Training in a Virtual World: The New Normal

From compliance to upskilling, virtual- and mixed-reality solutions are improving employee training.
By: | October 3, 2018 • 11 min read

Derek Belch, CEO of virtual-reality-software company STRIVR, was let go from his football coaching job at Stanford University so he could pursue virtual reality.

His boss, head coach Dave Shaw, realized Belch’s potential and didn’t want him to miss out on greater opportunities off the football field. At the time, Belch was also a graduate student who was working on a thesis that VR could improve football-player training. The project was so successful—both for Belch academically and with the players at Stanford—that Shaw wanted to push him to grow the thesis into a business—which is exactly what happened.

In 2015, Belch took STRIVR to the National Football League and, for the first year in business, focused solely on training sports teams. The idea was to perfect practice through virtual repetitions aimed at improving player performance. Belch says VR replicates a real-world experience, allowing participants to practice often, without fear of mistake or injury, which is great for sports teams.

Virtual reality, when done right, is a “complete immersion that leads to mental transportation to another place,” says Belch. “Your brain should feel like it’s somewhere else, despite where your body is.”

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STRIVR’s success was gathering steam and, in the summer of 2016, retail behemoth Walmart contacted the tiny tech start-up and asked if Belch and his team could create VR training for its store associates.

Despite his background in sports and limited number of employees, Belch met with Walmart and within a month had a proof of concept ready. He says he knew after his first meeting with Walmart that VR could radically disrupt the world of learning and development—something that STRIVR may have eventually branched out into on its own, but the Walmart call sealed the deal.

Research from Training magazine estimates that U.S. businesses spent $90.6 billion on training in 2017, and that employees received 47.6 hours of training per year. In Axonify’s State of Workplace Training study, 31 percent of respondents reported receiving no formal training at all, but among those who did, 43 percent reported it was ineffective.

Too many companies continue to cling to the once-a-year, formal-training blueprints of businesses past, experts say, which means they’re missing out on the possibilities of a digital, on-demand L&D approach. Organizations could benefit from earmarking some of their budgets for new methods of training employees, many of whom want personalized experiences that are available to them in the moment. AR, VR and mixed-reality education are avenues that, with the right structure and support, can meet these needs.

Immersive Experiences

Adam Schouela, vice president of product management at the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, says his group looks at new and emerging technologies and builds proofs of concept to determine potential use cases within Fidelity. He says immersive user interfaces were a priority for Fidelity last year, so the company purchased several types of equipment to test scenarios, from which four use cases emerged—one being call-center-employee training.

Eventually, Fidelity conducted a small pilot project with STRIVR for new call-center employees, with an end goal of increasing employee- and customer-satisfaction scores. In the training, new employees put on headsets and are immediately placed in the call-center environment, where they spend a few minutes getting acclimated before answering a simulated call from a customer. After asking the customer a few questions, the employee is “transported” into the customer’s home to understand the context surrounding the phone call. Back at the call center, the employee finishes helping the customer and then is taken back to the customer’s home to see the impact of his or her decisions.

The scene at the end, Schouela says, is based on how the employee handled the transaction.

“We wanted a way to bring the customer to the center of training so our call-center associates could see each phone call as more than a voice at the end of a line,” he says. “With VR, you’re completely engaged in the training—you’re actually sitting in the person’s living room, face to face, and you can see how even the smallest transaction will impact a customer’s life.”

Schouela says in the current training, employees help customers withdraw money from their accounts. It’s up to the employee to ask the right questions to determine why, when and how the money is (or isn’t) paid.

What Fidelity call center employees see when they wear the VR headset.

“If you watch the employees during VR training, you’ll see physical reactions—you don’t get such visceral reactions during classroom-based, role-playing exercises,” says Schouela.

After running through the pilot program, Fidelity found that both of its key performance indicators were met: increased satisfaction among customers and workers who underwent VR training.

VR as an immersive experience lends itself to the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes and allows someone to react as they normally would outside of the VR experience, an idea that resonated with Morgan Mercer, founder of Vantage Point.

During a TEDxMonteCarlo talk about sexual violence against women by Sara Elizabeth Dill, Mercer and other speakers came to the consensus that few people know how to properly identify harassment, intervene or respond if someone comes forward with a story of sexual violence.

That’s when Mercer realized anti-sexual-harassment training could be moved into the VR space.

“There’s no better way to place someone in a scenario to understand the impacts of their actions and truly form relationships with people to learn empathy,” she says. “It’s hard for people who haven’t been directly impacted or know someone close to them who was impacted by sexual harassment to empathize with a survivor. VR changes the game.”

Mercer closed her first round of seed funding in July and has a few Fortune 1000 clients contracted to begin using Vantage Point for anti-sexual-harassment training, which transports users to a start-up in Silicon Valley to follow “Rachel,” an employee who is being sexually harassed by her boss. The training involves four modules, the first of which helps users identify sexual harassment, while the next focuses on bystander intervention. The third involves individual-response training and the last highlights ways to identify and address stigma and bias.

Employers pay an annual licensing fee to Vantage Point for the software. The employer is responsible for purchasing the hardware, but Vantage Point acts as a broker, negotiating a good deal, Mercer says. From there, the training software is loaded into the headsets and everything is quality tested before being sent to the client as an “out-of-the-box” solution.

