The metaverse workplace: an exciting future prospect or just a digital dream?

Our news feeds were frequented in 2022 by self-proclaimed experts declaring that the future of work would be in the metaverse. Welcome to a digital landscape where everyone wants to be the first to be on board with the latest trend. But twelve months later, is the metaverse office still possible, or will it explode in a ball of hype as 3D televisions did?

In 2021, Mark Zuckerberg famously went all-in on the metaverse by – boldly or foolishly, depending on your viewpoint – changing Facebook's name to Meta. In a digital world where everyone wants to be first to adopt the next big thing, we have unwittingly created something that feels like an infinite hamster wheel of FOMO. The big questions we forgot to ask are, what problems are we solving? And who is to say the metaverse won’t suffer the same fate as other overhyped tech projects lying in the digital graveyard, like Clubhouse?

Many have predicted that connecting with the virtual world will generate dozens of new job roles, with something for everyone. With Meta, Microsoft, Google, Nvidia, Roblox, and Decentraland all orchestrating a digital goldrush, techies could secure positions as metaverse architects, alternate reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) software engineers, 3D game designers, cybersecurity professionals, or live out their dreams as online data bounty hunters.

Big Tech also promised exciting creative roles, from digital clothing or interior designers to virtual tour guides, real-estate agents, and event managers. Web 3.0 evangelists quickly dismissed non-believers as too old, ignorant, or irrelevant to frequent this brave new digital world. However, as life in 2023 gathers pace, there are a few subtle changes to what businesses and their employees think about working in the metaverse.

Metaverse’s employee disconnect problem

The success of any new technology is traditionally determined by adoption rather than the technical specifications of a product or service. However, the first warning signs appeared when a report revealed that even Meta's employees had no desire to work in the metaverse. These sentiments are echoed in the comments section of any metaverse article. But why are mainstream audiences so resistant?

Technology has had a mixed impact on people's use of time. On the one hand, it has made many tasks more efficient and streamlined, such as communication and information retrieval. But on the other hand, the constant connectivity and availability of technology have also led to the blurring of boundaries between work and leisure time, with many people feeling pressure to be constantly available and responsive.

Another inconvenient truth is that using technology can lead to distractions and procrastination, with algorithms designed to eat into our downtime. Far away from the privilege of Silicon Valley, most people are desperately trying to be productive at work and raise their kids in an increasingly busy life. But unfortunately, their reality is that they do not have the time or inclination to invest in another digital world.

In the workplace, human interactions and face-to-face conversations are crucial to positive outcomes in important meetings. For example, the idea of asking new clients to put on a clunky VR headset to discuss a request for a proposal sounds like a nightmarish concept. In its current form, it's hard to promote working in a fake internet world and shopping for virtual clothes for legless avatars that float in cyberspace.

What problems are businesses solving?

In my daily tech interviews, many companies are becoming hesitant to explain the value of their latest metaverse idea. Why this is happening is unclear, but it could be due to pushback from audiences or a waning belief in the concept. The problem is that many companies seem more focused on being the first to jump on tech trends and stirring up FOMO, rather than solving real-world challenges or generating business value.

The excitement around the metaverse often resembles the trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster movie. You can almost hear the gravelly baritone voice, saying: "Imagine a world where remote work is not just necessary, but an opportunity to enhance our lives." This might be followed up with: "A place where we can work from anywhere, connecting with others in new and meaningful ways, creating a sense of community and collaboration beyond geographical boundaries."

Essentially, we are being promised an exciting work-from-anywhere experience where technology allows everyone to be productive and thrive in a more connected and fulfilling way. The marketing for this tech utopia urges people to embrace the future of work, unlocking the true potential of remote working to make the most of the flexibility and opportunities it offers.

However, back in the real world, working in something or somewhere that doesn't exist raises more questions than answers. There is no way of avoiding the reality that businesses rely on data-driven decision-making to deliver tangible results and value. Yet, this is one critical area that nobody is talking about.

Will mixed-reality headsets change everything?

The one area that most people can agree on is that nothing can ever replace being face to face with someone in the physical realm. However, Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and all the usual suspects are heavily rumored to be working on augmented reality hardware. But how many individuals and businesses will justify spending thousands of dollars on first-generation gadgetry during a period of economic uncertainty?

There's also a potential disconnect between how big tech and Web 3.0 builders envision the future. There is also a much-needed debate around privacy and how to police the metaverse. Although it's still too early to speculate how these trends will evolve, it's easy to see how our digital reality will collide with and become an extension of our physical reality rather than replacing it.

As the technology giants of the world ponder the potential of working in the metaverse, they need to consider two crucial questions: is there a genuine need for this technology, and are people eager to use it? For these reasons alone, it's debatable whether Big Tech is genuinely driving innovation, or simply becoming enamored with its own ideas in a textbook example of confirmation bias.

Technology will undoubtedly continue to transform how we work. But it's crucial to remember that while technological advancements are exciting, they should never come at the expense of our real-life experiences. Rome was not built in a day; nor will the future of work be.

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