking about the metaverse and how it’ll change the way we work.

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But what exactly is the metaverse? It seems to be the question on everyone’s lips at the moment. The dictionary definition has it as a virtual reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users. Well, it sounds like the stuff of science fiction when you put it like that but in recent months it’s become a really hot topic, and it’s been billed as the future of work. It’s shrouded in mystery, but the way I think about it is to think about gaming. You know, you or your children may have been in a gaming universe on many occasions. And if you think about that and interacting with others in that universe, whether it’s Fortnite or Call of Duty or one of those games, the metaverse at work is a less violent iteration of that, or at least I hope so. And in a world where we’ve all recently adjusted to remote working, can we now imagine virtual avatars attending our weekly team meetings instead of our physical selves? And what does it mean for our relationships with colleagues? There are loads of questions, not least, what are the actual benefits of adopting the metaverse at work? Well, that voice you just heard was Professor Lynn Wu from the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s an expert in new technology in the workplace. So I started off by asking her how big of an impact is the metaverse having or how much of an impact will it have in perhaps five years on our workplaces? And most important of all, has she had to go there herself?

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Lynn Wu
So I tried the Facebook tools and what you can do is you wear this headset and it’s pretty big and clunky and then you, you put it on, other team members also put it on and you enter this virtual reality workroom and you can see these individuals, right? You can see their movements and it’s just that you see them as avatars. In the Facebook one what was pretty cool is that you can actually physically bring your keyboard or laptop into the VR world. So I have seen some demos in this. For example, you know, if there’s an emergency malfunctioning of an equipment at work, instead of going there, the onsite workers can just show you the equipment virtually and show you what was going on. You wear this headset, glasses that you can directly interact to a person and show her exactly how you can fix that equipment in a virtual 3D world. And you can actually put in the era of the virtual I this a lever you to pull and that person can see that lever in that 3D world. So that’s really cool, interesting and that’s very useful. What I’m seeing is that I don’t think we can think of AR/VR replacing face-to-face communication. I don’t think it’s gonna fully replace it or even come close to it. So I think when we think of AR/VR or metaverse is think of additional communication tool, just like email. We have used chat or Zoom as just additional tool in our repertoire to communicate. But as of today, you know, I only use the headset for about half an hour before I got a little dizzy. I probably can’t, you know, use it in the long run. So as technology has improved, maybe we can extend it. But I don’t think that’s something that’s fully gonna replace face-to-face communication.

Isabel Berwick
I still can’t quite imagine packing my VR headset into my office backpack, but thinking of the metaverse as an additional communication tool, as Lynn says, is a useful way to frame it. And to discuss more about the metaverse is my FT colleague, San Francisco-based tech correspondent Dave Lee. Welcome, Dave.

Dave Lee
Hello.

Isabel Berwick
So to kick off, which of these big tech companies are really investing in creating metaverses for us? Which are the tech companies that are furthest advanced with this?

Dave Lee
You know, it will come as no surprise, it’s kind of the usual suspects here. One of the most prominent is Facebook. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg famously now changed the name of Facebook to Meta last year to highlight his focus on the metaverse. They have a product called Horizon Worlds, which is, it’s kind of billed as this place to have fun in, to work in, to meet in the metaverse. They’ve been advertising it quite heavily here. It’s something that you access using their Oculus VR headset, which, you know, is a technology that’s really come on leaps and bounds since they first started releasing the headset several years ago. It’s much lighter, much more user-friendly and much cheaper as well. And then you also have Microsoft. They have a metaverse product. They’ve called that Mesh. This is a bit less kind of fun and friendly as Facebook’s, I guess you could say. It’s under their Teams brand, which is their workplace software that hundreds of millions of people use every day. They have this concept that they’re working on called Holoportation. It’s kind of, imagine you were recorded in 3D in one remote location and then you were broadcast in another remote location in your 3D self and someone could be watching you and interact with you. You know, that’s Microsoft’s vision for what the metaverse could mean for them. And so, yes . . . 

