Two years of the pandemic have brought to light the pros and cons of extended periods of remote work. Commute time is undoubtedly saved, and companies make material savings on their overheads, but the sense of belongingness, teamwork, collaboration and, ultimately, motivation and productivity, are all affected in the long run. A hybrid mode of work is now preferred by many companies, where employees work to a roster, working from the office and home on alternate days. With the Metaverse, ‘hybrid’ attains a new meaning. While occasional visits to a new, smaller workplace might be necessitated, much of the in-person interaction for office work can be replicated through virtual offices.
IT global tech giant Accenture has created a virtual location, called ‘Nth floor’, under the aegis of the Metaverse Continuum Group, enabling employees to socialize and participate in immersive work and learning experiences. In April 2022, the company announced 1,50,000 new hires, all of whom would work from the Metaverse, using VR headsets starting from the first day. To this end, 60,000 such headsets were deployed in the company’s offices across multiple countries. Group chief executive and chief technology officer Paul Daugherty, a Metaverse champion, had himself conducted multiple meetings on Nth Floor.
Such facilities are no longer the preserve of Fortune 500 companies. For instance, India-based company NextMeet offers an immersive platform where digital avatars move between virtual offices, help desks and meeting rooms in real time, deliver live presentations, socialize with colleagues in a virtual lounge, and find seats at a conference centre. Employees access the virtual environment via their desktop computer or mobile device, curate their avatar and use keyboard buttons to navigate the virtual workspace. Virtual offices, digital avatars and colleagues enable ideation and collaboration to remain as effective and accessible as before, in the work-from-office scenario. This allows greater interoperability and is successful in smoothing out many of the issues arising from the mode of remote work witnessed during the first two years of the pandemic.
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In this context, avatars—of both real employees and ‘digital colleagues’—have a key role to play.
Increasingly, the workplace of the future is likely to include this second category of workers—a range of ‘digital colleagues’— which are highly realistic, AI-powered, human-like bots. These will replace the more onerous chatbots, providing a far better user experience for employees and end customers for administrative queries, technical trouble-shooting, real-time assistance on applications, onboarding of new recruits and various other tasks. The underlying algorithm can understand text, voice conversations, converse in natural language, sense and interpret context, show emotions, make human-like gestures, and make decisions. An example is UneeQ, a technology platform that focuses on creating ‘digital humans’. The company’s creation, Nola, is a digital shopping assistant or concierge for the Noel Leeming stores in New Zealand. SoulMachines, another New-Zealand-based technology start-up, has created lifelike, emotionally responsive digital humans, taking on roles such as those of skincare consultant, COVID health adviser, real-estate agent and educational coach for college applicants.
Learning, development and training is a major area that would be completely transformed by the Metaverse. Digital coaches would be at hand to assist in employee training and providing career advice. In the Metaverse, every object—a training manual, machine or product, for example—could be interactive, providing 3D displays and step-by-step ‘how to’ guides. Virtual reality role-play exercises and simulations will become common, enabling worker avatars to learn in highly realistic, ‘game play’ scenarios that can be ‘the high-pressure sales presentation’, ‘the difficult client’, or ‘a challenging employee conversation’. VR technologies are already being used in many sectors to accelerate skills development.
Surgical technology company Medivis is using Microsoft’s HoloLens technology to train medical students through interaction with 3D anatomy models. Embodied Labs has used 360-degree videos to help medical workers experience the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related audiovisual impairments to assist in making diagnoses. Bosch and the Ford Motor Company have pioneered a VR training tool using the Oculus Quest headset to train technicians on electric vehicle maintenance. UK-based company Metaverse Learning worked with the UK Skills Partnership to create a series of nine augmented reality training models for front-line nurses in the UK, using 3D animation and AR to test learners’ skills in specific scenarios and to reinforce best practices in nursing care. MGM Resorts teamed up with Strivr to give potential employees a chance to try out their jobs in VR before accepting an offer. If someone realizes the job isn’t for them, MGM saves time and money by not having to recruit, onboard and train them, only to have them leave the company after a short stint.
Marketing is another important area for the Metaverse. Product manufacturers and service providers can interact with their customer base in a more immersive and visceral way than is currently possible via social media platforms. As technology progresses and the seamlessness of user experience improves, the role of digital humans graduates from concierge to adviser. This may take the form of new subject matter experts (SMEs), endowed with the knowledge of real-life advisers, and with the capacity to process, analyse and interpret masses of information, at a pace and with accuracy surpassing that of humans. In a global, multicultural work environment, API-enabled services, such as Google Translate, may be embedded in digital colleagues who translate speech and text real-time into multiple languages as a meeting progresses. This reduces miscommunication and the chances of things getting ‘lost in translation’, which often happens in multicultural discussions in the real world.
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Digital human technology can be deployed in multiple locations at once. Digital assistants can be deployed to more repetitive, dull or dangerous work in the Metaverse. This purportedly frees up human employees from much of the tedious and repetitive work, engaging them in more creative, value-added work. However, as we have seen in the previous chapters, mass-scale deployment of digital humans also brings with it certain risks, such as increased automation and displacement of human work for lower-skilled workers, who generally have fewer opportunities to move to alternative roles. There is also the possibility of erosion of cultural and behavioural norms.
For example, if humans become more disinhibited in their interactions with digital humans, that behaviour could then seep into their interactions and relationships with other people in their real-world lives.
Avik Chanda & Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay
Penguin Random House
Pp 512, Rs 799
Excerpted from Work 3.0 by Avik Chanda & Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, by permission of Penguin Random House