Meet me in the metaverse
is the virtual office closer than we think?
I am working on next month’s keynotes on the future of HR, pay and compensation. And because I sometimes need a break and new inspiration, I attended a few conferences in the metaverse. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality experience. Do I think they will replace in-person or virtual conferences? Not anytime soon. But is there a case for metaverse experiences? Absolutely. But slightly different from what you might expect.
Before we dive into the metaverse, I’ll bring you a quick update on the physical office and the latest HR tech layoffs!
The office is making a come back
It finally happened! News outlets in the US reported a new milestone: For the first time since the pandemic, offices are more than 50% filled. “The average office use last week was 50.4% of early 2020 levels in 10 major U.S. cities, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks security swipes into buildings every business day.” I’m not sure how representative these cities are, but I understand that if you sell business real estate or workplace systems, this is good news. No wonder you send out a press release to celebrate.
The underlying question: what are all these people doing there? And when you dig a little deeper, you discover that it is mostly office workers in large buildings, like financial institutions etc. These are knowledge workers: they don’t need to be in an office all the time to do their work. They mostly need wifi and a laptop.
It turns out that the total number of days working from home isn’t fluctuating very much, because the majority of people doesn’t work in these 10 cities. Let’s accept it for what it is: there is no turning back on people working from home for at least part of the week. Instead of fighting against it, employers better spend time thinking how to ensure that work gets done where it gets the best results.
HR Tech layoffs continue
The layoffs in the tech industry certainly aren’t helping to bring people back to the office. If you follow me on Linkedin, you have already seen this chart, but I wanted to share it here as well:
Layoffs are always awful and sad for the people involved. And the way that some companies go about them is irresponsible at best.
But when you look at the numbers, it's not the doom and gloom that people make it out to be. I did not realize that most of these companies grew their employee base with more than 50% in the past three years. Far higher than their pre-pandemic workforce growth. Even with the current layoffs, the underlying trend is still a large increase in tech employment since 2019.
The company that has not publicly laid off anyone so far is Apple, and when you look at their workforce growth during the same period, it’s about 6%, in line with their past hiring practices.
And what is going on in the HR Tech space? Unfortunately, since the last time I wrote about this topic, also in our industry, companies have started to let people go. Layoffs.fyi shows quite the list of companies that are downsizing. Here is the current Top 10, with Workday leading the pack. Since it’s the largest of these companies, that is not a surprise.
Layoffs can be a reasonable way to rightsize the business, but if you are about to purchase an HR Tech solution, check the tracker and have a conversation with your provider.
Meet me in the metaverse
Picture this: I am at a Future of Work conference and have just attended four sessions. The keynotes were quite interesting, but now that the morning program is over, I need some exercise after sitting for such a long time. I walk through the foyer and exit the auditorium via the main entrance. It’s nice and sunny outside.
In front of me is an expansive lawn with an outdoor auditorium in the center. Other people are crossing the lawn to get to their meetings in the main building. Up ahead I see a light tower and I decide to walk in that direction. When I arrive at the light tower, I leave the path and walk down to the beach. I hear the sand crunch beneath my feet. On the beach I see some tables, shaded by umbrellas.
I pick up a drink at the bar and sit down to hear the waves, watch the boats go by and listen to the seagulls. It’s very relaxing and after a half hour I find myself recharged and ready for the afternoon. I walk back to the auditorium to grab some lunch and then head back to the main stage for the afternoon sessions.
How did we get here?
Remember Google Glass? I do. I wasn’t a fan because I didn’t want to wear anything on my head all day. Not to mention the potential for privacy violations: what if all your office interactions are recorded by your colleague without your knowledge? And what was Google going to do with all that data? Turned out, no one wanted to wear them except a few early adopters, so Google glasses were a short-lived gimmick.
With the latest advances in augmented and virtual reality, you would expect to see new variations of extended reality (XR) glasses come to the market. But so far they haven’t. Sure, there are VR sets, but they are mostly used for gaming. People don’t like to wear them for other purposes. There was high hope in the tech industry that Apple, given their reputation for functionality and design, would reveal sleek AR glasses this year. The release date has just been pushed from 2023 to indefinitely. Instead, the company will probably release a health & wellness focused VR headset this year.