Isabel Berwick
Hang on, hang on, hang on. This is Princess Leia in Star Wars.

Dave Lee
It is exactly Princess Leia in Star Wars. Yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s very much a vision. It’s a quite sort of yeah, Star Wars, Star Trek-ian vision. And in fact, whenever you talk to these engineers and executives working in the metaverse, you’ll hear them say Star Trek and Star Wars quite often.

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Isabel Berwick
I have seen that a few companies have actually been using the metaverse or a version of it, like Accenture. The consultants have been onboarding hundreds of thousands of people in the metaverse. Why would they do that? What would be the benefits of that? I mean, it seems quite impressive. I’ve watched their videos.

Dave Lee
Yes. Now, the question here is, particularly for me as someone reporting on the metaverse, is this whole sector, this whole idea and concept is in the early stage of what we call the hype cycle, right? This idea that here’s something new, we think it’s going to be a huge industry. We think it’s going to revolutionise the worlds of work, play, gaming, whatever. But actually finding genuine, practical uses seems to be following on not quite the same pace right now. Accenture is a very interesting one. They’ve invested heavily in the metaverse, both as a way to run their own company, but also they’re investing in metaverse companies that can help some of the companies they consult with to launch their presence in the metaverse. The key use at the moment in this early stage is definitely with training. You mentioned Accenture’s onboarded around 150,000 new hires, they said, using the metaverse. And by that, what they mean is whereas previously you might have flown all these people to a head office somewhere to have a presentation from the CEO and have them sign all the HR forms and all that kind of stuff, here’s the fire exit, so on. Now, that’s increasingly happening in the metaverse, mostly because the pandemic forced that as a way to bring people into companies. But also you can see the appeal there, right? It’s much cheaper, it’s much quicker, you can do it in a broader way than perhaps you could have done before. So I think that’s where one of the uses of the metaverse is taking hold. And we’re seeing other companies try this as well, companies like BMW, Adidas, Lenovo. Whether it’s onboarding or training, they’re finding that’s a pretty effective way of capturing people’s attention. Whether it’s as good as meeting people in person, I think that’s a big question we’ve yet to answer.

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Isabel Berwick
Yeah, I suppose we don’t know. And as Lynn mentioned, there’s a long way to go before we see the metaverse really adopted by companies on a large scale. And she identified several pitfalls.

Lynn Wu
So the privacy angle is really big, right. So are we recording these meetings and what is the new VR norm at the workplace, right? We have set a work norm in the workplace that are in person but what does it mean in a VR virtual world, right? What are some things that’s allowed, what’s not allowed? So all of these new HR rules, practices, all had to be reinvented to accommodate this metaverse world. And it’s not just about communication norms, so entire workplace has to change. You may need new hiring practices, new HR rules, new cultural work norms, etc. These kinds of headsets are pretty expensive, right? And you’re creating potentially even greater digital divide among those who have and those who have not. And what about people with disabilities, right? What are we gonna do about that, right? Some might be helpful, some might not. So all these things are, I think, are fundamentally going to change the nature of work. Just like email didn’t just produce more memos. We write lots of email now. A lot of work has been done on email. There’s norms on how to write email, the norms about how to Slack, how to message people. If metaverse is going to become a part of the work repertoire we have to develop new ways to help us to use this tool to improve ourselves. And of course there’ll be problems in being introduced, but hopefully we can think of ways to address them as it goes.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah, we’ve run a feature which is really interesting actually about if the metaverse is sort of above national boundaries, what employment rights are valid there, you know, is it possible for employers to exploit people working in the metaverse? And I hadn’t really thought of that, but it’s a really pertinent angle.

Lynn Wu
Or, taxation, right? Where do you want to tax, how are you going to tax people? But again they’re still super early in that stage. Right now, the technology is out there, you know. Even the glasses for augmented reality, it can be clunky, can be hard to see. We are pretty, I would say at least five, 10 years away from reaching technology capability to have that as a, you know, viable thing.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah, I think I’d like to wait until my avatar’s got a bottom half because I saw that there’s only top halves floating around in the meta, metaverse.

