An avatar is an animated figure that represents a person in a virtual world. They can be personalised to a highly detailed degree with the user's choice of hair and skin colour, hairstyle, clothes and accessories.
Gartner has said that companies must gain control over these elements when an employee is representing their company or risk digital embarrassment.
"We advise establishing codes of behavior that apply in any circumstance when an employee is acting as a company representative, whether in a real or virtual environment," said James Lundy, managing vice president at Gartner. "Addendums specific to virtual environments can be added as required.”
Most companies have policies outlining how staff should behave online when representing their company and how they should use the company's web and email facilities. Gartner said that within four years, 70% of companies will have policies governing their behaviour in virtual environments and the look of their avatars.
"By year-end 2013, 70% of enterprises will have behaviour guidelines and dress codes established for all employees who have avatars associated with the enterprise inside a virtual environment," said Gartner.
“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,” said Lundy.
Gartner also outlined six steps companies should take to control employees' appearance and behaviour in virtual environments when they are on company business.
It said that a company's code of conduct for employees' use of the internet should be extended to cover virtual environments and avatar appearance. "Companies with codes of conduct for other web activities, such as blogging, should be able to extend those policies into virtual environments. However, because 3-D environments add the visual dimension, they will need to make sure that their policies also cover dress codes," it said.
Gartner also advised that companies tell employees to create an entirely new persona for work activities that is separate to their personal one. "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," it said.
The company also says, though, that firms should be sensitive to the fact that people take pride in their avatars and have a personal affinity with them.
Gartner said that control of users' avatars should be tested in a pilot environment where they can learn what issues and problems arise. It said that avatar use is likely to increase as firms seek to cut travel costs and host virtual meetings.
"One of the biggest uses of avatars appears to be for online meetings," it said. "Web meetings are emerging as an important new use case for virtual environments, and this may be a good point at which to start learning about the issues and opportunities surrounding users and avatars."