Thursday, 8 October 2009

Companies Consider Virtual Employee Standards of Conduct - Pixels and Policy

Scantily-clad waitresses may move burgers and wings at Hooters, but companies like IBM are less than pleased to find employees involved in virtual worlds dressing in bondage gear and digital phalluses.

A recent press release from industry research firm Gartner, Inc. sheds some light on the obvious reasons why big business might not want its employees' virtual representations dancing around in a Department of Energy-themed ballgag:

As the use of virtual environments for business purposes grows, enterprises need to understand how employees are using avatars in ways that might affect the enterprise or the enterprise’s reputation

We covered the possible professional conflicts of real-world workers indulging in virtual fantasy last week. In light of the Gartner report, this controversial issue deserves a closer look.

Virtual Code of Conduct

What's interesting about the Gartner report isn't that it provides useful guidelines for regulating what a company's in-world representation can wear, but that real-world companies didn't consider this before launching a virtual presence. 

Do developers like Electric Sheep have a professional obligation to inform their corporate clients that virtual employees may spend slow hours at sex clubs? Is this the job of a developer? To solve the problem, Gartner posits an idea that many virtual worlds users know all too well:

Organizations can avoid problems with employees mixing their personal and professional avatar interaction and activities by suggesting that employees use one avatar for their work interactions and another avatar for personal activities.

The meat of the Gartner Report, though, is a call on companies to expand their code of conduct to the virtual world if they plan to do business there.

Limiting acceptable clothing or location options to employees whose avatars do company business in the virtual world is a good idea in theory, but difficult to enforce in practice.

The Wild Metaverse

This is because of the built-in ease of switching clothing and skins native to Second Life and emerging games like Blue Mars. A few clicks can change an avatar from the company shirt to leather straps, and companies with a limited virtual presence have few resources to provide constant monitoring of avatar behavior.

Unless an avatar is well-known to work for a company - and from my experience, few corporate sims have notable virtual personalities as yet - the avatar is perfectly capable of switching from work to personal use without the rest of Second Life knowing.

Does this spell an increase in virtual world monitoring resources among those companies already invested in the virtual world? Unlikely. Companies are more likely to promote the easily-achieved benchmarks of the Gartner Report.

Providing new virtual world employees with "Brand Education" is much easier to show on a progress report than developing a team to monitor your employees through the virtual work day. With economic times tight and visible progress a primary concern, expect companies to make few changes to their current virtual dabblings.

Companies Consider Virtual Employee Standards of Conduct - Pixels and Policy
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