The metaverse and the evolution of the workplace

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Gabriela Guadarrama García
Basham, Ringe y Correa, Mexico City

What is the metaverse?

As you read this article, many will be wondering what the metaverse is, a question that is not very easy to answer as it has sparked several discussions in recent years. According to William Burns III, a veteran in the field, it is a virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality, virtual worlds and the internet. The prefix ‘meta’ refers to going beyond and together with the word ‘universe’ tries to refer to all the future iterations (repetitions) of the internet in the 3D virtual spaces linked in a perceived virtual universe.

Although this definition is a bit complicated to understand, in simpler terms, the metaverse is a virtual space, created from reality, with infinite possibilities. The metaverse allows reality to exist in a 3D virtual form.

A big bet on the future

Many people are interested in the metaverse and the possibilities. This interest has grown even more in the post-pandemic era, as we have learnt that technology can definitely be a lifeline.

For some, the metaverse can host entire video game worlds, it can be an opportunity to meet with people around the world, perhaps also to build architectural projects, embark on product modelling, or meet with customers. In fact, you can do anything you want in the metaverse.

Based on recent research carried out by McKinsey & Company (2022), the metaverse has the potential to generate up to $5tn in value by 2030. This is a bet on the future. Perhaps in ten years, the most normal thing will be to have virtual reality headsets at home to enter the metaverse.

When we hear words like artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality, metaverse, augmented reality, blockchain and more, they do not refer to the future, but to the present. These are things we see every day, but do not realise are part of these concepts, such as video games, store apps to test products virtually, websites to visit entire cities as if you were there, or popular apps, like ChatGPT, that are changing the way we do things, making everything easier with the help of AI.

The metaverse and the law

When we bear in mind that the internet was invented in 1983, only 40 years ago, and the metaverse has been a popular topic for less than five years, then there is no wonder that there is limited legal precedent for regulating a place that is not well known and is very much a work in progress.

Most of the legal precedents are related to cybersecurity, but the metaverse involves other types of interactions, with psychological and physical implications that can be translated into the real world. In recent years, specialists such as Nitin Kumar have identified crimes, such as cyberbullying, extortion, child pornography, cyberstalking and simulated terrorist camps, in the virtual world.

While there is currently a lack of regulation of the metaverse, its development and relevance is growing. The creation of avatars and digital spaces has presented us great commercial possibilities, even in the area of law. A clear example of this is Grungo Colarulo, a New Jersey-based law firm that already has its own offices in the metaverse.

Recently, in February 2023, a Colombian judge, Juan Manuel Padilla, even used AI through ChatGPT to rule over a case on whether an autistic child’s insurance should cover all of the costs of his medical treatment. He also used precedent from previous rulings to support his decision. In the same month and the same country, the court magistrate, María Victoria Quiñones, hosted the first court hearing in the metaverse, following the plaintiff’s request.

The most interesting question right now is what implications will the metaverse have on people’s lives and on the way we do things?

The evolution of the workplace

Until 2020, the workplace looked the same almost everywhere, with face-to-face as a constant and only a minority of companies considering hybrid or fully online work models. However, the virtuality forced on the world by the Covid-19 pandemic became a reality for most people around the world. The internet, today more than ever, is a tool that facilitates our day-to-day activities and its evolution has benefitted us as a society.

Today's technology trends have shattered conventional beliefs about how the workplace should be. One of the clearest benefits is flexibility: no matter where you are, a large number of activities can be conducted from anywhere in the world. Hence, the emergence of so-called digital nomads, which is an important trend among millennials.

A survey conducted by Owl Labs during 2022, revealed that, globally, 16 per cent of the total number of employees are working remotely, whereas 62 per cent have opted for a hybrid working model. Overall, only 22 per cent of all employees work full-time from the office now.

It is a fact that the workplace will not return to what it was before 2020, but will continue to evolve. For the time being, online or hybrid working takes place in employees’ homes or in other locations chosen by them, such as co-working places. In addition, the tools used are usually just email and online communication platforms including Teams, Zoom and Skype.

Regarding the activities of lawyers, the technological tools necessary to develop our functions are not as complex, as we have seen in this article, although there is a great possibility that in a few years we will also be fully immersed in the metaverse.

Therefore, imagine a workspace in the metaverse, where employers have to provide virtual reality lenses to their employees as part of their work tools. What would happen if one day we start conducting job interviews in the metaverse? Or the companies we work for are completely built in the metaverse? What would be the implications for the parties involved, in terms of their rights and obligations?

In a few years, the metaverse will not only be used to play with or meet other people around the world, rather it will also provide us with a new way to interact and share our knowledge. Our avatars will help us to interact with others, as being virtual representations of ourselves they can reflect our physical characteristics, body language and personality, which can generate authentic connections that are not possible in meetings that are only seen on a screen, as already stated by Meta.

The metaverse will also open up the possibility of collaborating more creatively, sharing elements and visual objects with other people in the same virtual space, as industrial designers or automotive engineers already do, who can now share 3D models of their products and make changes in real-time. Thinking about it from a work perspective, job training could be more dynamic and flexible within virtual reality, either by simulating specific situations or showing the content in different ways.

In the world of work, the metaverse could be a great opportunity for everyone to have the workspace of their dreams and move it wherever they want, with infinite screens, specific desk configurations and unlimited space, which responds to the flexibility that employees are seeking. We will have the ability to model our workplace like never before. Perhaps even upgrading current virtual reality headsets to lighter and less bulky ones will make them easier to transport and, hence, be much more attractive to people.

Experts from Meta explained that the use of the metaverse in the workplace will revolutionise organisational culture, since a virtual space can give equal access to all people and the opportunity for a globally dispersed organisation, allowing greater diversity.

As for the points we need to think about a bit more, we must consider that the health and safety of workers also becomes a priority of the employer to avoid any legal exposure. As stated by Nitin Kumar, ‘The risk of physical trauma may be limited, but users could be mentally scarred’. This is linked to adverse situations that could occur in the metaverse that are not entirely visible at this time.

Recently we have been able to see some of the effects that technology can have on us, such as screen fatigue, reduced mobility, isolation, and privacy issues, among others. Although the metaverse may represent great benefits, a lack of regulation or mechanisms to avoid negative effects could bring legal risks that we do not yet understand.

What should we expect in the future?

The metaverse is an unknown space, still under constant construction and it represents a never-before-seen reinvention of what we have so far known as the internet. In recent years, the subject has become the focus of much debate, even a source of curiosity and a trend for younger generations.

The magnitude of possibilities that now lie before us has come with an imminent break with traditional and conventional ideas, both in social spaces and in the economic area.

Surely, what we see today only as ideas or advertising by companies like Facebook or Fortnite, will one day become a reality. This space will also represent a great source of wealth, with financial benefits for anyone who knows how to take advantage of it. Many companies have seen this potential and investments in the space are expected to continue to grow.

It is well known that lawyers have struggled to keep up with technology, especially because of its accelerated growth. Today, there are few lawyers who specialise in legal tech, however, we must all learn about these new technologies and provide new perspectives from our respective fields.

As Cathy Hackl said, ‘we don’t want to escape reality but rather embrace and augment it with virtual content and experiences that can make things more fulfilling and make us feel more connected to our loved ones, more productive at work, and happier people’.

Today, we are reinventing the world as we know it.