The metaverse – how will employers manage the legal risks?

24 June 2022

Big bets are being made on the metaverse being the next evolutionary leap forward, not only for society but also for our economy. Leading brands are registering their intellectual property and investors are buying virtual property in the metaverse.

The workplace is entering the metaverse, too. The pandemic brought about the need to work from home, which for many people meant an immediate switch to video meetings. That has evolved into virtual reality meetings where employees are immersed in a 3D meeting room environment where they’re represented by virtual avatars of their real selves.

With hybrid working now firmly embedded, large parts of our working lives could soon be filled with our avatars interacting with colleagues and clients at their virtual offices, without any of us having to leave our homes.

The significant opportunities the metaverse creates for employers and employees alike is clear, one of them being a greater sense of social cohesion that some critics say has been found wanting as we moved to hybrid working.

Opportunities don’t come without their risks, however. What do employers need to consider?

Duty to provide a safe working environment

Employers have a legal obligation to provide employees with a safe working environment and to protect them from harassment. To what extent will employers be able to control access to their office in the metaverse?

One suspects that employers will adopt virtual workspaces which only their employees can access – much like in a Teams call. But the likelihood is that will evolve, to the point where social interactions take place much like they do in the real world. Employers should start thinking about the controls they’ll need to maintain a safe working environment.

Protection from third party threats

In a world of virtual work, could employees ‘subcontract’ their work to someone else without their employer’s knowledge or consent, thereby exposing the employer to breaches of their confidentiality and data privacy obligations to third parties?

An understanding of what constitutes ‘harassment’ will need to evolve

Social media has unfortunately brought with it a wave of trolling, bullying and harassment. A virtual world is likely to bring with it similar behaviours, exposing employers to increased risks of bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Employers will need to adapt existing policies and update their training to demonstrate that they have taken reasonable steps to prevent it.

Dress codes and appearance

Employers will need to revisit the rules around dress codes and appearance in the metaverse. For example, participants in Teams calls can easily change their backgrounds to suit their mood or preferred location.

We can assume it won’t be hard for them to alter their appearance in the metaverse at the touch of a button. Employers will want to ensure existing rules on dress codes are adapted to accommodate the virtual world too.

Age discrimination

Employers need to account for intergenerational attitudes towards a virtual working world. Younger members of the workforce, perhaps brought up in a world of virtual reality gaming, will more than likely be capable of working in a virtual world – even enthusiastic about it.

On the other hand, older members of the working population may find it harder to adapt, as it requires learning a new skill and accommodating a new way of interacting at work. So that worker populations do not feel ostracised or left behind, training will need to be considered, as will ensuring the real and virtual work environment can co-exist.

Digital immigration

The metaverse opens the possibility of employees outside the UK working in a virtual office that’s also occupied by UK-based colleagues. It raises an interesting question: If the workers based abroad are not physically stepping foot in the UK, but entering via the virtual world, do they still need the legal right to work in the UK?

Currently, those working remotely for a UK entity but in another jurisdiction do not. But if the virtual working world becomes so closely associated with the real one, this may need to be revisited by legislators.

Ultimately, it will be up to employers to manage the risk

The metaverse poses significant opportunities, both for the economy and society. Yet it poses some interesting challenges that may force legislators to revisit the rule book. In the meantime, though, it is employers who will need to grapple with the risks they may be exposed to and take steps to mitigate them.

If you have any questions about how to address the risks arising from the metaverse, please contact Charlie Barnes.