Lynn Wu
That’s so weird, right. Only half of you are there.

Isabel Berwick
So maybe that’s it. We’re halfway there.

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Isabel Berwick
There’s definitely a lot to be thought about before this kind of VR and AR is really adopted into the workplace. What do you think are the downsides, Dave?

Dave Lee
I think we’re still figuring out the downsides really, in the same way that when we entered the internet as a society, it took us a long time to really work out what was bad about the internet, particularly in the world of work. With the metaverse we’re already seeing in cases such as on Facebook’s Horizon World, of harassment already having a presence on that platform. The question of how close someone can get to you in the metaverse, how they can interact for you, what they can say. We don’t have any norms that in the real world have built up over as long as humans have been around. I think also what is worth considering is, harassment online is something we’ve had to come to terms with. If the metaverse is going to be a much more immersive and realistic place to exist in, then it stands to reason that abuse and harassment and just general uncomfortable behaviour, whether it’s from colleagues or whoever, it’s going to feel much more intrusive as a result. And so I think, you know, the downsides there are certainly in terms of how we feel. And there’s also, there’s lots of questions about what kind of employment law exists in the metaverse, who is deciding what’s okay and what’s not. Is that up to Microsoft or is that up to governments, etc? I mean, there’s a lot of unanswered questions. But of course, you know, that could be said for any new technology platform that’s emerged over the last few decades. But yeah, certainly things to think about there.

Isabel Berwick
Have you been in the metaverse yourself, Dave?

Dave Lee
I have been in the metaverse in several different guises and I very much prefer not being in it at this stage. (Laughter)

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Isabel Berwick
So one of the things that intrigues me is this. You know, there’s a lot of talk about the gamification of work. And it seems to me that with the metaverse being very rooted in gaming, it would be possible to be spending all your working day in the metaverse and then perhaps gaming in the evening too. Or might gaming profoundly change the way we work? Might we be working in a much more sort of incentivised way because gaming will leach into every area of work in the metaverse?

Dave Lee
Yes, absolutely. The idea of gamifying jobs that are tedious is something we’ve had for quite some time. And famously, Amazon, you could say, gamify their workplace in the sense that they add all these targets and there’s charts that go up and down that workers can see. Now, you know, one debate there, of course, is that if that idea, that concept of adding these game-like incentives to the workplace more broadly, you know, that would change the nature of work. It might make people work harder, yes. But you know, one person’s gamification is another person’s monitoring. And I think making work a game is as much about logging progress as it is incentivising people. I think the metaverse definitely has the capability and potential to be the most heavily monitored workplace environment we’ve ever known. And many people in the pandemic will be more than familiar with the pressure of wiggling the mouse every so often to make sure your indicator of how online you are changes on Slack or on Microsoft Teams. When we move to the metaverse that’s in overdrive, that could potentially be something that we’re all, you know, almost kind of you could be suffocated by the idea that you’re being watched so heavily in your work. And so, yes, gamification, if you’re running a company, you might think, fantastic, we can provide these incentives. We can treat work like a game. We can get more out of employees. If you’re an employee or an organisation that cares about the well-being of employees, you might see that as a far more negative state of play for our working lives.

Isabel Berwick
And just coming back to the kind of the pure working life aspect of it. If we’re having our meetings and meeting our colleagues in the metaverse, will that profoundly change corporate culture? I mean, is it better than Zoom? It’s three-dimensional. I think Mark Zuckerberg’s talked about the presence that one can have on the metaverse as being much more lifelike. Well, what’s your take on it, Dave? Is it a better idea than just endless virtual meetings?

