The metaverse is coming to the world of work.
Zoom and other video conferencing apps have become the new normal in remote work. But a new generation of spatial collaboration tools is coming, built on the 3D game engines that power Fortnight and Roblox. Could these new immersive tools help make working at a distance better than the flat, Zoom Hollywood Squares of poorly lit videos? The answer depends on avatars: how people will appear in the company of others. From decorative face filters, to the ability to appear as a Japanese anime-style figure, a glowy translucent StarWars-inspired hologram projected by your droid or an animoji fox, the avatar form you take should suit the type of conversation you hope to have in the workplace.
It would be hard to make video conferencing worse.
“Cameras on” is rarely enforced, so teammates show up as dots with their initials in most work meetings. It’s a lost opportunity; so much of the information we use to communicate is conveyed through micro-expressions, hand gestures and our proximity to one another. Avatars can give these online conversations more presence and energy and make human interaction easier.
A metaverse where coworkers are observable can bring back some of the richness of gaze, pose, and gesture that help us manage turn-taking and gauge interest and engagement in real-life encounters.
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Sitting statically for hours saps our attention, and even when our coworkers’ cameras are on, staring into another person’s face continuously is cognitively demanding. In real-life conversations, the speaker usually looks at her companion only one-third of the time. Embodied avatars may give us the ability to wander around or stare out the virtual office windows or better, virtual trains and planes as we meet. These new meeting places can inspire conversation and provide context too.
Avatars let you be anything.
We’ve been crafting digital versions of ourselves for games like the Nintendo Wii and more recently using animojis on the iPhone. So far, the culture is to build an avatar that is recognizable to others as you–a digital selfie. But choosing an avatar for work is more important because it will affect client and coworker relationships.
Of course, avatars can also be masks that conceal identity entirely. In popular multiplayer games like Valorant, players play a fantasy avatar that offers disguise, a set of talents and storytelling immersion.
In the 3d century A.D., Romans used battle masks to make soldiers appear fearsome. The masks of Carnivale in Italy and of Mardi Gras provide anonymity and lack of accountability that allow people to explore other facets of themselves and behave differently than they would in their day-to-day life. Work avatars could let people inhabit a “constructed self” to project exaggerated emotions, like Greek actors who don tragedy masks in a play.
New dress codes for the work metaverse.
With so many new ways to represent ourselves, we’ll need new etiquette–and not just for our faces. Where will we go for guidance on how to dress appropriately for the work metaverse? There is no Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times in the Microsoft Mesh world, no Tom Ford or Anna Wintour there to help us navigate. The issue of dress in the workplace is sensitive, layered, and nuanced. Will the same brands have influence online? When coworkers show up in Monday morning’s staff meeting as a rockstar hedgehog, a brontosaurus or a dewdrop, it will certainly change the conversation.
To test the most recent avatars we put on our Oculus Quest headsets and dropped into Meta Horizons and Microsoft Altspace. Horizons is a perpetual cocktail party hosted by the company formerly known as Facebook for anyone in the world to talk about anything. In both, step one is the avatar-building experience.
Since these environments are “chat with anyone” experiences, we chose fashion extremes, more like dressing up for a dance club. In Horizons, you hear people’s real voices, but you don’t know their names or where they are from or their topics of interest, so the only way to find your “tribe” is the social signals of how you appear: your hair, glasses, clothing, tattoos, piercings, and more.
In an environment like this where it’s free to appear any way you want (jewelry, hair, makeup, and tattoos cost nothing) and you can switch your appearance in an instant, hyper-expressive competition is inevitable: the more outlandish, exaggerated adornment, the more likely you are to be noticed. In Horizons, we were like peacocks–and people from around the world flocked to us for a chat.
- There is such an opportunity to represent ourselves in richer ways! Every platform we tested reflects Gen Z’s eternal love affair with tee shirts and jeans and hackneyed stereotypes that reflect immaturity. What’s needed are more options for clothing that reflects a diversity of cultural heritage, ages, and hairstyles that authentically reflect race.
- Gesture is currently the most engaging part of your avatar since the mapping between your real and virtual hands is so precise.
- Taking a virtual selfie of your avatar and the people around you both gives you something to do and a way to connect again;
- With such a broad audience we need tools to find people with similar interests.
A framework for avatars at work
When is it better to interact with coworkers as hyper-realistic high-res video, versus an anime-style cartoon of yourself that also conveys facial expressions and gestures, versus an avatar that isn’t even close to humanoid? It depends on the type of conversation.
