Since the start of the pandemic, a large number of professional workers have switched from going to the office every day to working entirely from home, or opting for a combination of both with hybrid working methods. We are still in a transition phase, with technology promising to have a major impact on the virtual reality (VR) work-from-home experience. Whether you love or hate VR, it’s hard to deny that the VR workspace represents a step change in what’s possible when it comes to working from home.
So, who controls VR work environments? Meta has created Horizon Workrooms, a VR space for team meetings that was launched in 2021† Just a few months later, in 2021, Cisco also launched Webex Hologram, an augmented reality tool for meeting colleagues. Microsoft rolled out gauze for Microsoft Teams in 2022, enabling colleagues to collaborate in immersive VR spaces. There are a number of additional VR workspaces created by Pixel Mat, NextMeet, Gather, Connect2, Glue, Immersed, MeetinVR, Meeting Room, Rumii, and vSpatial.
This means that organizations must have a plethora of choice when deciding where to place their virtual workplace, and competitive pressure will help the customer get an excellent product.
However, we are concerned with something different. We examined what the VR work environment means for inclusion. An important question given that: Where we work has major implications for inclusion. Research by a team of four psychologists found that the way and place of work influences how we interact, communicate and collaborate with colleagues. All of these factors are essential in promoting feelings of inclusion.
We discuss the eight main ways the virtual work campuses can help (and hinder) inclusion.
The current model of hybrid working with some employees in the office and some remotely has benefited employees through greater flexibility. However, hybrid working is also associated with increased loneliness and disconnection from the team. A survey by OnePoll and Volley, a video chat platform, found that 70% of employees felt more isolated while working remotely than in the office. Virtual work environments can help with this. They provide a common work environment for employees to join, wherever they are. This is especially useful in meeting scenarios where employees who work from home have a similar experience to those in the office. This can make for better social interactions between colleagues and a more consistent experience whether they choose to stay at home or go to the office.
In a virtual work environment, employees participate through a headset placed over the eyes and use stereoscopic lenses to make images appear three-dimensional. For inclusive virtual workplaces, this type of technology must be able to meet the needs of all employees.
There is an opportunity with this new technology to create accommodations that allow all people to participate in the metaverse. For example, there is a citizens’ initiative looking for technology that will have an AI powered avatar for people with different levels of motor skills. This means they can navigate the VR world with their eye movements instead of the typical motion sensors. Accommodations for other types of disabilities should also be addressed, including intellectual, sensory, or learning disabilities.
The price of VR headsets currently has a wide range based on how advanced the technology is. Some of the major VR companies are making cheaper headsets to allow for more affordable access to the technology. This ranges from Google Cardboard at the lowest price to HTC Vive Pro at the highest price. With this range come differences in the experience of VR. The more expensive headsets typically offer higher quality visual and audio features, which can result in a more immersive experience.
How does this affect inclusion? It is important to ensure that the differences in socioeconomic status of people do not affect who can participate in the metaverse. Colleagues using cheaper headsets may have an inferior user experience while using VR, so it is important for an organization to standardize by providing all employees with the same technology.
The way a person is represented on a virtual work campus is through an avatar. Most avatars are based on customizable human images that resemble a cartoon character. For true inclusivity, there must be options for all forms of self-expression. Suppliers seem to take this seriously. For example, Meta recently updated their avatar system to allow for over a trillion different combinations of avatar features. Still, the company must ensure that the 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, allowing for an emphasis on demographic factors. This allows more weight to be placed on what people say rather than how they look. This can help advance merit-based assessments in the workplace, rather than the current one “mirrorocracy”, or the circumstance in which colleagues are unconsciously favored because they are similar.
Another factor to consider is the workplace rules that exist in the metaverse. It’s important not to fall into the trap of seeing VR as separate from the “real world” and ignoring workplace misconduct that occurs there. When considering new regulations, it is critical to consider how workplace misconduct in this new area will be addressed.
Recently, news came to light that women were sexually harassed on the Horizon Worlds, prompting the virtual platform to enable an optional security tool called “safe zone,” where avatars within a certain perimeter around it cannot be touched.
VR opens up other channels for committing misconduct, such as cybercrime. The cybercrime industry generates $1.5 trillion in revenue annually, and the metaverse represents a new digital domain in which such crime can take place. Personal information may be compromised and sold, or identity theft may occur. To prevent these crimes, organizations must put in place procedures to respond quickly to cyber misconduct.
Governance in VR is important to ensure that users are treated inclusively. It has been suggested by a new paper by Canadian and Chinese researchers that: blockchain technologies can be used in the moderation of content of VR technology. This would be a democratic process where users have rights and vote on the rules that apply to allowed behavior in VR.
There are risks to this type of process: there can be selection issues in terms of who will moderate, assuming moderation is completely optional. It can also lead to biased workplace rules if a VR environment is dominated by certain groups of people. The alternative is that governance takes place through a central authority. This can also be problematic if the centralized authority rules in a biased way that does not support an inclusive workplace.
Because of the risks of both methods of governance, it will be important for organizations to consider which method is best for them. If a workplace is well advanced in their diversity and inclusion journey, the decentralized voting method can work well.
Research has shown that language plays a role in feelings of inclusion at work, with colleagues reporting feeling excluded when unable to fully participate in work due to language limitations. There may be a way to solve this with VR.
For example, one of the features Meta is working on is a language translation tool, which would translate into all languages in real time. This would allow people to collaborate directly in the metaverse, even if they work in different languages. It would give people the unique opportunity to work in their native language and participate fully in all processes in the workplace, without language restrictions.
For this to happen, however, we need advances in machine translation systems and more data from languages that we have scarce resources and access to. Since many languages are underrepresented in natural language processing datasets, this type of tool may only be available for certain more commonly spoken languages, such as English and Spanish.
Working in virtual reality allows employees to personalize their workplace through a reality distortion filter where employees can see objects and content differently than other employeesaccording to a recent research report.
For example, if your favorite color is yellow, but your colleague prefers blue, then there is no need for discussion. You can work together in a room where you see the walls as yellow, and your colleague sees them as blue. This is a unique opportunity, as such decisions are usually made by management or a majority decision. In addition, different environments work for different people in terms of improving productivity, and controlling your environment at work has been shown to increase well-being by feelings of autonomy.
dr. Grace Lordan is the founder and director of the Inclusion Initiative and an associate professor, both at the London School of Economics.
Paris Will is a Behavioral Sciences Research Officer at the Inclusion Initiative at the London School of Economics.