More than two years since the first workplace shutdowns due to the pandemic, employers are now pushing for a return to the office (RTO) in certain locations. But some are encountering resistance from workers who hope the work-from-home setup will last for good.
Evolving technology and platforms, such as virtual meeting juggernaut Zoom, enabled office workers to communicate “face-to-face” with colleagues as they carried out assignments remotely.
Could a virtual workspace, in which colleagues interact with one another using avatars, offer a compromise for employers eager to repopulate physical offices and employees in favor of remote work? (Meta’s hiring trends hint at CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s hopes — and perhaps there is a reason the company’s hype surrounding the Metaverse has coincided with the push for RTO.)
Some companies outside the language industry have already reported mixed results with virtual workspaces. Users (that is, employees) may be tough to impress, given their extensive experience in the virtual world of gaming.
Others find the task of designing an avatar to be particularly fraught with issues. A November 2021 WIRED article suggested that widespread tweaking of avatars’ appearances “could lead to baked-in aesthetic hierarchies, just like in the real world” — a bias already observed in virtual gaming environments. Non-avatar-based platforms, which represent users with photos, offer a possible alternative.
Running a Tight (Virtual) Ship
Should language industry professionals anticipate a widespread adoption of virtual workspaces? Not necessarily, considering how successfully LSPs have operated historically with remote workers (i.e., linguists working as independent contractors).
“There is no metaverse today” — Ofer Tirosh, CEO, Tomedes
But at least one language service provider (LSP), Korean language data platform startup Flitto, has adopted a more, shall we say, “holistic” workplace experience, via the metaverse.
In a February 2019 presentation, Flitto CEO Simon Lee (a.k.a. Lee Jung-soo) described his company’s interpretation of the virtual workplace.
Employees who choose to work remotely log into the virtual office, a beta version of Korean startup Zigbang’s platform Metapolis. Workers also have the option of reporting to the physical office, but it is not clear whether those working in person must also use Metapolis to interact with colleagues working remotely.
Lee explained that about 140 people work on the Metapolis platform between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. each weekday. Flitto has implemented specific measures in the name of promoting remote worker productivity: Each employee is required to keep their camera on at all times, and the HR team is reportedly notified when an employee steps away from their keyboard for more than 30 minutes during work hours.
“I feel like looking someone in the eye gets you a lot of metadata you don’t get in the metaverse” — Rinaldo Dieziger, Founder and Partner, Supertext
On a Smaller Scale
Boutique LSPs may also choose to experiment with virtual workspaces. Jeff Weiser, whose work history includes years at LSPs, including Smartcat and Translation Back Office, now manages his own translation startup from Cincinnati, Ohio. Weiser’s dress code includes an unusual addition: Oculus VR headgear, which Weiser wears between 25–35 hours per week to interact with colleagues based outside the US.
He uses a VR application called “Immersed” to sync computer and smartphone screens to his virtual office, which can take a variety of forms, depending on his mood. Weiser praises the setup’s ergonomics and says the virtual workplace has improved his focus.
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While employees across industries may be open to working in a virtual workplace, many are skeptical about their employers’ ability to implement such a setup.
In November 2021, Lenovo surveyed 7,500 working adults in the US, the UK, Brazil, Singapore, China, and Japan on their attitudes toward working in the metaverse.
“I don’t think there is any opposition to it but, internally, I really don’t think there is any cohesive formed opinion on the metaverse yet” — Dieter Runge, Co-Founder and VP of Global Strategy and International Growth, Boostlingo
Forty-four percent of respondents were willing to work in a virtual workplace and were positive about the potential benefits; but two in five (43%) doubted that their employers have the knowledge or expertise to enable them to work in the metaverse.
Keeping an Open Mind
Higher-ups at several LSPs are unsure whether a virtual workspace would be beneficial, let alone possible.
“There is no metaverse today,” said Ofer Tirosh, CEO at Israeli LSP Tomedes. In his experience, clients, vendors, and employees prefer to use their own real identities — not avatars — when communicating via apps such as Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams.
“At best, a rabbit video filter on Zoom or a spaceship background on Google Meet are just gimmicks that last for a couple of minutes before moving back to the more traditional ways of working,” Tirosh explained.
Running counter to Meta’s publicity push for its Metaverse, interpreting software provider Boostlingo opened a new office in Austin, Texas in 2021 specifically to provide a physical workspace for local workers who want it. Otherwise, the company continues to maintain a mix of in-person and remote work; which includes virtual happy hours.
Supertext Founder and Partner, Rinaldo Dieziger, said a survey of their employees confirmed the preference for a hybrid model. The company is now asking employees to come into the Los Angeles office once a week, preferably on the same day.
“I feel like looking someone in the eye gets you a lot of metadata you don’t get in the metaverse,” Dieziger told Slator, adding that “after these pandemic years, our team is more into organizing some in-person apéros rather than setting up a metaverse.”
As the concept of, and technology behind, the virtual workplace evolves, adoption will likely depend on company culture.“I don’t think there is any opposition to it but, internally, I really don’t think there is any cohesive formed opinion on the metaverse yet,” said Dieter Runge, Co-Founder and VP of Global Strategy and International Growth at Boostlingo. “That said, there are lots of gamers in our company, so I’m sure at some point we will experiment with it and maybe it catches on — who knows?”