Recruiters, Trainers Find New Uses for Virtual Reality

By Dave Zielinski January 25, 2019

​When recruiting leaders at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) were looking to send a message to job candidates that the company was progressive and technology-savvy, they turned to virtual reality (VR). PwC's talent identification leader, Carly Williams, said the company began deploying VR headsets at campus career fairs in 2017 to "show" rather than "tell" students about the PwC culture, give virtual tours of company offices and deliver immersive day-in-the-life experiences.

PwC's recruiting teams now use three to five VR headsets at each of the universities where the company recruits, Williams said. "It allows them to feel like they're sitting in one of our meetings, interacting with our employees in the break room or seeing our diversity and inclusion initiatives in action." About 80 percent of students who have one VR experience immediately ask for another, Williams said.

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Affordability and Innovation

PwC is one of a growing number of companies to use lower-cost but still innovative VR technology in HR functions. While artificial intelligence and machine learning capture the headlines, more-mature but improving VR technology is quietly making a big impact.

Cambridge, Mass.-based research and advisory firm Forrester defines virtual reality as "an immersive digital experience made to feel realistic by the addition of body views like 360-degree views, 3D sound and increasingly several degrees of physical freedom for movement."

While the technology has long been used for training in hazardous environments, medical clinics, and complex retail and logistics settings, experts say companies are finding new applications in recruiting, onboarding, and learning and development.

Improved affordability and innovations led to the VR resurgence, said Jeff Mike, vice president and HR research leader for human resources consulting firm Bersin, Deloitte. Hardware costs that were once barriers to adoption have fallen considerably. "High-quality VR headsets that were $1,500 to $2,000 a few years ago are now in the $300 to $400 range, and many can be used along with phones or tablets instead of laptops, and some are for stand-alone use," Mike said. "Costs for the software and specialized cameras to produce content also have come down over time."

For example, the new Oculus Go VR headset sells for $199 on the company website and works without the need for a companion, high-powered PC. Oculus's higher-end Rift headset sells for $399, and HTC's Vive headset sells for $499. At the lower end of the price range, Google's Daydream headset for use with mobile devices is $99. A stand-alone Daydream headset is more expensive.

"We're seeing more recruiters using it," Mike said. "Many find it's more effective than simply pointing candidates to videos or photos on a careers site."

Mike added that more companies are using versions of VR for candidate screening and assessment. "It's the difference between candidates' simply answering questions about how they might behave in specific scenarios versus being immersed in a VR environment and showing how they would behave in simulations," he said.

Expanding Training Uses

A 2018 report from Forrester, Emerging Technology Spotlight: Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality, found that VR has emerged as a key training tool used by companies across industries, such as Walmart, UPS and a variety of health care organizations.

Last year Walmart purchased 17,000 Oculus Go headsets for its stores, to train employees in the use of new technologies and soft skills, such as customer service, empathy and compliance. In one case the headsets were deployed to teach employees how to use Walmart's Pickup Towers, which allow customers to easily retrieve within stores merchandise they purchased online.

Mike said one of the more promising VR applications he's seen is diversity training. "Put on a set of VR goggles, and you can experience life as someone of a different race, gender or age in a simulation," he said. "Rather than trying to comprehend an abstract concept of someone treating you in a certain way, you can experience it directly. It can help you become more aware of your own natural biases and learn what it's like to walk in another's shoes."

Other companies are using virtual reality as a "safe" way to train first-time managers or to teach sales and customer service skills. Mursion is a San Francisco-based vendor that offers clients virtual-reality training experiences by placing employees in settings that mimic challenging interpersonal situations they'll face on the job. As human trainers facilitate the process, learners interact online with artificial-intelligence-driven avatars designed to look and sound like people employees encounter at work. The format can allow companies to scale such training in ways they often can't when using in-person role-playing.

"Use of the avatars creates a psychologically safe place for people to practice new skills," said Brentt Brown, director of business strategy for Mursion. "We believe it creates authentic exchanges for learners to build skills for challenging interpersonal scenarios. You can take a quiz about how to coach someone, but it rarely means you'll be able to coach effectively as a result."

Brown said Mursion's platform delivers full 3-D simulations to users' laptops. "We're trying to meet our customers where they are in terms of the hardware they already have," he said.

LinkedIn has used the technology with managers, directors and vice presidents for leadership development, said Cherisse Gill, a learning and development manager with LinkedIn. 

"It's been particularly helpful in teaching managers how to provide feedback to direct reports," Gill said. "Having those difficult conversations can be overwhelming and intimidating. The virtual environment creates a safe place to practice a variety of challenging scenarios in a realistic setting."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.



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