As workers enter the metaverse, how much privacy will they surrender at the virtual door?

VR proponents are hopeful that the metaverse could reinvent remote work, but the new tech could be more intrusive than employees realize.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba; Photo: Israel Andrade/Unsplash

· 6 min read

The architects of technological change like Facebook, Microsoft, and others are busy building 3D simulated worlds on top of the physical reality we call IRL existence. Their new ambition is to create the metaverse—a series of interconnected, 3D environments that humans explore via avatar, conversing and collaborating through spatial audio.

It may one day be your place of business. The mad dash toward the metaverse isn’t only about Big Tech, video games, and boatloads of advertising dollars. Startups such as Virbela and Gather are focusing specifically on creating virtual, metaverse-based offices for flesh-and-blood workers.

VR’s proponents believe the technology has the potential to overcome many of the challenges faced by distributed companies. The metaverse “helps people put together the organization as a whole when they’re disconnected physically,” said Erin McDannald, the CEO of Environments by LE, an IoT tech firm that facilitates virtual workplaces.

But while beaming workers into virtual rooms could foster better collaboration than screen sharing on Microsoft Teams, some privacy experts warn that there is currently little in the way of regulation when it comes to the metaverse, particularly regarding the collection of biometric data. As Kavya Pearlman, founder of the nonprofit Extended Reality Safety Initiative (XRSI), told the Washington Post, VR tech could enable employers to monitor eye-tracking and facial movements to analyze whether workers are “paying enough attention” to virtual presentations, and hiring managers could conceivably mine VR data in an attempt to assess a job applicant’s “cognitive load” during an interview.

And real-world workplace problems like micromanagement won’t be automatically vanquished when workers inhabit digital environments. Worker surveillance, too, could easily be replicated in virtual reality, alongside newer and possibly more invasive methods of employee monitoring, Rory Mir, a grassroots advocacy organizer at digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explained to HR Brew.

Working in VR settings “opens up this data collection to a much broader and more invasive range of information,” potentially things like “a full map of your home,” or “detailed information about your eye movements,” Mir explained.

In person, sort of...For McDannald, the metaverse is destined to make our current forms of remote workplace communication obsolete. This means Google Meet conferences, Zooms, and Cisco Webex meetings would—in the most grandiose vision of metaverse hopefuls—be replaced by trips to immersive, digital environments via VR headsets. “I’m sorry to tell you that I do think [the metaverse will] replace Zoom. And I think, in a lot of ways, it will begin to replace email,” McDannald predicted.

“No one wants to do a complex negotiation on Zoom,” argued David Rock, the co-founder and executive director of HR consultancy, the NeuroLeadership Institute. “Why is that? Because they feel like they’re missing the nuance of people’s emotions and thoughts.”

VR is being studied as a way to help workers who are experiencing burnout, and startups like Strivr provide VR training for workers across a range of industries and count Walmart as a client. Gather CEO Phillip Wang told TechCrunch that the company had reached 4 million users last year, in addition to $76 million in funding. Investors see a golden opportunity, according to a November report from crypto asset manager Grayscale Investments, which noted: “The Metaverse is estimated to be a trillion-dollar revenue opportunity across advertising, social commerce, digital events, hardware, and developer/creator monetization.”

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VR will allow companies to reinvent the onboarding and training experiences of remote workers, Regina Nowlan, the senior director of learning strategy at Computer Generated Solutions, explained. “From an onboarding perspective, you can even use it when you’re interviewing. People could get a realistic job preview of what a role might look like…we can show people what their headquarters look like.”

Moreover, placing teams together at a virtual whiteboard could breed greater creativity, Rock argued. “I think it has the opportunity to increase our ability to collaborate and engage. But it’s a simulation. It’s still going to be a simulation of being together.”

More meta, more problems? It’s possible, privacy advocates warn, that metaverse tech could compound and complicate remote surveillance that’s spiked in recent years. “Compared to traditional social media, companies can monitor physiological responses and biometric data such as facial expressions, vocal inflections, and vital signs in real time while participants are in their metaverse,” lawyers Imran Amad and Tiana Corovic wrote on the blog, Data Protection Report, in January.

In Rory Mir’s view, the employer-employee dynamic makes workplaces particularly appealing to tech companies looking to collect data. “The companies developing this technology are very interested in workplaces,” Mir said. “Because generally, if you make something, you might not be able to force a consumer to buy it, but a boss can force a worker to wear it, and it is a way to kind of ensure a lot of units are sold, and if proper privacy protections aren’t demanded by the bosses, then it is also a way to gather more information.”

The next generation of Oculus VR headsets will “be able to mirror your face and eye movements,” the Washington Post reported. “Where you’re looking can affect how [VR] renders things and how the experience changes,” Mir said, warning that data concerning where workers look and for how long could potentially be used by employers for disciplinary measures. “When you have this huge stack of information on someone and you want to discipline [them], you can dig through that data and generally find a reason.”

Moreover, interpersonal workplace issues, such as squabbles between colleagues or outright harassment, aren’t likely to go away when people work in the metaverse, David Rock said. When it comes to workers mistreating each other in a digital environment, “if it feels real, it kind of is real,” he said. “If someone feels psychologically attacked in this space, it’s going to feel very real, just as if they were in person.”

Zoom out. Nevertheless, one recent survey suggests that a significant percentage of workers are willing to meet in the metaverse. The survey, from Lenovo and YouGov, queried “7,500 working adults across the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, Singapore, China, and Japan,” and found that 44% of respondents are willing to work in the metaverse, and “believe that it can deliver benefits like productivity to the workplace.”—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.