Since the start of the pandemic, a large number of professional workers have shifted from going into the office every day to work entirely from home, or opting for a mixture of the two with hybrid working practices. We are still very much in a transition phase, with technology promising to greatly impact the at-home work experience with virtual reality (VR). Whether you love or hate VR, it is hard to deny that the VR work environment represents a step change in what is possible when it comes to working at home.
So, who is driving VR work environments? Meta has created Horizon Workrooms, a VR space for team meetings which was launched in 2021. Just a few months later in 2021, Cisco also launched Webex Hologram, an augmented reality tool for meeting with colleagues. Microsoft rolled out Mesh for Microsoft Teams in 2022, which allows colleagues to in immersive collaborate VR spaces. There are a number of additional VR work environments that have been created by Pixel Mat, NextMeet, Gather, Connec2, Glue, Immersed, MeetinVR, Meeting Room, Rumii, and vSpatial.
This means that organizations should have an abundance of choice in deciding where to place their virtual workplace, and competitive pressures will help the customer get an excellent product.
We, however, care about something else. We have been exploring what the VR work environment means for inclusion. An important question given that where we work has big consequences for inclusion. Research conducted by a four-person team of psychologists found that the mode and locality of work affects how we interact, communicate, and collaborate with colleagues. All these factors are key in fostering feelings of inclusion.
We’ll discuss the top eight ways that the virtual work campuses can help (and hinder) inclusion.
The current model of hybrid working with some employees in the office and some working remotely has given workers benefits through increased flexibility. However, hybrid working is also associated with increased loneliness and disconnection with one’s team. A survey by OnePoll and Volley, a video chat platform, revealed that 70% of workers felt more isolated while working remotely versus working in the office. Virtual work environments can help. They offer a communal working environment employees can join no matter where they are located. This is particularly useful in meeting scenarios where employees working from home will have a similar experience to those in the office. This can facilitate better social interactions between colleagues and a more consistent experience regardless of whether they choose to stay at home or go into the office.
In a virtual work environment, employees participate through a headset that is placed over the eyes and uses stereoscopic lenses to make images appear three dimensional. For inclusive virtual workplaces, this type of technology should be able to accommodate the needs of all employees.
There is an opportunity with this new technology to make accommodations that enable all people to participate in the metaverse. For example, there is a grassroots initiative looking to develop technology which will have an AI-powered avatar for people with differing levels of motor abilities. This means that they will be able to navigate the VR world using their eye movements rather than the typical motion sensors. Accommodations for additional types of disabilities should also be addressed, including intellectual, sensory, or learning disabilities.
The price of VR headsets currently has a large range based on how sophisticated the technology is. Some of the major VR companies are creating lower-cost headsets to allow more affordable entry into the technology. This ranges from Google Cardboard at the lowest price to HTC Vive Pro at the highest. With this range comes differences in the experience of VR. The more expensive headsets typically offer higher quality visual and audio functionalities, which can result in a more immersive experience.
How does this impact inclusion? It is important to ensure that people’s differences in socioeconomic status do not impact who can participate in the metaverse. Colleagues using cheaper headsets may have an inferior user experience while using VR, so it is important that an organization standardizes by providing the same technology to all employees.
The way that any person is represented in a virtual work campus is through an avatar. Most avatars are based on customizable human depictions that appear similar to a cartoon character. For true inclusivity, there must be options for all types of self-expression. Suppliers seem to be taking this seriously. For example, Meta has recently updated their avatar system to allow for more than one quintillion different combinations of avatar features. Still, the corporation must ensure that majority of combinations are representative of all types of people, rather than giving some individuals disproportionate options.
There are also options for users to adopt non-human avatars, which has the potential to take the emphasis off of demographic factors. This can allow for greater weight to be placed on what people say rather than how they appear. This can help to push ahead merit-based evaluations in the workplace, instead of the current “mirrortocracy,” or the circumstance where colleagues are unconsciously favored for being similar.
Another factor to consider is the workplace rules that exist in the metaverse. It is important to not fall into the trap of considering VR as separate from the “real world” and disregarding workplace misconduct that occurs there. When considering the new regulations, it is crucial to be mindful of how workplace misconduct will be handled in this new terrain.
For example, recently news came to light that women were sexually harassed on the Horizon Worlds, which prompted the virtual platform to enable an optional safety tool called “safe zone,” where avatars can’t be touched within a certain perimeter around them.
VR will open up other channels for misconduct to be committed, such as cyber crime. The cyber crime industry draws $1.5 trillion revenue annually, and the metaverse represents a new digital domain for such crime to occur. It is possible that personal data could be breached and sold, or identity theft could occur. In order to prevent these crimes, organizations should put in place procedures for fast responding to cyber misconduct.
Governance in VR is important to ensure that users are treated inclusively. It has been suggested by a new paper from Canadian and Chinese researchers that blockchain technologies can be used in the moderation of VR technology content. This would be a democratic process in which users have rights and vote on the rules that govern allowed behaviors in VR.
There are risks to this type of process: There may be selection issues in terms of who wants to moderate, assuming moderation is fully optional. It may also produce biased workplace rules if a VR environment is dominated by certain groups of people. The alternative is that governance occurs through a central authority. This can also be problematic if the centralized authority is governing in a biased way that does not support an inclusive workplace.
Due to the risks of both methods of governance, it will be important for organizations to consider which method might be best for them. If a workplace is well advanced in their diversity and inclusion journey, the decentralized voting method may work well.
Research has shown that language plays a role in feelings of inclusion at work, with colleagues indicating that they feel excluded when they can’t fully participate at work due to language constraints. There may be a way to fix this with VR.
For example, one of the features Meta is working on is a language translation tool, which would translate across all languages in real time. This would allow people to work together directly in the metaverse, even if they are working in different languages. It would give people the unique opportunity to work in their native language and be able to fully participate in all workplace processes, taking language constraints out of the equation.
Although, for this to happen, we need advances in machine translation systems and more data from languages that we have scarce resources about and access to. As many languages are underrepresented on natural language processing data sets, this type of tool may only be available for certain more commonly spoken languages, such as English and Spanish.
Working in virtual reality enables employees to personalize their workplace through a reality distortion filter where employees can see objects and content differently to other employees, according to a recent research report.
For example, if your favorite color is yellow, but your colleague prefers blue, no debate is needed. You can work together in a space where you see the walls as yellow, and your colleague sees them as blue. This is a unique opportunity, as typically decisions such as these are made by management or a majority decision. In addition, different environments work for different people in terms of improving productivity, and having control over your surroundings at work has been shown to increase well-being through feelings of autonomy.
Dr. Grace Lordan is the founding director of the Inclusion Initiative and an associate professor, both at the London School of Economics.
Paris Will is a research officer of behavioral science at the Inclusion Initiative at the London School of Economics.