In March 2020, office workers abandoned their cubicles, leaving behind overflowing file cabinets and half-empty cups of coffee. We thought we’d be right back.
More than two years later, companies are beginning to push in earnest for employees to return to work. Elon Musk says he’ll fire workers who don’t spend at least 40 hours each week in the office. Other businesses — preferring carrots over sticks — are instead spiffing up their digs, hoping to lure those now toiling remotely. For its part, Boston has launched “Boston Together Again,” begging workers to return.
They’re helped in this effort by the sorry state of today’s work from home technology. Video meetings feel straight out of the opening credits to The Brady Bunch. We’re all lined up in little squares. We think we look terrible — and actually, we all do look terrible — with computer cameras precisely placed to accentuate the jowls. Fatigue sets in, and it’s too easy to play Wordle while someone makes a presentation.
Moreover, IRL has real advantages over WFH. The office affords the opportunity of a chance meeting, a serendipity that scheduled video meetings can’t replicate. IRL facilitates mentorship, and makes it easy to know folks by more than their faces and work product.
If Zoom and its ilk were all we would ever have, perhaps WFH would lose its allure. But the world is changing: Wait until you see what work is like in the metaverse.
It might seem the stuff of a science-fiction novel, but it’s also the thing on which Mark Zuckerberg has staked the future of Meta (née Facebook). Granted, some of the hype is absurd. (People buying virtual real estate? What? You didn’t lose enough in crypto?) But take a spin and you get a glimmer of just how transformative it could be.
Start first by putting on an Oculus — now Meta — Quest headset. Open your eyes and you are in a different world: On top of the Great Wall of China, for instance. Look around and you see the Wall stretching in the distance. You hear the sounds of the place, as well — birds chirping, a rustling breeze. You can walk a few steps and the ground moves beneath you.
That’s what they mean by “virtual reality.” VR can make for a great game platform; I bought my first headset in May 2020 and have been using it to shoot demons, work out, and travel to exotic places. But it also seemed obvious that VR could also be a superior substitute for Zoom. So I asked around and it turns out a number of companies are doing just that, using apps such as Strivr, Connec2, or Meta’s Horizon Workrooms.
“You log onto the metaverse as your avatar, dress your avatar up, navigate to your virtual office, all from the comfort of your house and your pajamas,” explains Randy Angwin, founder of thermal imaging company SmartScouter. “This is more profound, engaging, and realistic than mere Zoom calls and online meets.”
The headset “takes some getting used to,” Laura Fuentes, who works at Infinity Dish, writes in an e-mail. But “the sensation of being in the same room as your co-workers, even if you’re thousands of miles away, is pretty special.” This year, Accenture, the consulting giant, says it plans to use the metaverse to onboard 150,000 new hires.
Even jobs that used to require an in-person presence can be done remotely in VR. Piotr Ziemba is CEO of Nsflow, a company that works with the manufacturing and automotive industries: “A person working from home can operate, run tests, carry out simulations, compare different solutions, play out scenarios, and predict final performance on a digital twin, while still being at home.”
If you’re the owner of a real brick-and-mortar office building, stuff like this is downright scary.
The metaverse does have its problems, of course. Some of them are technological. The software is in its early stages. The battery life of existing headsets is short; the devices themselves are heavy and somewhat awkward. The images are not all that crisp, and some users complain of eye strain or nausea.
Still, if there’s one thing we know about technology, it’s that it always gets better — faster, cheaper, smaller.
There are other worries as well. There are fears that the virtual world can be alienating, lacking humanity and empathy. Moreover, Meta, the leader in the space, leaves many uncomfortable given its cavalier approach to privacy — companies will be especially concerned about that. (Meta is also now the subject of a Federal Trade Commission probe alleging it’s monopolizing the metaverse.)
But these are challenges to be addressed, not walked away from. And there are billions of dollars in venture capital chasing solutions.
And if it succeeds? Right now, complaints about WFH have mostly focused on empty office buildings and out-of-business lunch places. The metaverse — more attractive and more “real” than video calls — will only exacerbate that. (In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that up to 45 percent of people work in jobs that could be done remotely.) And even more, the notion that we really all can interact with each other on a virtual plane will raise big questions about the nature of work and how we as human beings connect with each other from day to day. As with much technology, there will be big benefits — and big risks.
Tom Keane is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.