Virtual reality tech provides a more realistic experience than ever before, allowing the opportunity for increased collaboration and higher learner retention.

By Debbie Bolla

To be a successful customer experience representative for Verizon, candidates must have a bevy of both soft and hard skills in their arsenal. In addition to solution-finding and technical skills, they need to have the ability to be a good listener and be compassionate in order to achieve business goals. These traits are often not easy to develop through traditional training practices. Here is where virtual reality (VR) comes in.

According to Kevin Byrd, senior manager of learning technology and augmented/virtual reality for Verizon, VR training techniques provide realistic, interactive settings that have been key in the development of their client-facing employees.

“When engaging with computer-generated imagery (CGI) avatars in VR or VR experiences involving actors in recorded, immersive, 360 dramatization videos, learners report higher degrees of empathy and compassion toward real world customers afterward,” he explains. “In fact, a number of call center learners reported that their business customer contacts, whom they do not normally interact with in-person, suddenly seem more ‘human’ or ‘real’ to them.”

Byrd goes onto explain that pairing a fictitious customer in an avatar form with a realistic work situation can change employee perceptions and actions for the better, incorporating more empathy in customer service approaches.

In fact, today’s VR tools offer this level of realism by emulating the same neural pathways formed by real-life conversations to empower employees to walk away with the skills they need for future success. “It puts learners in realistic scenarios where they can then practice navigating emotionally intense situations. The conversations are intense, as they would be in real life, so when learners take off the headset, it’s memorable,” says Gina Dickson, DDI’s senior vice president of product management and marketing.

VR can help develop both hard and soft skills, but the approach to training should be different, notes Scott Stachiw, director of immersive learning for Roundtable Learning. For soft skills like communication and conflict resolution, Stachiw recommends a 360-degree VR setting with actors portraying interactions that are aligned to the job role. Employees in these interpersonal situations will see micro-expressions and emotional responses that are produced by their actions. Some experiences offer playback so that participants can review where they were successful and areas that need improvement.

He says VR stimulations can also come in handy for the hard skills needed in industries like manufacturing or operations. Today’s technology allows employees to feel like they are operating machinery without causing the business to slow down productivity or damage actual
equipment. By having the opportunity to perform the activity multiple times, learners can improve their performance and build muscle memory.

And the benefits go beyond skills development. “We’ve found these memorable experiences and skill applications lead to greater engagement, which leads to longer learning retention and increased efficacy,” says Dickson.

What’s New in the Virtual World?

Alongside training programs, VR tools have also been adapted to other roles in the post-COVID 19 workplace. As the economy rebounds, HR leaders are feeling the pressure to deliver innovative ways to attract the limited talent that is available. “Organizations are exploring the use of VR to provide realistic job previews (RJPs) to job candidates,” says Stachiw. “These RJPs show candidates a day in the life of their potential new role to make sure it’s a good fit.”

This benefits candidates by providing clear expectations of what their new role will be instead of forcing them to place their hopes entirely on job descriptions. When expectations are met, turnover rates go down. VR capabilities in RJPs also allow the organization to put candidates to the test and get a bird’s-eye view into how they will perform at the organization.

Summer Salomonsen, vice president of content product at Cornerstone OnDemand, agrees that VR applications continue to expand. “As technology catches up with vision, plausible and feasible VR case studies keep popping up,” she says. “Now, we’re considering it as part of onboarding programs, management training, and increasingly for DE&I initiatives. Its secret is the empathy it builds in each learner -emotional and authentic -that forces learners to reckon scenarios in a previously unknown way.”

The interactive experiences that VR offers help with the lost connectivity often experienced in a dispersed workforce. “Remote work has left everyone in a situation where they’re not able to get traditional, face-to-face human interaction,” says Dickson. “In a way, VR has given us back the opportunity to experience human interaction, which is crucial for practicing leadership skills and even collaborating. In fact, they can get simulated human interaction without the need to get on a plane, as long as they have a VR headset handy.”

Stachiw points out that getting more employees involved is easier than ever before by providing new alternatives to traditional headsets. “In light of COVID-19, many organizations are opting for cardboard headsets to support their remote workforce and address cleanliness concerns,” he explains. “These come in at a low price point, can be custom branded, and are easily shipped to employees no matter their location.”

On the tech side, HR should look for innovations around quality, data, and artificial intelligence (AI) applications. “Many suppliers are adopting 5K video to improve resolution and create more realistic simulated environments,” says Salomonsen. “New psychometric technology can report so much more than just completion, giving L&D professionals details like pulse, eye-tracking, voice, tone, and pause times.”

Today’s platforms can collect data on biometrics and can analyze data around participant heart rates, eye and head movements, body positions, and hand tracking. This is insight that HR didn’t have access to in the past. “With more data being collected and smarter AI being developed, the ability for the modules to provide real-time feedback is no longer a dream, it’s a possibility within reach,” says Dickson.

Stachiw recommends taking advantage of the data that today’s platforms deliver by leveraging an extended reality system (XRS). “Similar to a learning management system for eLearning, HR professionals should consider using an XRS to manage and collect data on VR training activities,” he explains. “An XRS also helps assign and deploy VR activities along with collecting and reporting important data.”

Getting In the Game

At Verizon, Byrd says the organization leverages VR for training practices across the business, including manhole safety, retail store robbery, customer empathy, customer experience and relationship management, and active shooter response. As a best practice, Byrd recommends being disciplined when selecting training approaches and avoiding temptations without cause.

“Deep exploration of the learning objectives, outcomes, subject matter, and overall business case impact are done by my team before we begin investing in building these solutions,” explains Byrd. “Since not all subject matter should be done in VR, we use a sort of litmus test as we evaluate potential use cases. While these criteria are not fixed rules, they do serve as a sort of guideline for us.”

Byrd’s team follows a methodology called “RIDE” to help make decisions around VR, saying if one or more qualities are not present, they typically select a different training method. RIDE is made up the following, as described by Byrd.

  • Rare: training situations that are somewhat rare but often impactful.
  • Impossible: training scenarios that are very hard to achieve through any other technology or learning method.
  • Dangerous: tasks that need to be practiced in carefully controlled ways to improve employee competence, while keeping them safe.
  • Expensive: training situations that are more expensive to execute consistently through another method. This often requires cost evaluations in order to compare all approaches to learning solutions side-by-side.

For organizations looking to launch a program, Cornerstone OnDemand’s Salomonsen recommends keeping in mind logistics, scale, and cost. She suggests asking the following questions in order to understand if VR is the right fit.

  • Which department will own this initiative?
  • What type of training does the organization want to re-create?
  • What is the total budget, including technology investment and development?
  • How will success be measured?

“After outlining an initial program, you’ll want to determine a specific ‘pilot’ group to deploy and from which to collect targeted and consistent feedback,” she says.

Another consideration is to incorporate VR into a more encompassing learning program in order to strengthen skills development and retention. “Instead of solely focusing on the main learning activity, training programs should include pre- and post-session activities to reinforce learning objectives. These reinforcement activities are equally as important as the main portion of the program and drive sustained behavior changes in employees,” says Stachiw.

Tags: HR Technology, June 2021, Magazine Article, Screening

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