By Harold Li, Vice President of ExpressVPN.
Over two years on from the abrupt start of the world’s biggest remote working experiment, debate still rages around what the best way to work is. But the current discourse often boils down to a false binary, pitting the flexible, yet flat, option of videocalls from home against the rigidly traditional in-person workplace.
The reality is that, while the past couple of years have brought rapid advancements in technology that supports remote collaboration—such as video conferencing, messaging apps for business, and VPN services—we have not even yet begun to scratch the surface of what the future of collaboration and communication can look like. One key new frontier for bridging the gap between remote and in-situ working is virtual work environments, or workplaces in the metaverse.
While that may have the potential to be the best of both worlds, how do we mitigate the risks that metaverse working could provide employees with even less freedom than they had when working in a physical space?
At ExpressVPN, we recently conducted a study of 1500 employees and 1500 employers in the US to understand the sentiments around this topic. We found that 77% of employers are interested in pursuing metaverse working environments, but they will have their work cut out convincing their teams to get on board.
Corporate surveillance in the metaverse and its implications for privacy is one of the employees’ chief concerns, and not everyone agrees that going virtual will be a positive thing for workers or businesses.
Employers and Employees Don’t See Eye to Eye
The predominant feelings amongst employers towards metaverse working are excitement and optimism, while employees have an overriding sense of anxiousness and suspicion. This is despite them recognising that it could lead to higher creativity, a better work-life balance, infinite custom workspace, and even the ability to travel virtually.
Unfortunately, by its very nature, in the metaverse your employer is everywhere. Remote employee surveillance is of course nothing new and a massive 73% of employers admitted to already keeping tabs on their staff. But in a virtual world, the possibilities start to dip into Black Mirror territory. Eye and body movement tracking, real-time location and screen monitoring and even spying on social interactions are all possible.
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Employees are right to be cautious. In our study, between 20-40% of employers said they planned to implement some of those exact measures, as well as looking at app usage, time spent on tasks, and even biometrics.
Our data shows that the older the employee, the more sceptical they are about the metaverse. It might sound cliché to suggest that young people are more willing to embrace new technology. But in a looming recession where entry-level workers might be willing to sacrifice privacy in the name of securing a job, there is a real danger that young people could leave themselves, and their privacy, at the mercy of unscrupulous bosses.
Who Can We Trust?
A lot of people are already predisposed to not trusting large companies and that bears out in attitudes about metaverse working. We found that the larger the company, the less its employees are interested in the technology. That might seem like perfectly normal paranoia about the machinations of large corporates. However, they may be right to be concerned. 79% of employers working at companies of 500+ said they are currently surveilling staff, compared to 68% of those with under 500 employees.
But what about the companies actually building these spaces and providing the technology? By far the least popular tech giant amongst workers is, ironically, Meta – with just 36% saying they trust them to lead the workplace revolution. Microsoft (61%), Google (58%) and Apple (57%) are far more trusted.
How To Bridge the Trust Gap
It’s understandable that people are looking critically at the metaverse, given past experiences with the way companies use new technologies. It’s all the more reason that companies with a complex history need to be careful about how they proceed. A few missteps could disastrously impact the onboarding of virtual workspaces and ultimately, undermine its benefits.
Bosses have a moral obligation to be open with their teams and, if monitoring is necessary, to help them understand how their data will be used for the good of everybody – not just as a way of spying on unwanted behaviour.