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The metaverse: real employment issues in a virtual world of work

The term virtual reality is usually connected with the gaming world and, more recently, social media since Facebook rebranded as Meta as a part of its planned development into a virtual reality platform. It is now anticipated that the “metaverse” will play a prominent role in the future of work.

What is the metaverse?

The “metaverse” is essentially an immersive 3D virtual world. Users adopt an avatar to represent themselves in the metaverse and can interact with other people as their avatar by using wearable technology.

The future of work?

It is highly possible that many employers will adopt the metaverse as a way of working so that colleagues can meet in a virtual space for immersive meetings. Microsoft Teams is already developing Mesh, a platform which will allow users to use 3D virtual avatars and environments during meetings.

It was essential for many employers to adapt quickly to remote working to ensure business continuity during the pandemic. Employers and employees alike recognise the benefits of homeworking but the impact of doing so for a prolonged period of time during the pandemic led to many employees feeling disconnected from their colleagues and experiencing poor mental health as a result. The metaverse offers a potential solution as employees who continue to work from home to some extent post-pandemic may feel more connected if they are able to interact with colleagues in a virtual work environment.

However, employers considering deploying the metaverse in their business must consider the possible employment law implications.

How to manage the metaverse

As the metaverse is an electronic platform which allows people from all over the world to interact as though they were in the same room, it is unclear which country’s employment laws will apply within the metaverse.

The metaverse is likely to spark various employment issues. For example, employees may feel disconnected from reality in the metaverse and may think certain behaviour that is not acceptable in the real world is acceptable in a virtual world. However, many types of misbehaviour are likely to be covered by existing policies and UK employment laws such as those set out below.

  1. If an employee makes jokes or comments about a colleague’s chosen avatar that relate to a protected characteristic (e.g. age, sex, race etc) which that colleague has and they find the comments offensive or degrading, it seems likely that this could amount to harassment under the Equality Act 2010. Employers will be liable for harassment in the workplace (which may include the metaverse) if they do not take all reasonable steps to prevent it.
  2. Employers should be alive to the real risk of “virtual” sexual harassment within the metaverse (which has already been identified as a problem). Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which the receiving party finds humiliating, degrading or offensive. It does not require a physical assault of the employee and it therefore seems possible that sexual harassment in the metaverse could be covered by the Equality Act 2010.
  3. Not all employees will create an avatar that resembles them. Employees may choose characteristics for their avatars which they do not actually possess. Employers should be aware that discrimination because of a perceived protected characteristic is covered by the Equality Act 2010 so when it comes to discrimination it will not matter whether that person has the protected characteristic or not.

It may be more challenging to police employees’ conduct in the metaverse. It will be important for employers to have a clear policy on harassment and equal opportunities and to deal with offensive behaviour under their disciplinary policy and procedure. The policies may need to be updated if the metaverse becomes part of the workplace.

Employers will also need to consider issues within the metaverse which do not sit comfortably within existing laws, such as protecting confidential information in the metaverse, health and safety considerations if an employee has to wear metaverse equipment for long periods of time and protecting employees’ personal data in the metaverse.

Perhaps thankfully for employment lawyers the metaverse won’t be built overnight. Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to spend $10bn a year over the next decade on the metaverse allowing employment practitioners, in the meantime, an opportunity to scratch their heads and wonder “whatever next!” Watch this [virtual] space.

Contact an employment solicitor

If you would like to learn more about how we can support your business, please contact a member of our Employment & HR team or call 0800 652 8025.

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