Is Remote Work Better in a 3D Virtual Office?

An immersive remote virtual world might closely replicate the feeling and psychological boost of having a friendly colleague stop by to chat. But it also could lead to unwelcome disruptions.

I happened to read an article in The New York Times last weekend about a reporter, Kashmir Hill, who spent 24 hours (broken up with breaks) in Meta’s (Facebook’s) metaverse. She writes about getting so wrapped up in this alternate reality that she accidentally hit her young child while gesticulating and also injured herself at one point doing the same—responding to a world that’s really happening, but not physically speaking, just inside her virtual reality headset. She was harassed by “street” bullies who surrounded and taunted her virtual self. She also had more pleasant moments, including a visit to a virtual comedy club.

Despite the moments of enjoyment, it doesn’t sound great to me. Hill also reports that she found it better to sit, or at least stand in one place, rather than move around or walk while wearing the headset due to the onset of motion sickness.

The Possibility Is Real

I thought to myself, “Who would want all that virtual disruption and trouble?” Then, several days later, I came upon an article in Axios by Ina Fried and Scott Rosenberg about the strong possibility that companies eventually will create such virtual universes to serve as remote workplaces. Meta has partnered with Microsoft to bring Meta’s virtual reality headset and virtual world to home offices.

Fried and Rosenberg acknowledge that almost no one is in the metaverse yet, but that we should keep our eyes on this space because there is so much investment among powerful companies toward it. “…when the giants throw tens of billions at building something, it looks likely to happen—and will grow more affordable and ubiquitous with time,” they write. The note further: “It’s still really early, but Meta is moving in the right direction with the Quest Pro. You can see your real keyboard as you take notes, and sip a drink without taking off the headset… But office work in VR still isn’t comfortable enough to do for hours at a time. And it would be nice to be able to put on a headset and feel like you are right next to your co-worker in a remote meeting.”

Relative Peace vs. Welcome Disruptions

My question: What happens to the relative peace and concentration advantages of work from home when that work, and interactions with colleagues, move to a virtual 3D world? Just as Times reporter Hill found herself harassed much the way you might on the streets in-person, would the same irritations and disruptions of the in-person office become part of virtual reality-powered remote work?

In some ways, those disruptions would be welcome. Working from home typically is simpler for those who live alone (with nothing more complicated/demanding than a pet to navigate) than for those with roommates or families. But remote work for those living alone also can be isolating. An immersive virtual world might closely replicate the feeling and psychological boost of having a friendly colleague stop by to chat. It also could diffuse situations that become conflicts over e-mail or text. The dynamic is shifted between two people when you are in-person (or have the sense that you are in-person in the same room) versus communicating remotely. Video calls can be helpful, but they don’t replicate the feeling of being in-person with a colleague.

Freedom from Power Struggles?

I wonder if virtual reality interactions at work will mirror the same power struggles of the in-person world. In meetings, will softer-spoken people and women still struggle to get a word in among men and those who are more aggressive? I ask because this is my usual struggle as a soft-spoken, petite woman. Even when I assert myself, it can be hard to push through the “I-hold-the-floor” privileged mindset of some people. In fact, I was rebuked once by a male colleague for not letting him speak. Without the physicality of the in-person world, in which the larger body size and deeper, typically louder male speaking voice can impact interactions, will it be different?

There are also possible freedom-of-identity advantages that could play a role. An avatar, versus your physical self, can be presented any way you like. In-person, you can be a petite, soft-spoken woman but bring a huge, booming-voiced avatar to the meeting table. How would that change the interaction with colleagues?

There are advantages to remote work and possible advantages to working at home within a virtual world. How do you enjoy the psychological benefits of feeling in-person with colleagues and the freedom to use an avatar in a virtual world without taking away from the relative peace of working from home?

Is your organization researching the possibility of a 3D virtual workplace? How might this immersive virtual workplace make interactions between co-workers better? How might it detract from the work-from-home experience?