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What does the metaverse mean for the future of work?

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By Mark Mortensen, Associate Professor, INSEAD

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“As with any kind of revolutionary technology, the metaverse should be approached with a healthy amount of caution, but there’s also room for exploration of an entirely new world of work.”

Did you know that George Jetson’s birthday was supposedly last month on July 31, 2022?

In my last newsletter, we explored, “What does the gig economy mean for the future of work?” This week, we’re really taking a step into the future with the metaverse. We may not have flying cars (yet), but the metaverse offers a similar science fiction feel, especially since it’s a term that was first used in Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel, Snow Crash, in 1992.

30 years later, the metaverse is becoming a (virtual) reality. While it was initially used for gaming and social media, we’re seeing it increasingly make its way into the workplace. Sure, we can all hop on a zoom meeting from anywhere in the world, but why stop there? With an increase in remote and hybrid work, employers are searching for new ways to keep employees engaged and innovative and some are betting on the metaverse. The metaverse can be accessed by your phone or computer, but companies are developing more and more ways to interact (hologram technologydesigner smart glasses, and multi-sensory experiences with gloves that simulate touch, devices that release scents, and lickable TV screens that imitate flavors).

According to The Metaverse in 2040, a study by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center in which 624 technology innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists were interviewed, “a notable share of these experts argued that the embrace of extended reality in people’s daily lives by 2040 will be centered around augmented-reality and mixed-reality tools, not in the more-fully-immersive virtual reality worlds many people define today as being ‘the metaverse.’”

So maybe we won’t go full Matrix (even though this film absolutely holds up over 20 years later), but the metaverse is likely going to be a part of the future of work. In Mark Purdy’s Harvard Business Review article, How the Metaverse Could Change Work, he covers what this could look like and highlights PixelMax, a UK-based start-up specializing in immersive virtual workplaces. They provide “bump into” experiences that allow for spontaneous interactions with coworkers, well-being spaces for employees to take breaks in forests or aquariums, delivery features that allow employees to order food or books in the virtual space to be delivered to their physical location, and live status tracking so employees can walk around the virtual office and drop in for a quick chat with a colleague. 

In my studies of hybrid work, we’ve discussed some of the challenges of new forms of work such as effective collaboration, desire for flexibility, and lack of social connection and belonging. Could augmented-reality and mixed-reality tools be the solution? In the digital workplace, we may be joined by digital colleagues. Mark Purdy explores advances in Artificial Intelligence, particularly emotions, as “the next frontier in the metaverse,” and identifies digital humans “taking on roles as diverse as skincare consultants, a covid health adviser, real-estate agents, and educational coaches for college applicants.” It’s true that digital humans are highly scalable and flexible and therefore attractive to companies. They are already being used for training scenarios for medical workers, nurses, and Ford Motor Company technicians. 

…But before we blindly dive headlong into a meta-future, let’s remember that everything comes with a cost. The Pew Research Center study also notes that experts “warned that these new worlds could dramatically magnify every human trait and tendency – both the bad and the good. They especially focused their concerns on the ability of those in control of these systems to redirect, restrain or thwart human agency and stifle people’s ability to self-actualize through exercise of free will, and they worried over the future freedom of humans to expand their native capacities.” There are a wide range of very serious concerns when it comes to this new technology: surveillance, bullying, addiction, discrimination, the spread of misinformation, even sexual violence and exploitation. These sit alongside “relatively minor” concerns like the impact of metaverse interaction on our relationships and individual psychology. We have already found loneliness and other mental health issues are increasing—we need to ask if the metaverse will kick those trends into overdrive.

As with any kind of revolutionary technology, the metaverse should be approached with a healthy amount of caution, but there’s also room for exploration of an entirely new world of work. The workplace has adapted and changed in ways we never could have imagined in just the last three years. So what’s next? I’m still waiting for my jetpack. 

About the Author:Mark Mortensen is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.
Mark Mortensen is co-directing Emerging Leaders in a Digital Age.

Written by: Mark Mortensen

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