The 2×2 below maps out many ways you might show up at work. The vertical axis shows differences in affect. The higher up the avatar style, the more it represents authentic emotional states, genuine expressions, and real gestures. The lower down the avatar appears, the more synthesized or puppeted the avatar’s behaviors are.
The horizontal axis is a continuum of representational styles from abstract non-human shapes and objects, to animals and fantastical characters, to low-resolution human-like avatars, to actual high-resolution video, perhaps with filters to stylize your face. (Beware of the potential for 3D human avatars that are near replicas of human beings to fall into the uncanny valley, as tools like Spatial do.)
Let’s consider six types of common work conversations and how we might think about which type of avatar to choose for each, and why. You wouldn’t have to stick with a single avatar for all your work needs; you could, and we believe should, morph your self-expression throughout the day, based on the needs of each conversation. A summary of these is here, but let’s take them one by one.
1 – Customer service
Use constructed behaviors and more lifelike avatar styles.
A customer service agent is expected to appear cheerful, smiling, considerate, and interested. Humans are rarely this consistently sunny. In these conversations, an effective avatar serves as a realistic mask to help service agents engage with customers in a way that helps them feel connected and understood. For most brands, customers will prefer to interact with an avatar that is serious and nearly human rather than a fantastical fox or poop animoji.
2 – Hiring Interviews
Blend constructed and authentic affect and more abstracted avatar styles.
An avatar interview can protect potential hires by concealing race, gender, and age, in addition to surname–all facts that, in most cases, shouldn’t prejudice an interview. And a fox decked out in a suit can make for a more approachable and disarming interviewer. Abstracted avatars support this kind of introductory conversation and may help the interviewer disclose less about themselves. Like a Catholic confessional or Freudian couch, the abstracted avatar becomes a stand-in for the culture and personality of the organization.
3 – Product Design Workshop
Use authentic affect and avatar styles that make teams generative.
In a design-thinking workshop or product-critique session, it’s often useful to give teammates roles. For example, one person is a fact-finder, another the assigned optimist, another a black-hatted skeptic, another a time-keeper and scribe, etc. Assigning these explicit roles drive more participation; the temporary role-based structure helps people feel comfortable joining in and lead to more ideas that can be culled down into better and more non-obvious solutions.
4 – The all-hands meeting
Use uniform avatar styles.
Large meetings are like military parades. Leaders must radiate excitement and enthusiasm in communicating a clear and unified purpose. You want employees to be impressed, inspired, and feel an “all for one and one for all” esprit de corps. Standard uniforms engineer this type of belonging.
We see real-world evidence of the effectiveness of this kind of avatar everywhere: school soccer teams who all bleach their hair before a match; tribal war paint at football games; military uniforms.
5 – Sales and pitch meetings
Blend authenticity with synthesized behaviors and use more human avatar styles.When pitching, authenticity is essential. Still, an avatar might help amplify enthusiasm and positivity. An avatar powered by the startup Krisp makes your voice clearer, clean up your appearance, and Kondo-ize your background to make these interactions more effective.
6 – Coaching and mentoring conversationsUse the most authentic affect and the most human avatar style–or no avatar at all.
While it may initially feel easy to open up to an anonymous chatbot, humans crave authentic human connection. More than in any other kind of work conversation, during coaching and mentoring the artifice of avatars gets in the way. Use unadorned video, or face to face conversations in IRL to build an empathic alliance for mentoring relationships.
So how will you show up on Monday in the metaverse?
Since you can change your avatar as often as you’d like in the metaverse workspace, choose wisely and often. Set up a “closet” of at least six selves for the different conversational categories we’ve outlined above. Consider your companies’ culture and the goals for each type of conversation you need to have.
Playing with identity is both empowering and fraught. As a society, we are losing hold of truth in the face of fake news and deep fakes, and at the same time, we have never been more self-aware and sensitive to issues like DEI. Avatars at work will have the potential to mask gender, age, ethnicity, body type. And as you work with others you won’t be able to believe your eyes. Ideally, this identity obfuscation allows us to become more accustomed to diversity and focus on the meritocracy of ideas.
The avatar you choose plays a big role in creating productive outcomes for each type of conversation in the metaverse of work. And soon, you’ll be able to swap avatars with a double click of your heels.