It's 7:30am on Monday morning. The boiler's broken, tube strikes are back and you're already running late for your 9am meeting. Two years ago, this would have been a bad start to the day, and it would have almost certainly got worse as you tried to navigate your tube-less commute, wondering how many days you'd have to endure cold showers. But not anymore. After two years of back to back lockdowns and working from home, we know that there are alternatives to the traditional office arrangement; hybrid working is no longer just appreciated, it's expected.
But the conversation around hybrid working is only just beginning.
What if there was a way to enjoy those 'water cooler' moments, taking in the buzz of the office whilst sitting at home and avoiding the long commute?
Enter, the metaverse.
Gymshark executives, Ben Francis and Noel Mack held their first meeting in the metaverse earlier this year, and it was, by all accounts, a huge success. The two executives used VR headsets to enable them to sit at a virtual table, discussing ideas and sharing content with one other through their personalised avatars. No one accidentally left themselves on mute (although there were a couple of sound issues at the start) and the high-quality graphics put video-conferencing platforms to shame; the transaction was (almost) seamless.
But is it all too good to be true? Can we really have hybrid working arrangements and virtual offices all in the space of two years?
It is certainly possible. However, there are concerns surrounding the metaverse, none of which are unfounded and many of which are yet to be addressed. Safety is, of course, a key concern for many. In July 2021, Director General of MI5, Ken McCallum referred to cyber-attacks as a prominent threat to the UK, highlighting the potential consequences of ransomware and identifying cyber-crime as something that has the potential to affect us all. In order for the metaverse to be used as a virtual office space, it will have to provide users with equivalent levels of security offered by 'real' office space. The threat of hackers and uninvited third parties jumping into confidential meetings will not be acceptable to business owners, and there can be no threat of documents being leaked either inside or outside the metaverse. The lack of physical presence also opens up endless opportunities for identity fraud and misrepresentation, and we have already seen reports of individuals harassing others within the metaverse.
It is also unclear how ownership of virtual real estate will compare to that of physical real estate. Will tenants enter into ‘virtual leases’ and will those leases contain covenants and rights of way over land belonging to third parties? Will virtual land be subject to use classes in the way that physical land is now? Or will the metaverse be a space free of constraints, allowing office blocks, retail shops and residential units to co-exist freely? And will that actually be better? Perhaps this level of flexibility is possible in a virtual world - after all, blockchain technology is all about collective responsibility and the decentralisation of power – however, land, be it real or virtual, is an investment, and if virtual land loses its value as a result of its surrounding area, this is unlikely to encourage long term investment.
The metaverse brings with it opportunities that businesses may never have thought possible, and it may be that we are looking now at the future of hybrid working. That being said, there are still a number of uncertainties relating to the metaverse, and it is not without its weaknesses. But going back to the broken boiler and tube strike for a moment, what the metaverse does do is offer the best of both worlds. It allows employees flexibility whilst also ensuring the collaborative approach to working that so many businesses depend upon. It certainly has potential, but the question remains, does it have the ability to become a long-term solution? Only time (and some incredibly intelligent people at Silicon Valley) will tell.
"Virtual reality offers innovative solutions that no other technology is able to accomplish"