The metaverse comes to the office
During the pandemic, we were given the impression that our return to the office would coincide with working in the metaverse. That a headset would give us the feeling of virtually collaborating together while being physically apart. The reality is that AR & VR are being adopted, but mostly in educational and training environments, and not for every day work.
And even though some people started to write off solutions like Zoom and Teams in favor of the metaverse office, Microsoft has unexpectedly upended the collaboration scene with the inclusion of ChatGPT in Teams, making it supposedly easier for users to virtually communicate and collaborate. Users of this premium service will receive automatic meeting notes and personalized, recommended tasks after the session completes. And even though the service is an add-on, the fee is small when you compare it to buying a VR headset for all your office workers. Which leads to the question: when our collaboration tools are getting better, would we still need to meet in the metaverse?
The extended experience
I’ve attended a few VR conferences, but I am undecided about their current state. Even though the visual experience was awesome (see above) and companies provided high-quality conference environments, I didn’t think running it in VR mode provided me with a higher value experience.
What I did like is that it’s immersive: with a headset you have no distractions and can be fully present in the moment. But I also think that is easier at home (I have a reliable high speed connection) than in the office. And when I work, there is no else in my study, while in the office you are never alone - I could see how wearing a headset and being unable to see what goes on around you could bring up trust issues.
Some VR conferences showed real people on the screen, so it was close to a Zoom keynote, and only the audience were avatars. I also attended keynotes and panel discussions run by avatars. Watching avatars speak is a strange experience, and it gets boring after a short while no matter how good the speakers are. The technology is just not good enough to convey facial expressions, and it made me realize how important micro-expressions are in getting a message across. It’s not captivating enough when people move their mouths, you want to see their face change too.
When it comes to interaction, I found it awkward to strike up a conversation with an avatar. Walking around the conference center and exhibit spaces gave me the feeling of being present, but many people are moving very rapidly through the rooms, so you don’t often sit next to someone else for a longer period of time. Avatars often have strange names, and it’s hard to tell who they are. Compare that to a Zoom session where I don’t know the attendees either, but when the moderator asks the right question, people contribute in the chat. That might feel chaotic, but it’s also incredibly interactive and a fun experience, where you see and feel the presence of others. So the question is: how can we be comfortable in the metaverse? This might be easier when you work with your colleagues, but it made me realize that real names and faces matter more than we think.
To check that it’s not an age-related phenomenon, I asked a couple of students about their ideas around the metaverse. The general opinion seems to be that it’s great for gaming. When I inquired if they would attend a concert in the metaverse with their friends, most of them were quick to point out that they spent the last two years of their lives in their dorms. Now that in-person events are back, they are making the most of them. There is no way that they will voluntarily strap on a headset to participate in social events when they can be out and about. And I can fully understand that. Bottom line: even for young people, the metaverse is for later.
Too much, too soon?
Matthew Ball has written about the metaverse for a long time. He recently wrote a great article explaining the delay in extended reality progress, giving some clear examples that made me realize that our expectations of extended reality might be too high. He touches upon the device limitations, like weight, battery life, bandwidth and price. He talks about the comfort of wearing a headset, being watched by sensors, privacy concerns, and the list goes on. He expects it will take years before we see something that is applicable for mass market adoption. And after my recent experiences, I have the same feeling. It’s too soon.
I also started to wonder if the office is maybe not the most straightforward application for the metaverse. Considering its adoption in gaming, maybe we should look to it as an alternative for free time and leisure much more than as a replacement for the office. If we could strap on a headset and find ourselves in a different city, to explore the sites with a guide, would that help us relax from the comforts from our home, thereby replacing weekend city trips? Or could this be a way for (older) people to gain new experiences when they aren’t as mobile anymore or able to travel? By focusing on the office, are companies targeting the wrong audiences and developing the wrong applications? Only time will tell.
But before we write XR off completely, let’s not forget that the smartphone started as a luxury gadget, and many people didn’t see a need for it. 15 years later, here we are. We all carry a smartphone in our pocket, and the one we have today is so much better than the first editions. Some things take time and develop with age. Let’s check in five years if XR is one of them.
Have a great day, Anita
I've written about this in the past as well, and I'm 100% convinced that the office as we know it will be the first use case for VR. It's too bulky, too cumbersome. I think we'll see more niche cases at first, and then once technology catches up, maybe we'll log in to our virtual offices.