The metaverse — the immersive, blockchain-based virtual world where most daily activities will eventually take place — is still just a concept. But it’s a concept with valuable real estate, a growing pile of trademark applications, and a firm place in mainstream culture.
In debates over which parts of life will and should move online and how that will unfold, work is often at the center of the conversation. It makes sense: Thanks to the pandemic, a substantial proportion of the US workforce now has at least some experience doing their jobs remotely. But what happens to work in a post-COVID world? Plenty of influential people, including CEOs and politicians, have thrown their support behind returning to the office, at least in some capacity. Some of the leading voices in tech, however, believe WFH is just a pitstop on the way to working in VR glasses and motion capture gloves. Bill Gates, for one, recently predicted that Zoom meetings would migrate to the metaverse within two or three years.
So should we gear up for a world without cubicles and sad desk lunches? In other words: Will the metaverse really replace the physical office? We posed this question to six tech builders with varied backgrounds, all of whom are working on the future of, well … work. Here’s what they had to say.
The metaverse won’t replace the physical office, but it will transform it for the better, and the distinction between virtual and physical offices will soon melt away.
Working in person will always build trust more quickly than virtual communication, and in an organization, trust is speed (psychological safety is the key factor for team velocity). At the same time, virtual offices in the metaverse hold vast potential, and not everyone can be in the office, so the future will be hybrid. The modern office is insufficient; the office and the way we work needs to be reimagined for hybrid work, and we’re already seeing the beginnings of this. Dropbox is replacing traditional offices with “studios” that lean into collaborative and social modes. And in-person work is becoming more virtual — we’re often collaborating in the cloud via multi-user apps like Google Docs, Notion, and Figma.
In parallel, the digital world looks to the physical world as inspiration. Tonari is creating a doorway between offices; Google’s Starline feels like you’re talking across a table; and virtual offices (like Tandem) are replicating the presence and serendipity of the physical office.
This is just the start. To really make the hybrid office the best of both worlds, we need to break down the walls between the office and the metaverse. We’ll need to give remote teammates a window into the office, the ability to interact with in-person teammates. And the metaverse will need to be much more visible and tangible from the physical office. As the virtual and physical offices become intimately connected with each other, the combination will be powerful, dynamic, and fluid. I’m excited to see this next evolution of hybrid work.
While I don’t believe the metaverse will completely replace an office, I see great opportunities for more immersive experiences that can better bring people together through AR and VR in the digital world. What we have realized over the last two years is that one type of working, which might work for one person, doesn’t work for another. We also learned that we are humans who need physical connection on some kind of regular cadence. Hybrid workplaces are becoming the standard for work, connecting people both digitally and in person, depending on the work.
The metaverse is another option for people to connect differently. Brainstorming and team development could be great ways to leverage the metaverse. Our tendency as human beings is to pick one way or another rather than looking at how different modalities work for different discussions and experiences. The better question is, how can the metaverse be best leveraged to create a better employee experience? What are the core activities, learning experiences, or discussions we might leverage the metaverse for? Equally, what are the practices and discussions that can be done remotely, and what needs to happen in person?
Yes, the metaverse will replace the physical office, but it won’t happen any time soon. And it’s not only because the technology isn’t there yet (it’s not). It’s because in-person interactions are so fundamental to who we are. It’ll take generations for us, along with the metaverse, to develop and evolve.
The workplace is about people being together and acknowledging the humanity in the work we do. You can’t build a company or a culture, especially in the early stages, without being on the ground making connections with colleagues. You need to be having those face-to-face interactions and building relationships. Put differently, if you’re trying to lock down a million-dollar sales deal, are you doing that deal over an email, or are you flying to the potential customer? You’re flying to meet that prospect in person.
When it comes to the metaverse, there’s a lot of work to be done. But I’m one of the few that believes the tech will eventually get there. There are big benefits once you figure out how to recreate human interactions and authentic connections in a virtual environment. Once you’re able to replicate the spontaneous conversations that happen in the office that help build relationships. People will be more connected regardless of where they are physically. As more companies go hybrid, the metaverse could help bridge the gap between folks who are in the office and those who aren’t. It’ll bring people into a “virtual” workplace on those remote days for better visibility and collaboration. You’ll be part of a community building something exciting.
