Insights The workplace reality of virtual reality: the risks of working in the metaverse

Water-cooler moments, casual kitchen catchups and chance hallway conversations – all ways we connect with colleagues when we are physically in the office and all things (most) of us miss when working remotely. As technology advances and our working world becomes increasingly digitised, there is a realistic possibility that we could be experiencing these types of interactions with colleagues and working in a completely virtual space in the not-too-distant future using a mix of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Don’t just take our word for it. Mark Purdy, an experienced economist who is Managing Director of Purdy & Associates and an adviser at Frontier Economics, wrote recently in Harvard Business Review: “The metaverse is poised to reshape the world of work in at least four major ways: new immersive forms of team collaboration; the emergence of new digital, AI-enabled colleagues; the acceleration of learning and skills acquisition through virtualization and gamified technologies; and the eventual rise of a metaverse economy with completely new enterprises and work roles. The metaverse also opens up new possibilities to rethink the office and work environment, introducing elements of adventure, spontaneity, and surprise. A virtual office doesn’t have to be a drab, uniform corporate environment downtown: why not a beach location, an ocean cruise, or even another world?

Staff, client and customer interaction in an entirely virtual workplace certainly sounds intriguing.

Sadly, we all know from experience that misbehaviour and misconduct issues can occur in even the best run businesses and there must surely be a question mark about how such issues would be dealt with if the conduct in question occurred virtually. Before we all take one giant leap for work-kind and download ourselves into a digital workspace, we should therefore perhaps sit back (a physical chair is fine) and consider the potential implications.

Harassment in the workplace has unfortunately been a highly topical area for some years now and there’s obviously significant potential for harassment to be perpetrated in a virtual space.  This could raise some tricky legal dilemmas. For example, do existing protections for harassment extend to a digital representation of an employee? What kind of harassment may be more frequent in the metaverse? Will the metaverse create new ways for employees to harass their colleagues that are impossible in the physical work environment? While we can’t answer these questions with sufficient certainty (yet), a workplace metaverse could realistically be a pandora’s box containing a whole host of new challenges for employers.

Sexual harassment already appears rife in the virtual world. Journalists and users exploring the early metaverse have reported numerous incidents of lewd comments and unsolicited contact from other avatars (albeit these individuals were not operating in a mock virtual workplace). While technological solutions may provide some protection (for example, “virtual buffers” could be implemented to form a protective no-entry zone around employees’ avatars), these measures won’t be fool proof.

This is likely to include developing specific guidance and policies for how employees must manifest themselves and behave in the virtual workspace.  One question employers may need to grapple with is whether acts that would amount to gross misconduct in the physical workplace would carry the same weight if carried out virtually.

You may think ‘of course’, but let’s unpack that a little. Smashing a table or kicking a co-worker in a physical office would clearly be examples of gross misconduct, usually warranting summary dismissal. However, would such actions be regarded as serious and warrant the same response from employers if they took place in a digital space where there are no obvious physical consequences? Or would disconnecting in the middle of a virtual boardroom meeting equate to storming out of a conference in a real-world office? Wherever the line is drawn, employers will need to consider what expectations for employees’ behaviour can be carried over from the real world to the metaverse. Whatever the position, employers should make sure that it is clearly communicated to staff and reflected in its policies and employment contracts.

UK Equality laws recognise and protect a number of characteristics, both hidden and visible. However, in a world where employees could potentially customise their skins, gender, and other physical characteristics, employees may exhibit characteristics that may not have been apparent in the physical workspace.

Transgender and transitioning employees may, for instance, choose avatars that express a gender identity which their employer may not be aware they have. On the other hand, some employees may customise their avatars to express protected characteristics that they do not actually have in the physical world. This could potentially leave the door open for claims based on less favourable treatment because of perceived protected characteristics which would likely be highly complicated and fact specific.

With these concerns in mind, would it be appropriate for an employer to require employees to erase individual characteristics and demand that they use blank avatars to help eliminate discrimination in the workplace? Surely this would be unpalatable on a long-term basis to many, particularly in workplaces where (rightly) diversity is becoming an increasingly valued commodity.

While a collision of the metaverse and workplaces raises a whole host of issues to consider (many of which we couldn’t hope to cover within this piece), the potential opportunities and benefits for employers are truly exciting and endless. For example, businesses like Hyundai, Siemens, and Adidas have already engaged start-ups to build VR training worlds for their new recruits. And real-world immersive training simulations could be significant for many employers looking to train or upskill their workers and may be particularly beneficial for employers who require highly skilled workers to carry out potentially dangerous work.

So, are we ready for an invasion of the metaverse into our daily working lives? The answer to this question is, in our view, “not yet”. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and, as Meta itself acknowledged, the “metaverse won’t be built overnight”. This is perhaps for the best, as the gradual integration of virtual reality into our workplace reality will provide employers the time needed to tweak their policies and not be blindsided by a rapid shift in workplace practices. Many of the problems posed by the metaverse are already well-known to employers, but there will no doubt be a variety of complex and nuanced issues that employers, courts and lawyers will need to get to grips within the coming years. With potentially endless ways to customise your avatar and the ability to fast travel to work from the comfort of our homes, the metaverse is an exciting prospect for employers and employees alike.