Virtual Reality Training for Managers in a Post-COVID-19 Workplace

PwC has had success using virtual reality to train its managers

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe August 11, 2020
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man using VR goggles

​Even though many employees are working remotely, companies still need to provide mandatory training to their workforce. This includes training for managers on preventing harassment and increasing diversity, equity and inclusion on their teams.

Because in-person training may not be an option during the COVID-19 era, many companies might assume that online training is the only choice. In fact, many HR departments were already relying on e-learning before the pandemic. According to LinkedIn's 2019 Workplace Learning Report, 59 percent of survey respondents reported spending a larger percentage of their training budgets on online learning and 39 percent reported spending less on instructor-led classroom training between 2017 and 2019.

But, according to a recent study by global consulting firm PwC, companies shouldn't overlook the possibility of using virtual reality (VR) to deliver training, particularly for soft skills related to leadership; diversity, equity and inclusion; and harassment prevention.

Between February and October 2019, a subgroup of PwC's Emerging Technology Group studied the impact of using VR to train 1,600 new managers on inclusive leadership. The study concluded that VR was 52 percent more cost-effective and four times faster than classroom training.

According to the study, it takes about two hours to complete classroom instruction, 45 minutes for an online course and 29 minutes of VR training to teach the same content. Further, the managers receiving VR training said they felt more connected to what they learned and more confident about using those skills than if they had learned them in a classroom or in an online learning module.

Since the pandemic, PwC has increased its use of VR training. "COVID was a catalyst in accelerating the acceptance of VR," said Scott Likens, PwC's emerging tech lead, who is based in Austin, Texas. VR is especially useful while managers are working remotely because it creates an immersive experience that replicates the workplace, he added.

Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City, agrees that VR training is a good solution to alleviate the isolation of remote work because it allows managers to consider another point of view by allowing them to experience a scenario from a perspective different from their own. "All we have now is our own perspective because we're working from home," said Rosenberg, who is also CEO and founder of Live in Their World Inc., a firm with offices in New York City and San Francisco that offers VR workplace training.

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How VR Training Works

PwC developed its VR training with support from Oculus for Business in Menlo Park, Calif., and Talespin in Los Angeles. The VR training that PwC tested places participants in a virtual conference room, where they speak to a group of animated virtual characters who represent PwC employees. Participants play themselves as the group discusses who gets hired, who gets a stretch assignment and who gets credit for success. In each of the three scenarios, the participant speaks directly to the virtual characters, choosing a dialogue from four options. If the participant's response is weak or neutral, he or she is given wording that reflects a more inclusive response, along with an explanation of why the recommended reply is ideal. Afterward, the participant can repeat each scenario as many times as he or she likes, to practice saying the correct response.

In the past, VR might have been too expensive for companies to consider, but now headsets cost less than $1,000, Likens said, and can be used repeatedly to deliver training to employees. The headset fits securely onto the user's head, allowing the user to move around during VR training, providing an immersive, hands-free experience. A cheaper, less immersive option is to purchase cardboard VR viewers that allow participants to use their smartphone and a VR app to view training, Rosenberg said. However, the user must hold the cardboard viewer up to his or her face, and the quality of the experience depends on the quality of the user's smartphone. Further, larger smartphones won't fit into the cardboard viewer.

The PwC study found that 78 percent of all VR participants preferred virtual training over online and classroom instruction. Here are three reasons participants said they feel more confident using the skills they learned in VR training:

  • VR training is private. Participants who are role-playing in a classroom setting may feel uncomfortable testing ways to express themselves in front of peers. Each participant completes VR training alone, creating a safe space where it's OK to give a wrong answer initially, Likens said.

    Added Rosenberg: "Instead of worrying about putting their foot in their mouth or saying the wrong thing, participants can focus on the experience, which facilitates learning."

  • *The experience is immersive. VR doesn't allow participants to multitask. When they put on the headset and they're in the training scenario, that is the only thing they can see and focus on. In a classroom setting, it's easy to get distracted by other people and smartphone notifications. Online learning is also easily interrupted. With VR, the participant is immersed in the content, making it easier for him or her to remember what was taught, Likens said. Once someone puts on a VR headset, they're cut off from other devices, he said.

    "I went through the course, and I didn't multitask," said Matthew Pang, a director of tax in PwC's McLean, Va., office. "I think I got more out of the training because of it."

  • Most participants have a "lightbulb moment." According to the PwC study, 75 percent of participants realized something they had been previously unaware of during the training. For instance, Walter Grudzinski, director of internal firm services in the Indianapolis office, said the training demonstrated the importance of giving stretch assignments to different employees.

    "It helped me to see a lot of selfishness on my part if I keep choosing the same people to do the same kind of jobs," he said. "It doesn't help our people to grow."

For Ferdinand Zittlau, an advisory manager in the Dallas office, the training highlighted how easily bias can be introduced into a manager's decisions. "This will make me more aware of how to de-escalate any bias being introduced," he said. Managers participating in VR training offered by Rosenberg also reported having an epiphany. Clancy Slack, a data scientist at Figma, a digital design and prototyping tool company in San Francisco, said his realization happened when he was discussing the training with several female colleagues. When Slack said he felt like the scenarios were exaggerated, a female co-worker told him that she had experienced everything discussed in the training.

"I enjoyed the process and discussions that came out after," Slack said. "Because it is more intense [than online or classroom learning], it sparked a conversation about what we experienced, what made us most uncomfortable and what was most impactful."

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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