Basic forms of digital media use, or virtuality, like videoconferencing have provided flexibility for workers, especially during the recent COVID-19 lockdowns. Some people have found that virtuality brings structure to their workplace and allows them to focus more intensely without the distractions of the office. Some experts suggest that it improves the sharing of unique information, that is, information held by only one team member. Experts, however, also say that it can hinder creativity by preventing all participants in meetings from access to peripheral visual stimuli that generate associative thinking and new ideas.
Given these constraints, wouldn’t it be nice if other kinds of virtuality allowed for a friendly team dynamic where people could generate ideas openly? Is the metaverse the answer?
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is a digital environment where people can meet, events can be organized, objects can be designed, and goods and services bought and sold. It is intended to be the digital version of the real world.
The metaverse has become trendy these days: It offers traceability and a personalized experience thanks to the use and application of technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and Blockchain. The experience of being in the metaverse is also becoming more real because various platforms use VR to anthropomorphize avatars to a high fidelity. Some people say VR allows them to feel closer and more connected to their friends, family members, and even colleagues at work.
Given the emergence of these innovations, the IDB Behavioral Economics Group and the IDB TechLab explored the views of a group of early adopters of metaverse tools at the IDB to find out how they viewed metaverse meetings. Following the literature on organizational behavior, we designed a survey based on hypothesized, or theoretical, pillars of productivity-enhancing communication. The survey, conducted between May and June of 2022, involved nine of 15 IDB consultants and staff who use the metaverse.
We wanted to know several things: how it helped shape the information users share with team members (unique or open information); if it equalized the status of team members; and how it generated emotional affect and emotional safety. It was important to get a sense of where the metaverse falls with regards to the dynamics of meetings and imagine its future use in our organization.
Figure 1. Hypothesized Pillars of Productivity-enhancing Communication
We found that the early adopters at the IDB see the metaverse as facilitating the sharing of unique information. Most interviewees say that the metaverse performs as well as standard video conference software for organized meetings. And they say it seemed particularly beneficial for exploratory and creative meetings. They believe this is related to the headsets (the Oculus headset) that prevent the use of one’s phone or computer, thus blocking external stimuli and allowing people to be more present during meetings.
A particular characteristic of the metaverse is the existence of an avatar representing each individual. We find that users identify and are happy with the look of their avatar, which may foster openness by creating a sense of security that allows individuals to speak their minds. We find that the metaverse moderately enhances the user’s sense of influence, that is, having equal opportunity to weigh in on topics regardless of their rank. Most interviewees think a person’s participation in a metaverse meeting would not be influenced by their boss’s avatar attending.
We do not find evidence supporting the metaverse’s enhancement of affect, a sense of team satisfaction, cohesion, and trust. Still, there is some indication that blocking external stimuli, and thus increasing user’s focus, may contribute to a growing sense of connectedness and affect over time. Finally, we find mixed evidence regarding emotional safety. On the one hand, most interviewees think that people of lesser rank would feel moderately more comfortable or very comfortable speaking their minds in the metaverse. On the other hand, they do not see it as particularly good for sharing personal and serious topics with their boss. They also say that it could be difficult to read other people’s emotions in the metaverse.
In short, the metaverse’s strength as a platform for project teams may lie in its ability to block external stimuli and allow interactions through an avatar. These mechanisms seem to promote two pillars of productivity-enhancing communication in work-related meetings: unique information and openness. A caveat that warrants mention is the survey’s small sample size. Therefore, we consider this an exploratory exercise with early adopters of this technology. As it becomes more widespread, we will perhaps be able to draw more conclusive results.
The metaverse aims to transform our digital experiences as we know them. At the TechLab, the emerging tech laboratory at the IDB, we will continue to explore the impact that this emerging technology has on our team’s productivity as the Behavioral Economics Group continues thinking about innovative ways to use it to change our behavior for the better.
[Editorial note: IDB Lab, the IDB Group’s innovation lab, has launched a call in partnership with Meta to support communities that leverage their immersive and augmented capabilities, foster better connections and promote the responsible, ethical and impactful use of new technologies.]