In his end-of-year blog post, Bill Gates predicted that, within two or three years, most Zoom meetings will migrate to the metaverse, a 3D space one accesses with an augmented reality (AR) headset—and a digital avatar.
According to Roshni Raveendhran, assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and Cathy Hackl, a futurist and metaverse expert, Gates’ timeline may be a bit ambitious; they put the metaverse potentially becoming the dominant virtual meeting site at around 10 years out.
But some companies are ahead of the curve. Both Facebook, with Horizon Workrooms, and Microsoft, with Mesh, have begun making the shift; Gates expects other companies, far beyond the tech industry, to follow suit.
“The idea is that you will eventually use your avatar to meet with people in a virtual space that replicates the feeling of being in an actual room with them,” Gates wrote. “To do this, you’ll need something like VR [virtual reality] goggles and motion capture gloves to accurately capture your expressions, body language, and the quality of your voice.”
The shift will necessitate companies doling out the requisite tools to their employees, which, he acknowledged, will “slow adoption somewhat.” Nonetheless, he said, people’s desire for social interaction across a dispersed landscape will propel the move. “There’s still some work to do,” Gates concluded. “But we’re approaching a threshold where the technology begins to truly replicate the experience of being together in the office.”
Indeed a 2020 PricewaterhouseCoopers report predicts over 23 million jobs worldwide will use AR and VR by 2030 for employee training, meetings, and customer service. Plus, Raveendhran said, “companies have been investing billions in virtual reality and AR for years; it’s no surprise VR is more around the corner than expected.”
Zoom versus metaverse
Virtual meetings, on platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams, were hard enough to sort out in the early days of the pandemic. Bosses had to grapple with the abstract details, like the efficacy of camera-on versus camera-off meetings, and those more concrete, like whether to subsidize employees’ internet bill or pay for better equipment.
Shifting to the metaverse is unlikely to fix any of these issues, nor offer many clearer solutions. But holding meetings on the completely new platform, which doesn’t require a camera, could still be a huge jump forward.
While virtual meetings have been an undeniable boon to business over the past two years, mental exhaustion with constant video chats, dubbed “Zoom fatigue,” has become commonplace, February 2021 research from Stanford University found. “If you want to show someone that you’re agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up,” research author Jeremy Bailenson wrote. “That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”
And while to the uninitiated, the idea of sending your VR avatar to the quarterly sales meeting might sound intimidating, some experts predict it will take the pressure off. Says Raveendhran: “We can envision being present in that virtual space without having to worry about how we look, how we’re reacting, how our background looks. We can just be present.”
Hackl points out that companies need not make workers choose avatars that represent a physical form; they could instead opt for more fantastical representations that don’t account for skin tone, hair color, or gender, like robots. “That could be a tool to make people feel more welcome or included in some meetings,” she said. “And with VR capabilities, people who are differently abled will have access to new roles or jobs. There may be something to unlock there.”
Both Raveendhran and Hackl acknowledged meetings that hinge on deeper bonding or team building, such as new hire orientations or holiday parties, are still best done in person. “Your company can’t treat you to a cocktail virtually,” Hackl said.
Raveendhran likens the metaverse to an “upgraded, more present” version of a phone call. It can let people be virtually present without compromising on the psychological distance they may need. For example, “if you need to speak with your boss about something sensitive, VR allows for being able to have that conversation as though you’re in the same room, but still with some psychological distance.”
On the flip side, leaders spend a lot of time learning to become better communicators, including by reading visual cues, Hackl pointed out. “Doing meetings in VR, you’ll have to train in a totally different way to understand how to engage with avatars, which don’t have human facial cues.”
Additionally, unlike Zoom, metaverse meetings may have a cap on how long they can feasibly run, Hackl said. With even today’s most advanced VR devices, Hackl said she hits a 45-minute limit. “I don’t think I could wear a headset for a six-hour video call.”
Metaverse meetings, she said, will end up being shorter ones that focus on collaboration and co-creation, which is better accomplished in a setting that mimics an office plan.
With a service like the metaverse that allows for increased parasocial relationships, bosses must not lose sight of psychological imperatives like belonging and companionship, which are key to a healthy workforce. For some employees, seeing their coworkers’ faces on Zoom may have been a welcome respite from an otherwise lonely day.
“We would have to carefully attend to the physical implications of the headsets, too,” Raveendhran said. “Like if it harms our eyesight or implicates our brain functions; we don’t know any of these things now, and we won’t know until there’s more of a continual usage pattern. We need to pay attention to some of those before we go into full-scale adoption.”
Despite the potential, meetings in the metaverse may not be the answer to many leaders’ concerns; after all, most workplaces remain somewhat divided on an in-person versus virtual dynamic.
“A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work,” Raveendhran said. “Some people will love the metaverse; some will be happy with Zoom and won’t want new tech; and some would rather just meet in person and avoid both altogether.”
Regardless of where companies land, their leaders’ clear openness to the idea would only stand to benefit them, Raveendhran noted, by showing their employees they aren’t stuck in their ways.
“Subordinates perceive bosses who are open to adopting new tech as much more trustworthy and open-minded,” she said. “As we start thinking of the metaverse or any new tech, there’s generally this hesitation around whether adopting it will help or change a company’s culture, and there are obviously a lot of things to consider on both sides.”
As the metaverse proliferates in workplaces, Hackl said, leaders considering hopping aboard should seek to recruit young people, “crypto natives,” or gamers already comfortable in virtual spaces.
“This will become second nature to the younger generation,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean everyone will be comfortable with it, so leaders need to be mindful of that.”
Fortune’s upcoming Brainstorm Design conference is going to dive into how businesses are building experiences in the metaverse. Apply to attend the event on May 23-24 in New York.