By Garry White
Chief Investment Commentator
Facebook is now Meta. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wants to upgrade the internet to a “metaverse”, a virtual reality space where people based anywhere in the world can meet in the same virtual space. But can technology ever adequately replace face-to-face meetings?
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital revolution. The rise of online shopping, remote working and the widespread use of video-conferencing and online seminars means digital tools are now in everyday use by most people – either in the workplace or at home.
Technology has upended many industries significantly, ranging from taxis and Uber to hotels and Airbnb. It’s not that long ago that people wanting to buy equities had to call a broker who was literally in contact with someone standing on a trading floor shouting out “buy” and “sell” orders. Now trades can be executed by logging into a smartphone app.
Facebook now wants to bring virtual-reality headsets into the workplace, allowing colleagues and clients to inhabit cyberspace in ways that were never possible before. Silicon Valley tells us that the metaverse offers untold ways to enhance communication for all – but it could potentially complicate the relationship between individuals if they are only together in a virtual space rather than a real, physical room.
As hybrid and home working becomes the norm, the social-media giant wants to leverage its own virtual-reality (VR) Oculus headset as a tool for professional workspaces in the metaverse. This evolution of the internet will allow people all over the world to enter virtual meetings and workspaces via their headset wherever they are located, the technophiles say.
The metaverse is a more all-encompassing version of the internet. The term refers to digital spaces rendered more lifelike by the use of VR or augmented-reality (AR) technology so they become “fully immersive”. People can interact with one another and digital objects while operating virtual representations – or avatars – of themselves.
Meet you in the metaverse?
Following the Covid-19 pandemic, hybrid working is almost certainly here to stay. With some time spent in the office and other days working from home, colleagues will obviously spend less time together in person than may have been the case in a pre-pandemic five-day working week. Proponents of the metaverse claim that its ability to connect disparate employees means the technology has a place in the future workplace. Or, as the excessively slick public-relations team for Facebook’s Reality Labs put it in the sales pitch for Horizon Workrooms, its new VR meeting space concept: “Sometimes you have to get into the same room, even when you’re miles apart.”
When running any organisation face-to-face interactions will always be the gold standard. So, is Mr Zuckerberg’s metaverse idea a Silicon Valley gimmick – or could it become an invaluable tool for businesses and other organisations?
Clearly, this is a difficult question to answer. However, the way the board of directors of Britain’s major listed companies have behaved since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic may offer us a clue or two.
The right format for the right meeting
Zoom’s video-conferencing platform became synonymous with pandemic lockdowns – with the system – or similar – used ubiquitously. This meant that the boards of Britain’s FTSE 100 giants were running their businesses by holding almost all meetings virtually.
Consultancy group Board Intelligence, which aims to help and improve practices in Britain’s boardrooms, carried out a straw poll in April that suggested about two-thirds of UK boardrooms will continue to meet online for more than half the time. However, some meetings are too important for participants to risk missing the nuances of non-verbal communication in a room of people.
Board Intelligence’s co-chief executive Jennifer Sundberg believes a “best-of-both” solution is the way forward. She expects that a hybrid calendar of meetings will emerge instead of “hybrid meetings” where some participants log in via video-conferencing platform and a proportion in a head office meeting room. In reality, this means that directors are likely to carry out their supervisory duties (such as monitoring targets) via meeting in the cloud, with more important steering meetings about strategy or culture taking place in person with all people in the room to ensure there are no barriers to proper communication.
Managers are already likely to know which meetings they believe need to take place in person and can continue with real-world interactions where necessary. However, technology can offer ways to keep information flowing efficiently – and could even provide a platform to reach potential new customers and clients that were not being reached before.
Technology will continue to revolutionise business practices and boost productivity. No organisation can afford to ignore the rise of the metaverse because the new technology offers the chance to reach individuals and organisations in these new digital spaces that possibly were not available before. Impressive new technology using this platform (whatever its final form turns out to be) needs to be deployed wisely to ensure it is helping rather than harming an organisation’s interests by increasing complexity or impairing efficient communication. As we have seen with its internet precursor, new technology brings substantial opportunity but also unforeseen problems. In the case of the internet, cybercrime and misinformation are two such threats that fall into this category.
However, the metaverse brings opportunities to increase an organisation’s reach, make communication more time efficient and connect with people with which it was not possible before. The internet was just the start – the digital revolution is ongoing. Everything is about to change once more.
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