3 views: Is the metaverse for work or play?

The widespread success of platforms ranging from Second Life to Roblox shows that people are open to virtual worlds where they can socialize, play games, exchange information, and share some laughs. More recently, the rise of virtual HQs, Meta’s investment in interactive social software, and a handful of acquisitions by Microsoft signal that the metaverse could play a role in the future of work as well.

We’re lucky there’s still a lack of consensus regarding what the metaverse may look like long-term: dueling perspectives help us think more broadly about use cases that will help define this still-amorphous concept and bring it into the mainstream.

We unpacked our initial thoughts on Equity, so listen to the latest podcast episode for a starting point. Natasha Mascarenhas, Alex Wilhelm and Anita Ramaswamy, our newest crypto and fintech reporter, discussed the future of the metaverse and whether its prevailing use will be for work or for play:

  • Anita Ramaswamy: At the metaverse water cooler, workers can have the best of both worlds
  • Natasha Mascarenhas: The metaverse clashes with the future of work
  • Alex Wilhelm: Inch by inch, the further melding of work, play, and identity

Anita Ramaswamy: At the metaverse water cooler, workers can have the best of both worlds

We can’t analyze the future of the metaverse without defining it. To people who don’t live and breathe on the blockchain, the internet in its current state is the metaverse. The metaverse people are buzzing about today is a layer over existing tech, not a departure from it. Ultimately, the companies that will see actual gains from the rise of the newer metaverse are the ones that can attract users beyond the crypto-native set — and those will likely be the big tech platforms through their focus on the office.

The metaverse’s value as a disruptive tool is limited in the realm of play. While video games will likely continue to become more immersive, this development is status quo. Gaming and entertainment companies already rely on attracting users by improving the user experience, so I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say the metaverse, as a new concept, will truly disrupt gaming beyond its natural progression.

The office is a different story.

A metaverse layer over remote work systems can allow workers to have their cake and eat it too. The benefits of working remotely, for many, are clear – increased flexibility, shortened commute time, and more control over one’s personal obligations, especially for those in caretaker roles.

But remote work can be isolating and may even hinder learning, particularly for young employees. Apps like Slack and Zoom just aren’t cutting it because of their unnatural and disjointed feel, and even solutions like spatial audio apps don’t foster organic connections in the same way as, say, walking up to your colleague’s avatar to ask them a question real-time, “face-to-face.”

So if employees can congregate through their avatars at the metaverse water cooler to build relationships without having to put on makeup or real pants, why wouldn’t they? Managers, too, would likely jump at the chance to increase engagement (and monitoring).

Big tech companies like Meta, Microsoft, and Apple already have tons of users who aren’t deeply immersed in web3, and many of their products are already deeply embedded in the corporate workplace. All they have to do is build metaverse tech that both workers and managers find useful, and they’ll have a ready user base.

Natasha Mascarenhas: The metaverse contradicts with the future of work

The way I work directly clashes with the vision of the metaverse, which is a fluid, living virtual space that promotes spontaneous connection and dynamic conversations. As much as I crave eavesdropping on my co-workers, I can’t imagine that toggling around a virtual office would get me closer to those learning moments. Why? Because I’m busy (and you are, too).

Don’t get me wrong: I see why distributed work needs a refresh in how employees think about communication and collaboration. It’s not a fluke that Tinder is building a virtual HQ. I just don’t think employees, as exhausted and tool fatigued as ever, have the bandwidth to adopt yet another channel for live feedback.

Instead, when it comes to innovation within work, I’m much more convinced that the tools helping remote teams be asynchronous — either through how they take meetings or share feedback — are meeting employees where they are. People are more scattered than ever, and demanding them to be present in yet another spot feels backwards.

So while I clearly don’t think virtual worlds will take off for companies, I do think we’ll see facets of them — from avatars to more spontaneous huddles — growing popular at work. Your startup’s All Hands may not need an Oculus for entry, but maybe we take off video and replace it with avatars. What if the happy hour is on Gather instead of on Zoom? There are natural overlaps that can empower workers and favor distributed work at the same time.

The most effective use case of the metaverse will thus be a little bit more nuanced than our current work stack of productivity tools, calendar, e-mail, Zoom and Slack. The metaverse is best when it feels like a place to congregate around a shared reason or event, unpack a big question, or celebrate. Kind of like my Twitter DMs whenever something controversial happens in tech twitter.

Consumers flock towards vulnerability, so I think that a virtual world will become mainstream if it feels like the only place that we can go to feel heard. A public square, beyond our 180-character version of it.

Alex Wilhelm: Inch by inch, the further melding of work, play, and identity

The metaverse promises a blend of work and life that’s different, but not entirely distinct, from our mixing of our professional and personal lives. This is why I am skeptical that any one company can nail the metaverse — Meta’s take will be ad-tech fused to gamified engagement metrics, while Microsoft wants to build up from digital avatars in Teams, it appears. Neither is correct.

You aren’t your job, we’re told. But our society also tells us to base a huge portion of our self-worth on our work, and the scale of its financial remuneration. The concept of work-life balance is not new, but I reckon that recent conversations during the pandemic concerning the blending together of our for-profit and for-joy lives is indication that work is besting life for many of us. In simpler words, working from home has unified our labor and leisure.

In response, many of us have thrown up our hands and accepted that work is not separate from life, and that our self-conceptions are predicated on our employment, perhaps even as much as it is based on what we do in the rest of our time. As an aside, this is partially why the idea of mission-driven companies is resonant today; if I am going to allow my work to be that key to my life, I had best be doing something other than helping drill seals for shale oil.

But the work that major companies are doing is not entirely dismissable. We’re still in the early days of building a truly mass-market metaverse, and the work that big tech accomplishes in that direction should help by providing natural experiments, and clearing the ground for consumers to get on board.

I expect that the metaverse will enter the mainstream through cheaper and better hardware, more sophisticated and delightful software, and rising consumer acceptance of the digital identity as core to their overall concept of the self. No single push is going to make this happen overnight, but the final result could be user-centered, secure, decentralized in a non-blockchain sense, and fun. Such a metaverse would be useful for both work and play, allowing us to move into a more digital future with both halves of our lives intact.

Precisely how we get there is not clear, but I don’t expect a thunder-clap, iPhone-launch moment to occur, propelling the metaverse into my parents’ house in a single push. It will come in pieces. Let’s just hope that when we assemble the provided building blocks, we don’t build just another ad-tech leviathan, or token-based gambling den.