When his company was forced to shutter its offices in 2020 because of COVID-19, Bret Starr worried that his already remote workforce would become disconnected if stuck in a remote workplace for a protracted period of time. Without a physical spot to huddle, he needed some way to keep them engaged.
The CEO of the Starr Conspiracy, a B2B marketing agency, had good reason to be concerned. In polls conducted right after the pandemic erupted, and then again a few months later, more than 80% of his employees said they enjoyed remote work, and 97% were comfortable with the transition into that reality. But at the same time, 90% said they felt disconnected from co-workers, and 68% admitted to feeling isolated and lonely.
Starr knew those findings mirrored similar industrywide studies indicating that even though workers enjoy avoiding hairy commutes and annoying office interruptions, being physically separated from other human beings can weigh heavily on mental health.
Rather than accepting that new normal, Starr and his partners did something unusual: They decided to spend more than $20,000 on virtual reality (VR) headsets for all 72 of their employees to meet—
in the “metaverse.”
“We seized the pandemic as an opportunity to rewire how we conducted employee meetings,” says Starr, who tested the headsets with his partners before distributing them. “After the initial novelty wore off, we started feeling a more physical proximity to one another and noticed deeper connections in the workforce—like when we held meetings in person.”
Industry momentum for virtual meetings in the metaverse
While still largely unproven, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and an array of other business and tech leaders believe the metaverse could supplant the way organizations hold virtual meetings within the next few years.
What makes a meeting better is the engagement piece. Can we interact with other people? Can we solve problems together?That’s because the metaverse, today’s version of cyberspace, does a fair job of mimicking the vibe of live meetings, but makes them more entertaining by adding many of the most enticing and addicting elements of video games. Indeed, instead of having to listen to speakers for hours as they flip through mind-numbing PowerPoint decks, attendees use VR, AR (augmented reality), 3D imagery, and avatars to interact in a new virtual workplace of offices, huddle rooms, break rooms, common areas, and outdoor picnic grounds.
More to the point, they can also step into virtual event centers and plop down next to colleagues, customers, and partners for keynotes, breakouts, and after-hour cocktails—just like in conferences of old. Unlike those pre-pandemic gatherings, however, their experiences will be much more engaging and fun. There will be fewer tedious stage presentations—and they will be much shorter. Digital whiteboarding or “jamboarding” exercises, competitions, and team-building activities will become more prevalent. The overall experience will be more entertaining, engaging, and memorable—at least in theory.
“Traditional meetings are often just presentations or people talking at other people. There’s not really a lot of conferring going on at conferences,” says Lee Gimpel, founder of Better Meetings, a meeting design, facilitation, and training company. “What makes a meeting better is the engagement piece. Can we interact with other people? Can we solve problems together? Can we feel like we’re part of
“Gone are the days of hour-long sessions,” echoes Alisa Walsh, CEO of Haute, a marketing and brand-management firm in Austin, Texas. “Today, you have to speak to employee audiences TED Talk style.
You have 15 to 20 minutes to capture their attention and deliver
Skepticism about widespread adoption
Alisa Walsh’s firm jumped into organizing virtual events “for better or worse” a few years ago and has dabbled in metaverse activities along the way. But she is skeptical of its potential to completely replace physical employee meetings and conferences. Rather, she sees it as one of many good event options.
“The metaverse can enhance human-to-human connection but won’t replace it,” she says, “because you’re lacking genuine connections you tend to make when meeting face to face.”
The metaverse can enhance human-to-human connection but won’t replace it.Walsh says that, as opposed to defaulting to digital experiences, organizations should put more thought into the type of emotional experiences they’d like to drive between employer and employee. Then, and only then, strike an affordable balance of physical and virtual activities to make that happen.
For instance, she recommends rethinking the tendency to host big conferences where every salesperson or employee is flown in to attend. Instead, Walsh says, organizations should consider hosting a series of smaller, more impactful meetings closer to where employees reside. And they do not even have to occur entirely within buildings. In some areas, they can be hosted in outdoor settings, which can improve mood, reduce stress, and enhance creativity.
Walsh says organizations can also flip-the-script and bring meetings directly to employees.
“We recently had a client who had the challenge of figuring out how to get products into the hands of potential buyers because the sales teams couldn’t go into customer offices,” she says. “So, we developed a big road-show truck that went to individual homes where people were working.”
Lachlan Phillips, CEO at Orbits, an Australian virtual events platform provider, agrees with the value of driving more creative employee meetings. But that can also occur in the metaverse. The key, he says, is to ensure employees feel they have a “sense of place,” because remote workers often do not.
For business and tech leaders weighing real estate options, that means not going all in on a virtual workplace or brick-and-mortar.
“Before the pandemic, you could show up to the big, beautiful building you worked in, walk through the doors, and it could all be
a very exciting and wonderful place. You felt like you were a part
of it. That was basically lost when people went remote. When planning employee events, you want to strive to bring your teams together around shared experiences. That’s how you create bonds between them.”
Blending the best of virtual worlds
Phillips says some virtual meeting platforms, such as his own, borrow visual elements from the metaverse but don’t necessarily require users to don VR headsets. Instead, they emphasize storytelling: They give users the ability to create their own experience.
Rather than having to consume only one presentation, for example, they might have the option of watching a virtual main stage talk on one screen while discussing what they hear live with colleagues in another virtual meeting room. Then, during breaks, they could saunter into virtual cafés, demo halls, or gardens for networking and bonding with co-workers.
You want to strive to bring your teams together around shared experiences. That’s how you create bonds between them.“My prediction is that anything requiring a head-mounted display, unless it’s the sleekest and easiest thing ever invented, is going to struggle to find critical mass anytime soon,” says Phillips. “I think people are going to settle on simpler concepts. Storytelling will be
Starr, while all-in on the metaverse, agrees with the importance of building virtual meetings around “scenarios.” He advises any organizations interested in metaverse meetings to start small, test different approaches, and see what works.
“You should do something really easy, like a virtual happy hour, where you give people time to acclimate to the headsets and the environment. Just something light that allows them to get excited about it. Then build from there.”