Vantage Point software can integrate with existing HCM systems and tracks which employees completed training, who needs to be scheduled and auto-assigns VR headsets. Once the headset is activated, it automatically populates the appropriate training. Employers then have access to a wealth of data and analytics in real-time, including behavioral patterns, such as where employees are most engaged with the training and how employees perceive aggression and assertion, says Mercer.

Walmart has reported its own success with STRIVR, which it rolled out at all of its 200 training academies last year. It found that knowledge retention was 10 to 15 percent greater among associates who went through VR training compared to standard training, says Andy Trainor, senior director of Walmart Academies. After coupling that with the increased employee engagement, Walmart decided to deploy VR headsets to all its stores in the U.S. for associate training by the end of the year.

Trainor says there are three main goals of its VR training: teaching employees how to set up and use new technology; illustrating customer-service skills, such as empathy and diversity and inclusion; and completing compliance-based training.

“With our empathy module, we’re looking to teach cashier associates to humanize customers,” says Trainor. He says one of the biggest frustrations cashiers (and customers) face is when someone pays in coins, as it takes a lot of time. In the empathy module, Walmart associates are transported into the customer’s home to see why he or she has to pay with coins—such as someone who is unemployed and trying to feed children.

“VR changes the cashier’s perspective and humanizes people,” says Trainor. “Helping our associates humanize customers to make sure they understand that this is a person outside of the transaction helps us create the kind of customer experience our customers are looking for.”

The success of the Walmart/STRIVR partnership and the company’s future VR endeavors was shared at this year’s HR Technology Conference and Exposition® in a session titled “Why Virtual Reality is the Future of Learning & Development.”

Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and HR officer at Accenture, says her firm is using VR to help employees experience the outcomes and key characteristics of leadership in the digital age, with a focus on building strong connections to and empathy for those around them. Accenture has also created the “Virtual Reality Gender Swap,” which uses avatars to helps employees step into someone else’s shoes and experience interactions from multiple perspectives.

“We recently held our Accenture Inclusivity and Diversity Excellence awards, and this [Gender Swap] was one of our winners,” says Shook. “We’re scaling this to use it more broadly across the company, and early feedback has shown that 94 percent of users feel better prepared to have bias-free conversations. Our goal is to achieve gender parity by 2025, and it’s things like this that will accelerate our progress.”

Augmented and Mixed Reality

While VR is meant to be an immersive and transportive experience, augmented reality is designed to enhance users’ line of sight and give wearers pertinent information exactly when and where they need it most.

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Brian Ballard, CEO of Upskill, the maker of AR solution Skylight, says AR injects a little bit of digital content into the real world.

“AR allows me to see my entire surroundings minus what may be blocked by the smart glasses frames,” says Ballard. “It injects directly into my point of view, delivering relevant information when I need it.”

Skylight has been used for manufacturing, material-handling and field-service teams at large companies like Boeing, GE and Accenture to improve productivity, compliance, training and upskilling.

A major medical-device supplier uses Skylight for upskilling, Ballard says. Senior engineers and technicians wear smart glasses that are loaded with Skylight software to record their activities while they perform critical tasks, such as sterilizing and packaging medical equipment. Skylight’s real-time video streaming and recording capabilities and hands-free voice commands let wearers record and narrate everything they do. This makes AR great for knowledge transfer when it comes to information “learned on the job” versus what’s written in employer manuals, Ballard says.

Shook says Accenture plans to integrate Skylight into its Digital Distribution Solution—a digital platform that enables the distribution of any type of content to any device at scale.

“This integration will provide workers with seamless access to AR, VR, 3D models and artificial-intelligence-based analytics and images on wearables and multiple devices,” says Shook. “Accenture has collaborated on numerous client projects with Upskill across telecommunications, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals and aerospace/defense industries, and it’s really exciting to bring these solutions at scale to connected workers around the world.”

Now that these technologies are becoming commercially available, experts agree that the future of training and L&D will be found in virtual, augmented and mixed reality. Convincing business leaders may take some work, however, as Accenture’s Shook points out that the company research found only 3 percent of leaders plan to significantly increase their investment in training employees. This number is worrisome given that the research also found that 50 percent of business leaders identify future skills shortages as a key business challenge.

By 2020, research from the World Economic Forum suggests, more than one-third of the core skills needed to perform most jobs will be made up of those that aren’t currently considered crucial to the job. To proactively address this issue means upskilling and “new skilling” the workforce; however, research has shown that standard classroom-based learning or PowerPoint presentations can be tedious, laborious and disruptive to work. These methods also aren’t conducive to knowledge retention, whereas emerging research finds that AR/VR improves learner performance, reduces on-the-job mistakes and increases productivity.

For STRIVR’s Belch, his VR journey was about addressing change management for enterprises.

“We want to take the existing paradigm of how employees are trained and turn it upside-down,” he says. “Using VR is really about giving employees a chance to practice what they’ll be doing on the job and give them tangible experience in a safe environment.”

At Walmart, Brock McKeel, senior director of digital operations, says VR does more than just improve his associates’ performance; rather, what they learn through VR, he says, extends beyond Walmart’s doors.

“VR technology is an investment for us to make our frontline associates better, and when they walk outside of Walmart, the training makes them better people as well,” McKeel says. “We can’t correlate this type of success to a number on a page, but it’s what drives our passion to extend VR to all employees.”

The HR Technology Conference & Exposition® will be held Oct. 1 through 4, 2019, at the Venetian in Las Vegas. Go to www.hrtechconference.com for more information.

Danielle Westermann King, staff writer for HRE, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]

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