The “metaverse” has probably been one of the most repeated terms in the first quarter of 2022 and is also certainly one of the topics least understood by the majority of the public. The possibilities offered by this form of virtual reality are perhaps infinite, but it is worth asking whether it might also give rise to a paradigm shift in the way work is traditionally organized, and even in more contemporary arrangements such as telework.
Although it is true that virtual reality is not new and began to be used decades ago, it has generated enormous hype in recent months, most likely due to the decision by several large tech companies to focus their efforts in the medium to long term on developing these kinds of environments and, particularly, the metaverse.
The metaverse is defined as an augmented and multi-sensory virtual reality, in which people, with their own avatar and by using technological devices, interact with others in a digital world that runs parallel to the real world.
With this simple description, it might seem that the metaverse is just another one of the many entertainment possibilities available to us in this (already highly advanced) digital era we are immersed in, but such a statement would probably be wrong and far removed from the times that lie ahead. Proof of this is that there are already projects to develop metaverse environments in the educational and healthcare spheres. But the essential question is: To what extent can the metaverse become an alternative way of organizing work?
It is not hard to imagine that the metaverse could be used to create virtual work centers. Although this does not seem particularly innovative at first glance (and less so since the widespread phenomenon of working, largely out of necessity, by electronic means over the past two years due to the pandemic), the possibilities offered by this type of augmented virtual reality go beyond the remote work we are currently familiar with, in which visual contact between the members making up an organization is essentially limited to meetings conducted by video camera.
Thus, going to a teammate’s work station to check virtually in situ to see if the teammate is available or in a meeting, or if the teammate is in the right state of mind to address a matter that has come up, are highly relevant sensory issues in managing people that, at present, can only be perceived when working in person. The metaverse can therefore be understood as way of working remotely that enables direct contact between staff, helping, through this multi-sensory experience, to maintain cohesion between members of the organization as if they were working in person. Or, perhaps, on the contrary, as an in-person, but disembodied, way of working.
In any case, this scenario raises many questions from a labor law standpoint.
By way of example, the possibilities offered by the metaverse, from a technical standpoint, for monitoring work, could result, without the proper controls, in an overstepping of management power, which would clash with the fundamental rights of workers and, particularly, with that of privacy, an aspect that article 17 of Remote Working Law 10/2021, of July 9, 2021, makes a point of recalling.
Likewise, the metaverse would most likely involve the disclosure of biometric data by the worker, which again reopens the debate on whether employers have a legitimate interest, always and in all cases, in processing these data. It is not clear that the exercise of management power, or the employer’s mere intention to convert the virtual workplace into an experience that is as similar as possible to an in-person activity, are sufficient grounds to justify that interest.
Furthermore, we cannot forget the effects that, from an occupational risk prevention standpoint, the metaverse may have on workers’ health. We cannot rule out the possible emergence of hitherto unknown psychosocial risks as a result of workers’ prolonged exposure to a parallel virtual reality.
In short, it is hard to foresee how the metaverse will evolve as a way of organizing work, but it is certain to pose a genuine challenge for the legal framework that regulates our employment relationships.
In this Garrigues Digital article, we address the legal challenges raised by the metaverse for all companies from all the angles of business law: