Is the metaverse the answer to hybrid work’s engagement problem?

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Add engagement to the list of employer concerns going into 2023.

Back in March, a Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey found that more than 80% of HR executives were concerned about talent leaving their organizations, with many citing a lack of engagement with off-site workers not even a pain point.

Months later, a Conference Board survey found similarly declining engagement levelsalthough the organization noted little variation among remote, hybrid and on-site workers on the subject.

Whether on-site presence truly factors into engagement, it’s clear that many employers are thinking through how they can improve retention — of which engagement is a crucial component — in a pandemic-driven environment of flexibility.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and extended reality technology firm Reality Labs, believes the answer to that question could lie in the metaverse. The term describes a proposed, immersive version of the internet that would incorporate virtual reality, augmented reality and other technologies.

The company has already demonstrated potential use cases for its technology, perhaps most prominently through its Horizon Workrooms product. To the uninitiated, Workrooms may be thought of as a video game-like simulation of an in-person meeting in which team members are represented by digital avatars.

Earlier this month, Meta published the results of a targeted sample business survey it said had been conducted with more than 2,000 employees and 400 business leaders across the UK and US Among the findings, 74% of business leaders said they had a dedicated budget to invest in AR, VR or the metaverse in 2022. Additionally, 65% of employees said they were more likely to stay in jobs in which they had access to AR or VR.

The results show that employees have expectations not only of their employers’ technological investments, but also in terms of building inclusive communities within an increasingly virtual work environment, Ade Ajayi, head of global sales at Reality Labs, said in an interview. But current remote and hybrid work processes, like video calls, may not be enough.

“One of the findings is that we see that employees feel happiest when they are included at work, and these employees are saying that video calling is stifling that,” Ajayi said. “They’re not getting the same experience of feeling included in the workplace.”

Instead, teams could turn to applications like Workrooms to experience virtual interactions in new ways. Ajayi said his team at Reality Labs periodically meets using the company’s Quest VR devices. The experience is entirely different from a video call, he noted, because users can interact with each other’s avatars and use visual aids like whiteboards to communicate.

He compared immersive tech in the 2020s to mobile phones in the early 2000s. “The expectation is not that you’re going to be on your phone 24/7 or during your entire work hours,” Ajayi said. “There are moments when using your mobile phone is the most productive for what you’re trying to do. The same thing is going to happen with virtual reality [and] augmented reality.”

The HR reality

It is important for employers to acknowledge the gaps that exist when using the collaborative tools that make remote and hybrid work possible, according to JP Gownder, VP and principal analyst at Forrester. These tools can also have drawbacks. Gownder said psychological researchers have found evidence of a demonstrable user fatigue experience associated with video calls, for example.

Moreover, the advent of 3D spaces where employees can interact with the kinds of tools offered by Workrooms and similar platforms holds promise, Gownder added; “It is designed to solve problems that are not easily solved otherwise.”

But there are a variety of hurdles employers will need to consider before bringing the metaverse into the fold. VR, for example, has already been employed in a number of training-specific scenarios, but Gownder said companies are generally far from the point at which it would make sense to transition employees towards spending a significant portion of their days in virtual spaces.