When Kim Iorns was looking for a way to build confidence and empathy in new call center agents at her company during the pandemic, she didn’t turn first to traditional distance-training methods such as e-learning or educational videos. Iorns, director of learning and development for tax services company H&R Block, instead deployed virtual reality (VR) training to place those new hires in highly realistic job simulations that allowed them to practice the soft skills critical to supporting clients during the anxiety-ridden tax preparation process.
Iorns had discovered that while most new agents acquired relevant tax knowledge quickly, many lacked the human touch critical to calming nerves and building repeat business among H&R Block customers. “As we listened to calls, we knew most of our agents were performing tasks the right way, but we didn’t always feel that human element in interactions,” Iorns says. “It’s important to show empathy to clients when they’re struggling with tax issues, often on tight deadlines. The stakes are high where people’s money is involved.”
Iorns wanted training that would create more of an emotional connection to content and closely mimic real-world service scenarios. She partnered with VR training vendor Mursion to create 2D simulations where small groups of agents take turns interacting with digital avatars through use of a software platform and webcams. The avatars role-play as customers, presenting common questions and challenges faced by H&R Block clients—and sometimes pushing back on things agents say or do in scenarios to test them. All trainees receive detailed feedback on their performance in the simulations.
Iorns says this highly immersive form of training helped new hires achieve competency faster than with other modes of learning. “It’s not uncommon for us to hire someone to take calls 15 days before the end of the tax season,” Iorns says. “But we found those late-season hires who’d completed even one VR training simulation performed just as well as many agents hired at the start of the tax season. That told us a lot about the impact of virtual reality training.”
The VR training completed by 1,780 new agents also impacted other key performance indicators in the call center environment. For example, average time customers spend on hold was reduced by 50 percent as a result of new agents reaching competency faster and resolving client issues more efficiently. “Post-training surveys also showed a decrease in dissatisfied clients that we believe ties back to our agents showing increased empathy and care,” Iorns says.
‘To get people to really buy in and take action, they need to see it happening right in front of them. After the virtual reality simulations, the reaction from managers often is, “Wow, that’s what it really can look and feel like.” ’
- Cornell Verdeja-Woodson
With in-person learning placed on hold during the pandemic, more organizations turned to VR training because of its increased affordability and proven ability to teach employees working remotely. Once reserved for training involving worker safety or for high-stakes scenarios such as learning to perform surgery or fly a plane, VR simulations are now being used to teach soft skills; enhance diversity, equity and inclusion awareness; and provide practice in handling difficult workplace conversations. The technology is particularly adept at creating the kind of emotional impact on learners that leads to lasting behavioral change or a mindset shift, experts say.
A 2019 study on the use of VR training for soft skills by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that when compared to traditional training methods—self-paced online learning and classroom education—VR simulations helped employees become more confident in their ability to perform their jobs, taught them faster and created a stronger emotional bond to training content.
The study examined the impact of using VR to train new PwC managers in inclusive leadership skills. New managers in 12 U.S. locations took the same training in one of the three learning modalities: classroom, e-learning or VR training. Learners were given a pre-assessment prior to and a post-assessment immediately after finishing the course. They completed another assessment 30 days later to evaluate learning retention.
“We found the realism and performance feedback in virtual reality simulations helped people learn faster and retain more information around soft skills,” says Scott Likens, new services and emerging technology leader for PwC who helped oversee the study. “It’s hard to create the kind of emotional connection through a method like e-learning that’s generated in a VR simulation. Virtual reality impacts more of the learner’s senses and is well-suited to any type of training involving emotions like building empathy.”
The PwC study also found that employees trained via VR got up to speed four times faster than classroom learners and almost two times faster than e-learners. “A lot of courses that normally take an hour could be completed in 20 minutes through VR because people are so immersed in scenarios, there are fewer distractions and the learning is very concentrated,” Likens says.
The study also highlighted other advantages VR can have over methods frequently used to teach soft skills, such as role-playing in a classroom with facilitators providing feedback. “A virtual avatar can be asked the same question, or perform the same task, 1,000 times without losing patience,” the PwC study authors wrote.
The Cost Question
Learning experts stress that VR training isn’t the right solution for all needs and should be matched to situations that best fit the medium. But many also say the increased affordability of the technology has brought it within reach of more organizations’ learning budgets. Fully immersive, 3D virtual reality typically requires an investment in user headsets and off-the-shelf software or custom development to build simulations tailored to specific company needs. 2D training simulations don’t require VR goggles but rather access to software platforms or webcams from modern computer systems used by trainees.
The PwC study found that purchasing an enterprise headset “ecosystem” amounts to an average one-time fee of less than $1,000. To reduce those costs, many organizations use VR headsets repeatedly with multiple users—being sure to sanitize them thoroughly. The study found that when deployed at scale, the cost of VR training is comparable to or even less than that of other training modes.
