Virtual World Workforce Part 2: Real-Life Pitfalls

Part 1 of this two-part feature looks at how virtual worlds such as Second Life are making an impact on how companies conduct employee recruiting and workforce management activities. According to an ever-growing group of experts and companies in the employment business, that impact has the potential to be profound and far-reaching.

Not everyone, though, thinks that the path to the virtual world workforce will be filled with happy avatars strewing 3-D rose petals. There are serious hurdles to moving real-world — or even social-networking-world — interactions to sites such as Second Life.

First of all, Second Life and sites like it just aren’t that easy to use, as anyone who has climbed the steep learning curve (myself included) can attest. One can spend a significant chunk of time creating an avatar and learning to make it move around, only to find that one (OK, me) is entirely out-of-virtual-fashion and bumping into virtual walls for many hours. That’s a difficult way to enter interactions that are potentially anxiety-producing to begin with, like job interviews and big corporate meetings.

Barrier to Entry

“The ‘barrier to entry’ to use Second Life — meaning the amount of time, energy and patience required to set up your avatar and start leading a virtual life — is still quite high,” Christopher Collins, senior analyst with Yankee Group, told LinuxInsider. “So, not surprisingly, its user base skews toward younger and more technologically savvy consumers.”

In addition, the saturation of such sites into the general Internet-using population remains quite low, Collins noted. Only 1.8 percent of consumers reported having participated in a virtual world in 2007, according to Yankee Group’s research. That’s compared to much higher numbers of people using other emerging Internet applications, such as participating on social networking sites like MySpace (32.7 percent), downloading music (19.3 percent), and viewing video from sites such as YouTube (30.7 percent). Still, those numbers are far lower than the saturation levels for consumers using mainstream Internet applications such as online shopping (63.9 percent).

Ramping Up Technology

Even some who consider themselves tech-forward and who already use Second Life for workforce tasks see the technology as limiting in its current form. Recruiting firm TMP Worldwide has held a series of job fairs representing such high-profile companies as Microsoft and Verizon, for example, Still, some things must change, Louis Vong, TMP vice president for interactive strategy, told LinuxInsider. “The technology and infrastructure of virtual worlds needs to improve for this to really become an everyday tool in telecommuting or the virtual workplace.”

By contrast, the evolution of social networking sites is much farther along. “A critical feature of these social networks is the ability for anyone to create their own networks for others to join in,” he stressed. “Facebook, in particular, has thousands of employer networks that allow job seekers and existing employees to join the network and learn more about each respective employer. The Microsoft network on Facebook has 26,204 members.

Real-World Laws

In addition, employee recruiting and management professionals know all too well that theirs is a highly regulated field, and for good reason. What they may not know is that the laws on the books designed to prevent employment discrimination can present some unique challenges in virtual worlds, Charles Handler, CEO and founder of employee assessment and screening company, told LinuxInsider.

Legally, the cloak of an avatar can cut both ways, Handler noted. For example, people can choose the physical appearance, body type and clothing of their Second Life personas to reflect their real-life existence or not. So, the appearance of an avatar might not reflect that the person behind it is a member of a class protected in employment interactions, he explained. A person doesn’t need to divulge age or race information in an employment interview, and an avatar might make it more possible to keep that irrelevant information out of the situation altogether.

On the other hand, employers have a responsibility to keep interactions with prospective employees consistent, Handler noted. That’s not always possible when moving from real-world rooms to virtual-world ones, he explained. For instance, an assessment that attempts to measure a candidate’s skills in a particular area might not be the same when offered on paper as it is when administered in a virtual world.

Next Steps

What Second Life and sites like it offer is as view into where the virtual world workforce is going, Handler predicted. “Second Life is one step on a pathway,” he said. “But I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.”

The future of virtual world technology in employment activities, Handler posited, lies in stand-alone applications that companies will use to complete specific tasks. They will develop video-game-type tools, he asserted, to present simulated job situations to prospective employees.

Already, some companies are doing this with remote PC desktop software. For example, an applicant might be presented with a series of e-mails, a report and a schedule and be asked to develop a management presentation based on the information. So, asked Handler, why couldn’t customer service applicant be presented a virtual world in which a series of customers approach and present a variety of problem to resolve?

Virtual World Workforce, Part 1: Promising the World


  • I’m actually an employment lawyer and the CEO of VRWorkplace so I have done this kind of work for years. I’m in no way giving legal advice here, but I think the points made in the article are largely correct. That said, I’m much more interested in the role employment law will play in the context of truly virtual working. An easy example that exists today: You hire a greeter to welcome guests at your virtual facility. True enough, you can’t discriminate based on physical disability etc, but there are in my opinion larger issues. Where in the world is that greeter physically sitting? Yes, the laws of that jurisdiction will likely apply to your relationship with that person. Will the law of that place consider the relationship to be employment? If so, will wage laws apply? What about benefits laws? Or pension laws? As we move from "playing a game" to inventing a platform for real work (see "Getting Real Work Done in Virtual Worlds" by Forrester) are we being lured into a sort of trap? You can’t "hire" someone in the US, for example, and not be subject to some sort of minimum wage. Again, not legal advice, just one man’s observations.

  • In this article, Christopher Collins suggests that Second Life’s "user base skews toward younger and more technologically savvy consumers." Almost all published data on the SL user base contradicts this claim.
    For example, I recently conducted a comprehensive survey of more than 800 Second Life residents as part of a study sponsored by France Telecom. We found that approximately 65% of respondents were above the age of 25. In fact, 37% of respondents were above the age of 35. Less than one-fourth of respondents fell within the ages of 19 and 25. Similar findings have been reported consistently by other researchers during the past several years.
    What is the basis for Collins’ assertion that the user base skews young?
    Aaron Delwiche
    [email protected]

  • Has Christopher Collins actually spent any time at all "analysing" Second Life? His statement, "…its user base skews toward younger and more technologically savvy consumers" is totally wrong. If he had spend any time on this, he would know that the majority of the user base is older than 35.
    I hate Second Life as much as any of the other people that think SL Sucks, but at least get the facts straight! There’s no need to make things up.
    Yankee Group has been way off the mark, in the past. Not sure I would believe anything they say… especially about Second Life, since it seems to be a reoccurring "get it wrong" topic with them.

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