Published on February 1st, 2021 | by Emergent Enterprise0
How Companies Are Using VR to Develop Employees’ Soft Skills
Much of the focus in VR training solutions goes to hard skills like machine repair or technician support – and deservedly so. Those are some of the best case scenarios for using virtual reality for training objectives. But, the need for soft skills training is great and growing and as this article by Jeanne C. Meister at Harvard Business Review shows, companies are turning to virtual reality to equip employees in these skills as well. There are many benefits like cost savings and better retention but one outstanding differentiator is that VR “can provide a low-pressure way to practice high stakes conversations.” Customer service agents can practice tough interactions and sales personnel can rehearse important presentations all without risk of harming important relationships. The training can also show the company if the employee is good at these often confrontational interactions and if they are right for the position. That’s a big win for the business.
Image: Vasilina Popova/ Getty Images
Today’s companies are facing a growing soft skills gap. Recent studies found that 59% of surveyed hiring managers and 89% of executives reported difficulty recruiting candidates with the requisite soft skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership. And these soft skills are only becoming more essential (and more difficult to develop) as the pandemic pushes people into temporary — or in many cases, permanent — remote work. Without access to in-person training and education, what can businesses do to help their employees develop these vital skills?
One promising solution is virtual reality. Unlike traditional e-learning solutions, VR tools offer learners a truly immersive experience: These interactive programs can run on VR headsets — what most people likely think of when they hear “virtual reality” — or on standard mobile or desktop devices, and they allow employees to interact and role play with avatars designed to mimic customers or other key stakeholders. According to Christopher Dede, a Harvard School of Education professor whose work focuses on applications of VR for education, “The future of VR is being immersed into an environment blending physical and digital worlds, where users interact via a headset, their computer, or their mobile device to role play with an avatar or learn a new skill.”
While traditional educational tools can sometimes feel boring or artificial, immersive VR training creates highly memorable, impactful experiences — without the potential risk of real-world consequences. This video illustrates a sample VR training simulation, in which an employee interacts with an avatar to practice leadership development and conflict resolution skills.
Not only can VR be highly effective, these tools can reduce both cost and logistical hurdles associated with traditional in-person training. Many employees already have access to mobile or desktop devices in their home offices, and VR programs are often more engaging and thus faster (and cheaper) to complete than alternative programs. A 2020 PwC study suggested that at scale, VR can be significantly more cost effective than traditional soft skills training options, finding that employees completed VR programs up to four times faster than in-person trainings, and 1.5 times faster than e-learning programs — in large part because the immersive experience made it easier for learners to stay focused. The study also found that employees who completed VR training felt almost four times more emotionally connected to the content than classroom learners did, and more than twice as connected as e-learners, illustrating the huge impact that VR can make.
To explore how leading companies are using VR for soft skills training today, my company (Future Workplace, an HR advisory firm) partnered with Mursion, a VR training platform, and a third-party independent research firm to survey more than 300 learning and development leaders across a variety of industries. Through our research, we found that more than two thirds of respondents had either already implemented a VR training program for soft skills, or planned to implement one within the next two years.
In addition to looking at these quantitative adoption rates, we also conducted a qualitative analysis of how these programs are actually being used in practice. And while the survey revealed a whole spectrum of different applications for VR training, there were three common areas in which we found many companies had already begun leveraging VR to support soft skills development:
1. VR Simulations for Customer Service Training
First, VR simulations can provide a low-pressure way to practice high stakes conversations. For example, one of the companies we surveyed was H&R Block, a global tax preparation firm that onboards 5,000 new call center representatives every year, including 1,600 who join in the busy second half of the tax season. These entry-level employees are expected to field complex, emotionally charged calls from a variety of (often angry) customers within just a few days of starting at the company.
To succeed in this role, these employees need interpersonal skills such as active listening, calm under pressure, and the ability to summarize and resolve problems. As Kim Iorns, Director of Learning and Development for H&R Block, explained, “Fundamentally, our employees were doing all the things we wanted them to do, but there was something missing in our customer interactions. There was not enough of a human connection — so we made it a priority to focus our training on developing empathy.”