Flexible work models have evolved to be part of the new normal post-COVID-19. A survey by Scoop Technologies of 4,500 companies revealed that about 58% of companies allow employees to work at least one day from home. Among those companies, half have fully remote policies and only 4% require employees to work on-site four days a week. Moreover, according to Gallup, as of February 2023, 33% of employees with remote-capable jobs desire to work exclusively remotely, 60% prefer a hybrid arrangement, and only 7% prefer to work on-site.


Remote work experience largely depends on the digital tools and platforms being used. Among emerging technologies, the enterprise metaverse (EM) has great potential to reshape flexible work models to support employees’ diverse physical, cultural, and neurological needs in a distributed and dynamic fashion. It can facilitate companies’ diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B) missions while enhancing employee collaboration, communication, and productivity in transformational ways.


What Is the EM?


The EM is a type of metaverse—the 3D virtual space that allows people to have lifelike experiences online using avatars. Although the EM typically includes digital replicas of business facilities in the physical world, such as office space, creative additions for employees’ well-being, such as museums, beaches, parks, or even the moon, can also be built into the EM.


To join the EM, employees typically start by creating a personalized avatar. They then can navigate virtual spaces and interact with colleagues like they would in the physical world. An augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) device isn’t always necessary to access the EM (see Microsoft Mesh, for example), but using such devices can make the experience more immersive.


Over the first half of 2022, the word “metaverse” appeared in U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission filings more than 1,100 times, compared with 260 times during all of 2021 and merely several times from 2000 to 2020. In 2022, 150,000 employees at Accenture had their orientation in the EM. And in 2023, 60 Fortune 100 companies are actively developing a metaverse strategy.


Flexible Work Models: A Double-Edged Sword


Being able to work from home is a relief to many underrepresented employees, because working on-site can cause a variety of physical, cultural, and neurological challenges. For example, commuting to work could be especially inconvenient for people with disabilities. Those who have heavy unpaid domestic work and care responsibilities—such as childcare, household maintenance, or looking after a family member with chronic conditions—may struggle to balance multiple fixed schedules. For some, there often isn’t a private space at work to engage in mandatory religious practices. Others with food allergies or high sensitivity to air quality, lighting, sound, temperature, or moving objects could find it stressful to work in an open-concept, neurotypical office space. Flexible work models can offer an alternative to help reduce these stressful situations, which is critical to employee retention. McKinsey & Company reported that underrepresented employees are more likely to not only prefer flexible work models, but also resign when that preference isn’t supported.


Although flexible work models can facilitate their DEI&B efforts, many companies are concerned that being remote may impair employee collaboration, communication, and productivity. Even for companies that implement remote-first models, remote employees are found to be difficult to manage and sometimes considered an operational risk. Since the EM is instant, immersive, and fully digital, it could help companies achieve both their DEI&B goals and sustainable financial growth.


Supporting Physical Needs and Enhancing Collaboration


Getting to work in the EM can be as easy as logging onto one’s computer. This removes some physical logistic constraints for everyone, but it’s particularly beneficial for those who either have physical disabilities or have tight schedules for domestic responsibilities. In fact, there were significant increases (as much as 251%) in the number of women attendees of some professional conferences when they were held online during COVID-19. The EM has the ability to make such professional development opportunities more equitable and can provide employees with nearly an in-person experience because it’s immersive.


Companies often organize team-building events to enhance collaboration, yet employees with physical disabilities may find it difficult to fully participate and enjoy the more physical activities of those events. When those activities are hosted within the EM, they can be more inclusive. AR/VR technologies have already made sports more accessible.


Supporting Cultural Needs and Improving Communication


Employees’ identities will become more diverse in the metaverse than in the physical world. Meta, for example, offers more than one quintillion different combinations of avatar attributes. In the commercial metaverse space, many real-world apparel companies are selling digital outfits, some of which are impossible to produce in the physical world because they have digital effects. Since employees interact with each other using personalized avatars in the EM, they can explore more layers in their cultural identities and optimize their expression in the community. Ultimately, the workforce can evolve to be more diverse.


Employees with different cultural backgrounds have different needs in their workspace. Building, repurposing, or decorating spaces in the EM will likely be more cost-effective and creative than in the real world. Companies can easily support employees’ cultural needs by, for example, building a virtual prayer or event room with a particular cultural theme. For minority employees, being able to connect with in-group colleagues during culturally meaningful times can mitigate the stress from social exclusion and promote a sense of belonging, which will translate into job satisfaction and retention.


The EM can also enhance out-group communications, especially when language presents a major barrier. For those whose work language isn’t their mother tongue, communicating within the EM will be easier than on Zoom, since they can see more body language from a half- or full-body avatar than a headshot. Further, with the help of AI-based language tools currently under development, words from avatars can be translated instantly. Imagine a workplace where colleagues who don’t speak the same language can still have meaningful conversations and develop professional relationships.


Supporting Neurological Needs and Motivating Productivity


Neurodivergent employees—such as those who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or social anxiety disorder—may excel at tasks that bring companies competitive advantages, such as visual memory, pattern identification, problem solving, and outside-the-box thinking. However, these employees are often underemployed because they struggle to be productive in a traditional neurotypical work environment. Companies that ignore neurodiversity are missing out on a large talent pool. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2.7% children are diagnosed with ASD and 9.8% with ADHD.


Flexible work models can help neurodivergent employees maintain a comfortable work schedule and a less stressful work environment. The EM can further improve their work experience by developing neurologically fit work styles for them. Haptic devices for viewing and feeling digital items in the EM typically collect users’ biometric data, such as eye movement, blood pressure, heart rate, and brain wave. Biometric data can indicate individuals’ stress and anxiety levels. Real-time processing of such data will enable AI algorithms to suggest making neurologically fit adjustments to one’s ongoing work style. For instance, when a fast heart rate or high blood pressure is detected, the device can prompt an employee to take self-care practices (e.g., take a break). On a connected network (e.g., the Internet of Things), lighting can be adjusted automatically at the same time to help employees calm down. Moreover, analysis of historical biometric data can help both management and an employee understand the latter’s productivity and growth patterns. In the long run, that will help employees improve their well-being and optimize their productivity.


The EM can be more than a replica of the workplace we see in the physical world today: It can transform what we think of work while offering unique opportunities to redesign and improve work for everyone.

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