Beyond the battle between employees and their bosses over hybrid or remote work, there could soon be a new axis to add to this strange paradigm: workers being forced to clamp a VR headset to their cranium to pretend to be close to coworkers in a virtual office. Even though the metaverse does not yet truly exist, employers already seem much more taken by virtual office settings than their workers are.
A new survey released Thursday by ExpressVPN took the thoughts of 1,500 staff and 1,500 bosses in the U.S. about working in the still-nebulous concept of “the metaverse.” For anybody who’s slogged in office drudgery for any amount of time, the results weren’t that surprising, but they do show a growing disconnect between workers and their employers about digital surveillance and connectivity versus productivity.
Though the data comes from a relatively small sample set, it already makes it clear employees feel much more concerned than their employers about being forced to use VR to access the workplace. Employers overall were far more excited and optimistic about the metaverse in the workplace than workers were. Across the board, workers were more likely to be anxious and suspicious about the concept of “the metaverse” than their bosses were. Bigger companies, those with more than 500 people employed, were also more likely to think the metaverse would have a more positive impact on stress or work-life balance.
And of course, this tech will allow employers to better keep track of employees. The ExpressVPN survey mentioned that while 55% of those surveyed know their boss is spying on them or their work, 73% of employers admit they were surveilling their employees. In addition, 63% of workers said they were concerned their boss would collect their data in an office metaverse environment, especially their real-time location and screen activity. In the survey, employers admitted they were most likely going to monitor website visits and screen activity, but some did say they would also track body and eye movement and social interactions.
Of those surveyed, close to half of workers were concerned their employers would impinge on their digital privacy and security. Funnily enough, a bare 36% of workers said they trust Meta to lead the way into the virtual workplace scene, compared to the likes of Microsoft (61%) and Google (58%).
These bosses already seem pretty sold on an idea that we still do not have a tangible example for. Some tech execs like Amazon’s head of devices David Limp and Snap CEO Evan Spiegel have largely called out the metaverse for being too “ambiguous and hypothetical.” The one company still championing this push is, of course, Meta. Though all we have right now is betas of creepy, bottomless avatars acting like idiots in a virtual environment akin to VRChat. Meta and Microsoft have tried to sell the idea of a persistent environment for office work. Early promotions tried to depict it as a kind of sci-fi hologram tech, but more likely the first iterations of this will be crafted 3D environments.
If anything about this office metaverse stuff is starting to sound like deja-vu, then yes, there’s long been a disconnect between how low-level employees feel about the workplace compared to their employers. The study also mentions that working stiffs on the whole are more likely to feel more connected with their coworkers through in-person meetings, email, or instant messaging, whereas bosses prefer video conferencing, and, potentially, “the metaverse.”
A recent June study from a team of researchers in Germany asked 16 people to try and spend a week working full time in VR. As can be expected, the results were not exactly stupendous. Several participants quit after a short time using the devices for work. Those who stuck it out routinely said they felt like they had more work to do than in a normal office, and they felt their overall productivity suffered. They also had to deal with increased eye strain, visual fatigue, headaches, and anything else that anybody who’s used VR for more than a few hours at a time would tell you. It’s these shortcomings of VR work that do not currently have anything approaching a remedy.
Not to mention, the idea of being forced into the metaverse to simulate an office setting seems like a defunct idea before it’s even out of the starting gate. More workers are actively demanding better work from home policies. Some recent studies have shown that those given the option to work from home are actually more productive.