It's hard to browse LinkedIn these days without spotting the word "metaverse" in your feed. It is could be used to describe a future in any sector from ecommerce to enterprise VoIP.
But ask ten people what they think this word means and you'll get ten different answers. Whatever it is, users have spent over $200 million and counting on it. So what’s going on?
Part of the changing job of any HR manager is to keep an eye on the future of work and make sure their company is ready to get there. As we've seen the move to remote work, the companies that aren't moving with the times will lose their best talent to the ones that are.
With that in mind let's establish what the metaverse is, how it might affect HR, and the potential future of work in the metaverse.
What is the metaverse?
"Metaverse" was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. It's set in a virtual-reality version of the internet where pages, files, folders, windows, and screens had been replaced with interconnected 3D environments.
But the modern usage of the term was made popular in tech circles by investor Matthew Ball. He wrote a series of blogs about Epic Games' long-term business strategy, looking at the evolution of their game Fortnite and their Unreal Engine platform.
Unreal started life as a tool to build games but its cutting-edge 3D graphics and VR tooling have made inroads in film and TV, from traditional CGI to The Mandalorian's mixed-reality soundstages.
AR and VR are getting more accessible every year. AI-generated graphics and imagery are getting better every month. And there’s a whole world of web3 evangelists trying to replace the functions of centralized Big Tech platforms with leaderless blockchain protocols.
As these trends collide, we might see a mass of interoperable virtual worlds interacting with the real economy via crypto, and overlapping with the real world in your AR glasses.
In the same way every business wants to take advantage of our current internet - or, “Web 2.0” - it's in their interest to figure out what they'd do with this.
In an interview, Epic's CEO Tim Sweeny said "This metaverse is going to be far more pervasive and powerful than anything else. If one central company gains control of this, they will become more powerful than any government and be a god on Earth."
No wonder, then, that Facebook is staging a mid-life rebrand as "Meta" while its user numbers decline and regulators turn up the heat on its flagship product. Their big-budget keynote video announcing the rebrand was most people's introduction to "the metaverse", but the vision presented was narrow.
While Facebook's Horizon Workrooms and the "infinite office" seek to replace your Zoom meetings with cartoon avatars, the real metaverse - if it is ever real - will be so much more than one company, platform, or experience.
All relevant technologies are just now getting started. Fortnite concerts, NFT-gated Minecraft servers, Roblox game production companies run by children, and "digital land" aren't even the tip of the iceberg. "What is the metaverse?" is a question we'll have to wait for an answer to.
How will the metaverse affect HR?
So how will this affect HR? Do you need to worry about compliance laws in virtual space? Will the next virtual receptionist you hire be an AI-powered 3D avatar, greeting visitors to your digital office?
Probably not. In the near term, "metaverse" technologies will likely just augment the hybrid working models companies are already working towards.
Augmented and virtual reality might allow remote workers to connect in more engaging ways than Zoom - think of meetings held in wild west video game Red Dead Redemption 2 - the real near-term effects for HR will be in onboarding, collaboration, and training.
The future of work in the metaverse
You've already adapted your hiring and onboarding process to screen the best interviewees or hire QA team members remotely.
As VR/AR becomes more accessible to everyday users, we might see another big challenge as companies think of new ways to attract the best candidates.
Deloitte, for example, has a virtual tour of their London office for online hiring and recruitment fairs. The tour can be used in a VR headset or any modern web browser or smartphone.
In this way, AR/VR might slot nicely into an omnichannel strategy as companies try to make these experiences available on all devices.
The idea of running brand ambassador programs into virtual worlds might seem far-fetched, but fashion brands like Boohoo and Simon Miller have been paying to be seen on CGI influencer Lil Miquela for years.
Augmented reality could improve training for hands-on jobs in manufacturing or construction. Trainees could be wearing AR glasses and following the movements of a virtual worker overlaid on whatever they're working on.
Not only is this much more intuitive than reading instructions, it reduces the chance of error as trainees can copy the movement of hands and fingers.
Unlike costly training programs for the likes of forklift drivers, this software could be run countless times at no cost. If the employee was taking on a job they don't do often, they could run the software then and there for a quick refresher.
AR and VR could make life very different for the remote teams of the future. Rather than returning to a virtual office, we could see totally new interpretations of collaborative tools like the virtual whiteboard or UX teams' beloved wall of post-it notes.
Instead of sending each other images back and forth in chat rooms, designers could easily sketch in collaborative notebooks.
Rather than work in the constraint of elaborate mockups, event planning and exhibition teams could build stands and amend on-site graphics in real-time, as naturally as if they were redecorating a room.
Over the past two decades, the whole of our work lives have been moved to a keyboard and mouse. These technologies open up new ways of getting work done together.
However, these virtual tools will still have physical components. For HR teams this will raise questions around the accessibility of those tools. And it could heighten existing DEI tensions around remote work.
That might include questions like whether in-house employees are more visible and likely to be promoted, or how hybrid work requirements affect working mothers vs. the rest of the workforce.
Metaverse technologies will also bring their own suite of issues for HR professionals. Remote work might have abstracted away some forms of workplace harassment, but fielding employees back into a virtual office brings them back in new forms.
How does something as simple as personal space work when managers can walk through employees? If personal space boundaries aren't programmed into the software, they're not going to be followed.
How HR professionals should approach the metaverse
The metaverse might, or might not, change the way people work in all sectors. There are big opportunities for HR professionals to improve the way their company hires, onboards remote talent, and collaborates compared to our current circumstances.
In any case, forward-thinking HR professionals will have a steering role to play as the next generation of remote working technologies and practices come online.
What that looks like remains to be seen, all we can do is keep an eye on the horizon and consider how these new technologies might benefit the people we work with here and now.