Dave Lee
I think, in certain situations and with a degree of moderation, I think it certainly can be a much more fulfilling way of meeting with colleagues. I mean, look, we are looking down the barrel of a future of, we’re all calling, hybrid work, where someone will be at home, they’ll dial in to a camera in the corner of a conference room. Will they hear their colleagues? Kind of. Will they feel part of the conversation? Probably not. Does the remote worker really feel as close to those colleagues as the ones that are able to be there in the room every day? You know, these technologies have the potential to solve a lot of that and that is a good thing. It could cut down on travel. It could cut down on isolation. It could help companies be more productive as a result. On the other hand, you do have a world at the moment where people are on Zoom all day and they’re coming out of that day absolutely exhausted because the feeling of being on camera, the feeling of looking down the camera, looking at other people on camera, you know, these are all behaviours that we didn’t have as a workforce to this degree until, you know, just a couple of years ago. And so the metaverse could exacerbate all of those feelings, particularly as the technology gets better. And there might be an expectation to, as we were discussing, you know, be a hologram in a room rather than just in your pyjamas, in your own living room at home. There’s degrees of intrusion that this digital world could bring that will make working life potentially more difficult, I think.

Isabel Berwick
That’s quite worrying. But I suppose how far out is this? When am I going to be in a meeting with my Princess Leia-style hologram? (Laughter) Obviously.

Dave Lee
My prediction on this is probably less valuable than Bill Gates’s so I’ll give you his. He was saying within the next two to three years, he thinks we’ll move from 2D camera image grids, i.e. the Zoom call like we all know it today, to a 3D space with digital avatars. So these sort of more basic presence, digital representations of ourselves, holograms, that’s a much taller order. The hardware to create good holograms is extremely expensive. And then also the technology to consume this kind of stuff is also still pretty nascent. Microsoft HoloLens is probably the closest thing we have to a very good technology that puts holograms in front of you in the real world. That’s still very heavy, still very expensive. It’s still not a mainstream product. And of course, if this is going to be part of the future of work, then these things need to be as ubiquitous as a laptop or a television in people’s homes before that really becomes something that we all use as a natural part of our day.

Isabel Berwick
So in short, the metaverse is coming for all of us, but we have got a bit of time to work out how best to work there. Who’s going to be running it? Who’s going to be paying us when we work in the metaverse? All that kind of stuff.

Dave Lee
There is a lot to be ironed out. There’s a lot of time to think about it. And I think previous technologies and innovations that have caught us by surprise have perhaps readied us to be ready to see some of the issues that might arise and perhaps push back on them before they become the norm.

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Isabel Berwick
So I think there’s lots of exciting things about the metaverse and talking to Dave and Lynn has really got me thinking. In the next couple of years I’ll be delighted to attend a meeting in the metaverse. Hybrid meetings are terrible and actually it might not be bad for corporate culture for us to have those kind of meetings because we will be together. It’s better than a Zoom square, I think. But in five to 10 years when the metaverse becomes really sophisticated and perhaps the way we game and the way we conduct our leisure time is all linked in to the metaverse, that’s something else entirely. We might be living part or all of our lives somewhere else in a parallel universe, and that’s got a lot of implications. I guess we don’t have to think about them too much yet, but I’m glad that they’re out there and people are thinking about them. But as a manager, I think your first contact with the metaverse is probably going to be someone trying to give you a headset and invite you round their campfire. So maybe I’ll see you there.

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Isabel Berwick
Well, thanks to Lynn Wu and Dave Lee for this episode. Please do get in touch with us. We want to hear from you. We’re at workingit@ft.com or with me @isabelberwick on Twitter. If you’re enjoying the podcast, we’d really appreciate it if you left us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And if you’re an FT subscriber, please sign up for our new Working It newsletter. It’s got the best of FT reporting on the future of work, plus some exclusive content you won’t get anywhere else. You can sign up at FT.com/newsletters. Working It is produced by Novel for the Financial Times. Thanks to the producers Anna Sinfield and Harry Cook, executive producer Joe Wheeler and brilliant mix from Chris O’Shaughnessy. From the FT we have editorial direction from Renée Kaplan and Manuela Saragosa and production support from Persis Love. Thanks for listening.

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