Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has become increasingly popular worldwide. Before the pandemic, it was more of something to look forward to. Now that the world is finally leaving the pandemic behind, individuals and corporations worldwide continue to explore alternatives to the traditional work model.
HIKKY is one of the companies leading the charge to create more and more work options for their employees. The virtual reality corporation’s Virtual Market (commonly known as Vket) attracts more than one million visitors worldwide and provides its metaverse development engine, Vket Cloud.
HIKKY Inc. COO/CQO, Mika Sawae shares the reasoning behind the coming-to-work-as-an-avatar initiative, what implementing it entails, and the benefits accruable to the company.
COO/CQO of HIKKY Inc. professional hair and makeup artist turned illustrator. Continues to connect with many creators and communities through event planning and management, which has been her forte since her student days, and continues to produce multi-content. She started working in the VR space at the end of 2017 and oversees the entire creative process of HIKKY. She is a mother of two, and her daughter recognizes her mother’s avatar as her mother.
When Sawae first met with her teammates, they were all in the Metaverse virtual space, where they connected and had fruitful conversations. When the opportunity to work together at HIKKY came up, it was only natural to continue in that flow as she felt dragging them out of that space into a physical office might be a step back.
“We were originally interacting with each other in this world, so it’s like we’re working in the same way,” Sawae says.
With that virtual workspace set up, new employees familiar with the Metaverse can join the flow. Employees unfamiliar with it had to “first of all, take care of their virtual appearance.”
Virtual appearance refers to the name, icon, and avatar you set up to distinguish your person and personality from everyone else in the virtual world; this appearance can reflect the perception you want others to have of you.
In a company like HIKKY where members often meet only online, it is essential to be deliberate about the composition of one’s appearance. The use of generic default avatars is an option the company discourages. “That’s like meeting people in the real world you can’t remember because they don’t have distinctive faces or clothes, so you wouldn’t recognize them if you met them in the street,” Sawae says.
She continues: “So we’re asking people who didn’t have an avatar before, ‘What do you want to look like?’ ‘How do you want to be seen by others?’ And we have them create their original avatars.
How Your Appearance Affects Work
Sawae thinks the chief goal of ‘avatar to work’ is facilitating work and communication. How is that working out at HIKKY, you may ask?
“If you look different, you communicate differently,” she says. When people feel good about their looks, they tend to be confident and more inclined to reach out to meet people and share their ideas. A person’s looks, even in the virtual world, also affect how people relate to them.
Sawae uses an avatar of a fluffy beast whenever she gives feedback to employees, and she thinks this helps her sound nice and makes the employees better receive her feedback.
“Incidentally, HIKKY CEO Funakoshi-san uses a friendly, two-headed Superman-like avatar. I think employees find it easier to talk to him in this form. In general, some employees will be nervous when talking to the CEO. However, when they are in their avatar, they are sometimes spoken to in a ‘tame’ manner,” she says.
Avatars also allow people to take charge of their appearance in a way that lets them work comfortably. What’s more, the main advantage, she says, is that I can separate my actual self from my avatar self and work as I want to be all the time.
It’s Not About Taking Over; It’s About Creating Options
HIKKY has not abandoned all other work modes for avatars. If they wanted to, they couldn’t because some work operations are possible only in real life. Although their sales and back-office members also work occasionally in the virtual space, they still operate in real life, too.
Having these options recognizes that employees find comfort in doing their work in different settings, which should be a focus for companies that will thrive in the world today.
“We don’t always work in our avatars. Basically, we use Discord, and we each work in our own channels, such as conference rooms and work rooms,” Sawae says, “You can tell what people are talking about by looking at their faces, so I sometimes just wander into a room to get to know the personalities of our employees. We place a lot of importance on the environment in which chit-chat is generated on Discord.”
Sawae often switches from chat to avatars whenever she wants to discuss something verbally. She believes she can get more information from her conversations by looking at the other person’s face.
With enough options, companies can ensure that their employees can find at least one option that works optimally for them. Organisations can also focus on finding the right mix to guarantee efficiency and maximise output.
Avatars: What Are the Challenges And Opportunities?
As much as avatars and virtual spaces have made communication and work easier, many challenges come with using them.
“Some platforms are limited in terms of the operating systems they can be used with, or require a head-mounted display (HMD), so the technology has not caught up,” Sawae says.
According to her, HIKKY is working to develop technology that simplifies avatar creation and access to virtual worlds.
Sawae also looks forward to when the virtual and the real worlds can mix more. “When the real and virtual offices are connected and banquets are held, the virtual is inevitably left behind. I hope we can overcome this barrier and mix more,” she says.
She adds: “Yes, I hope that things like participating in meetings with real people in avatars will become accepted as a matter of course. On the other hand, if people are not comfortable chatting in virtual space, they can get together in a real place. I think we should act in a place that is efficient for each of us.”
Interviewed: Dec, 2022
Production Cooperation: Yoshihiro Asano + Note,Ltd