How the Metaverse is slowly changing the workplace

As companies struggle to get employees back into offices full-time, interest in a virtual alternative like the Metaverse has grown, offering new business opportunities for companies like New York-based IA Interior Architects.

An architect by training, Guy Messick has spent almost 40 years designing physical office and retail spaces worldwide. His design firm, IA Interior Architects, helped bring Uber’s New York office and Mastercard’s tech hub to life.

The corona pandemic has changed everything. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find him with a virtual reality headset in his home office than on construction sites.

“When we all went home a couple of years ago, we got instant interest from clients who had worked with us and were like, ‘Well, what about this extended reality stuff,'” said Messick, IA’s head of design technologies Interior Architects. “Immediately the light went on and we said let’s use our experience in both design and this technology.”

Gavin Menichini conducts a demonstration of the Immersed Virtual Reality program at the Immersed offices on January 28, 2022 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Sergio FLORES / AFP)

Gavin Menichini conducts a demonstration of the Immersed Virtual Reality program at the Immersed offices on January 28, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Sergio FLORES / AFP)

Frustrated with Zoom calls and those muted squares, Messick said employers were increasingly looking for new ways to engage workers, nearly three years after the work-from-home experiment. And they find that upgrading is much easier in the Metaverse.

“Initially, we thought along with the customers that we would replicate theirs [office] Space… that didn’t actually happen once,” Messick said. “[Virtual spaces] have the branding and maybe the feel and the look [of the physical office] but you don’t have the same rules.”

A case in point is IA’s Atlanta Studio location. While the physical office was being built near the city’s Midtown area, Messick and his team decided to transport the same structure to the coast of South Africa when it came to designing the metaverse. In the absence of face-to-face meetings, employees have since hosted happy hours and brainstorming sessions along the virtual waterfront.

Messick said that IA designers paid special attention to the use of biophilia to ensure that the rippling water or grass and trees moving in the virtual world are as real as possible.

“We’ve conducted many design study groups, both internally and externally, and the two most common requests have consistently been outdoor spaces and views,” Messick said.

An example of BCG's metaverse.  (Photo: BCG)

An example of BCG’s metaverse. (Photo: BCG)

A mixed reality

According to Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the global metaverse market is expected to reach nearly $400 billion over the next two years, with virtual assets such as NFTs and hardware driving gains.

But with all the focus around Mark Zuckerberg and Meta (META)’s vision of a digital commerce empire built in the virtual world, non-gaming adoption is largely centered in corporate offices. Fortune 500 companies are increasingly using virtual reality headsets to train new employees, hold meetings with colleagues and gather a global workforce for company retreats.

BCG employees began exploring use cases for the Metaverse a few years ago. Since the pandemic began, the company has held more than 5,500 virtual meetings at the Metaverse for internal conferences, pitch meetings with clients and recruitment efforts, according to Sarah Willersdorf, global head of luxury at BCG.

The virtual office spaces, designed by Munich-based Arthur Technologies, span snowy resorts and tropical retreats. Users can exchange sticky notes, share ideas on a whiteboard, and sip virtual drinks while having private conversations in a group environment.

BCG's metaverse includes virtual meetings.  (Photo: BCG)

BCG’s metaverse includes virtual meetings. (Photo: BCG)

“I think after two years of Zoom or Teams, most people are exhausted and tired of looking at their own image and tired of being there,” Willersdorf said. “Actually being in a virtual environment that feels a lot closer is really unique.”

Willersdorf and Messick said the virtual experience is still in a very early stage. While interactions are currently largely limited to legless avatars and clunky headsets, Messick sees a future that seamlessly blends the real and the digital in mixed reality.

“A mixed reality is when you observe your office as it is now and you greet people from other locations as avatars and holograms,” he said. “We believe that will be the case in the near future.”

This reality will likely come with the launch of mixed reality headsets from Meta and Apple (AAPL), which are expected within the next year. And while companies remain divided over the feasibility of hybrid or remote work, Willersdorf says BCG plans to continue to integrate its virtual office space into its work depth.

“When I think about the next generation of workers, that’s the way they interact now,” she said. If you envision them showing up and becoming collaborators, it will no longer be alien.”

Akiko Fujita is a presenter and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita

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