For example, when training size reached 375 learners in the PwC study, VR training for a custom-built course achieved cost parity with classroom learning. When the volume reached 3,000 learners, VR was 52 percent more cost-effective than the classroom. The fewer employees a company trains, the more expensive the cost per learner for VR training, Likens says.
The PwC study also found that more VR training vendors are creating software packages that allow non-VR developers to create their own content in cost-effective ways. “We’re starting to see more tools and templates that can help companies build VR simulations, scripts and storylines themselves,” Likens says. “Only a year or two ago, that required more custom coding skills.” In addition, more-established learning management system providers now allow VR content to be easily integrated into their platforms.
Jeanne Meister, managing partner of Future Workplace, an HR advisory, research and membership firm in New York City, says more organizations turned to VR for soft-skills training during the pandemic because of the medium’s more-manageable costs and its unique ability to hone interpersonal skills in employees.
FUTURE USES OF VR TRAINING
The likely continuation of remote work even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends and the ongoing shift away from classroom learning may result in even broader uses of VR training in the future, experts say. Scott Likens, new services and emerging technology leader for PwC, is already seeing growing use of the technology in one new area: teaching collaborative decision-making.
“We’re seeing increased demand for multi-user sessions where learners talk, interact and brainstorm together in simulated environments,” Likens says. “It’s a good training approach for any kind of project where people have to think or visualize together in the same room, either in small or large groups.”
Others agree that VR training may expand its horizons as costs continue to drop and innovative technology providers improve the medium’s ability to mimic real-life work challenges.
“There will continue to be many people working from home and more organizations rethinking whether they really need to bring people together for in-person learning,” says Jeanne Meister, managing partner at HR advisory, research and membership firm Future Workplace. “That bodes well for the use of VR training for soft skills and other situations where creating an emotional impact leads to greater learning retention and application.” —D.Z.
Embracing the Human Element
Meister says soft skills, such as active listening or demonstrating empathy, will only grow more valuable in the future as technologies like artificial intelligence take over many manual, repetitive tasks within jobs, leaving humans to handle those areas where they naturally excel over machines.
“As automation takes over more aspects of jobs, humans will be left with resolving issues for customers or co-workers that require empathy, judgment and collaborating well with others on solutions,” Meister says.
VR simulations also have proved to be an effective way to help managers practice difficult work conversations, such as terminating an employee or giving performance feedback. And retailers and banks have used the technology recently to teach employees how to de-escalate situations where customers refuse to wear masks in stores or how to react if their business is being robbed.
Telecommunications company T-Mobile used VR training to help its leaders practice how to manage changing business conditions as it prepared to merge with Sprint. The training enabled T-Mobile managers to build skills in handling change management conversations, both by voicing their own concerns and dealing with objections expressed by resistant team members, says Barb Schlittenhard, senior director of learning and development for T-Mobile.
The VR simulations were completed in 30-minute increments at times convenient to leaders. T-Mobile has since expanded the VR training to include subjects such as supporting traumatized employees through incidents of racial injustice, Schlittenhard says.
Breathing Life into DE&I Training
Many learning leaders have found that VR simulations can be a good match for diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) training. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the DE&I topic today, but actually moving the needle on it is hard,” says Josh Bersin, a noted HR industry analyst and founder and dean of the Josh Bersin Academy in Oakland, Calif. “One problem is much of the training in the area has been focused on compliance rather than organizational change. The value of good VR training is learners experience firsthand the challenges that diverse employees or job candidates go through, and it leaves a lasting impact. VR simulations are different because you remember exactly what happened as if you had the experience yourself.”
Cornell Verdeja-Woodson, founder and president of Brave Trainings, a San Francisco-based consulting firm specializing in workforce diversity and inclusion issues, used VR training from vendor Vantage Point to educate managers about unconscious bias in workforce decisions when he was global head of diversity at data provider Looker, a company since purchased by Google.
“We had previously held workshops on the topic, but no training on what to actually do in the moment when you perceive bias or harassment happening,” Verdeja-Woodson says. “To get people to really buy in and take action, they need to see it happening right in front of them. After the virtual reality simulations, the reaction from managers often is, ‘Wow, that’s what it really can look and feel like.’ ”
In one VR simulation the company used, employees gathered in a room awaiting a big presentation and one of the male avatars made comments about a male co-worker’s sexuality.
“It lent itself to conversations among learners about what they would do in that moment if faced with hearing such comments, especially if others might think it’s just someone joking around,” Verdeja-Woodson says.
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.
Illustration by Michael Korfhage for HR Magazine