The future will be better, faster, easier, and more productive — and the metaverse, given time, promises to check all the boxes.
I would lean toward yes. I think our world is moving more toward flexibility. I see the benefits of being in the physical office together, which is great for collaboration. But even just for the Immersed product, for example, the idea is that we’re bridging the gap between those who are remote and those who are onsite by immersing everyone in one virtual office. So everyone puts on a headset — or glasses, when they come out in a year or two — and they’re in that virtual space together. You don’t need a physical office anymore. At that point, the office becomes obsolete. It would be a place to share a meal with someone during lunch, but that’s about it.
Even our product as it exists today is for anyone who uses a computer. We already have tens of thousands of people working full-time in VR. It started off with just coders, but we’ve gotten the product to the point where it’s an extension of a physical computer.
A lot of people, when they think about VR, think of a big, blocky headset that gives you nausea. They don’t realize that new VR devices will be a pair of glasses on your face — super lightweight, super awesome clarity — and you’re just going to feel like you’re somewhere else. It’s almost like saying, “Yeah, I’d never bring my massive Windows 95 computer to the office and bring it back home.” Well, yeah, it’s not a laptop. You wouldn’t try to make something portable that isn’t. Likewise, with VR, you wouldn’t try to work full time wearing this brick-thing on your head.
I think that’s why a lot of people are resistant to the idea of a virtual office; they haven’t tried the latest hardware, or the hardware that will be coming out in the next couple of years. But it’s inevitable — they’re going to adopt it.
I don’t think this answer is binary. Depending on the company, I think the metaverse, or some form of online environment, has already replaced physical offices. The “remote tech stack” — the collection of things like collaboration, HR, and conferencing software — has made it possible to build companies entirely online.
On the flip side, I don’t think the ability to work online has replaced the human desire to connect with your colleagues, something that is sometimes best done in person. What we’ve seen since the onset of the pandemic and normalized remote work is that people want the freedom to choose how they get their work done. For example, at Deel, we offer WeWork access for all employees, so they can meet with their local teammates. Most Deel employees take advantage of these physical spaces and our online tools to find a combination that serves them best.
What I think will replace the physical office is a world in which people are empowered to pick where they want to work: the office, the metaverse, or some wonderfully tailored mashup of both.
The success of the metaverse comes down to whether it can reverse the tide of women leaving a workforce built by and around men. You want to get moms excited about a metaverse office? Figure out metaverse on-site daycare. Metaverse paid family leave. Metaverse policies that reject the motherhood penalty and fatherhood premium. To put it bluntly: Unless the metaverse workplace is going to solve any of the physical workplace’s problems, I don’t really care if my office has fake flying sharks in it.
That’s not to say that virtual work environments can’t be incredibly beneficial for moms — there’s a reason why over two thirds of women say they are hoping to work remotely long past the pandemic’s end. But at the same time, without a cultural and structural shift to ensure equity in the workplace, we’re going to be facing down the same gender gap — in hiring and promotion, pay and opportunity — in the metaverse as we do in our universe.
I think we’re already there. The technology used to make virtual work more fulfilling and interesting will continue to evolve. We will be having team meetings on the “surface of Mars” sometime soon. With VR, we will be able to feel like people sitting thousands of miles away are sitting next to us in the same room.
The reality is that whether we call it the metaverse or not, most companies have already transformed to operate in this new virtual environment. Now the question is: Will fully virtual companies provide the employee experience and connections that we know are critical to supporting a great culture with a highly engaged workforce?
At Dialpad, we want work to be a thing you do, not a place you go. So, fundamentally, that is what we believe the future of work is. But we also need to build community, which is a big factor in why employees join and stay at companies. If you’ve never met your teammates or your manager, and you only need to shut your laptop to resign, then that’s exactly what will happen. So we need to build a workplace where people love to be, virtual or not.
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