A quiet virtual reality revolution is occurring at Walmart. Since 2017, when the company began using virtual reality headsets in its training centers—called "Walmart Academies"—Walmart has used the technology to improve the employee experience, better assess workers' skills and present new ways of training staff.
According to Andy Trainor, vice president of learning at Walmart, virtual reality in the retail environment makes a lot of sense, especially in stores that are open 24 hours a day. Why?
"Because you don't have the opportunity to train after hours and you don't want to disrupt your customers on the floor," he said. "Virtual reality allows you to artificially create scenarios that you can't recreate on the sales floor in a way that associates can learn in a safe environment."
With this in mind, Walmart is using virtual reality, otherwise known as VR, in multiple ways, such as preparing employees for the commotion when customers swarm stores on Black Friday and evaluating how workers respond to angry shoppers. Additionally, VR is being used to ascertain which employees have the skills to fill middle management positions.
What Walmart executives have found is that VR works especially well when rolling out new technology and processes.
"We used VR to train associates on Pickup Towers, which are 15-foot vending machines that allow customers to pick up online orders," Trainor said.
Since using VR, Walmart has seen improvements in employee test scores from training sessions, and the technology allows the company to introduce new training programs.
"When we used the Oculus Rift VR headset in the classroom, we noticed an increase in test scores between 5 percent and 10 percent," he said. "We are starting to replace some global learning management system modules that can take 30 to 45 minutes and transitioning this to a three- to five-minute module in the virtual reality environment."
According to company executives, as of February, 10,000 of Walmart's 1.2 million employees have taken skills management assessments using VR. Later this year, Walmart plans to train over 1 million employees across 4,000 stores using the standalone headset.
Trainor said Walmart's HR organization helped to develop the training. Now that the company has rolled out VR to every store, HR professionals at each store will manage the devices and facilitate the training.
"It's important to bring HR partners along the journey so they can see the benefits first hand and become an advocate for this new way of educating associates," he said.
Align VR with Business Goals
HR managers looking to use virtual reality in their training programs shouldn't only consider how the technology can improve employee training, but should also consider how the technology can strengthen the company's overall business objectives. They should also think about partnering with a virtual reality vendor for at least two years, said Derek Belch, chief executive officer of STRIVR, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based company that designed Walmart's virtual reality training program.
"You have to learn what this technology is and what it isn't, what it does and what it does not do," Belch said. "HR managers have to think about implementing the technology in the right way. You can't just whip up a piece of content and put it in a room and hope someone uses it. That is just a recipe for disaster. We are seeing a lot of companies, for lack of a better term, tinker with this and they are not getting real business results."
Research from SuperData, a Nielsen company, estimates that 71 percent of companies using VR use the technology for training.
At Fidelity Investments Inc., VR headsets are used to train new workers about empathy. These employees are guided through a virtual phone call with a Fidelity "customer" going through a financial crisis. At UPS, HTC Vive VR headsets are used to help drivers identify potential hazards while "driving" on a virtual road. American Airlines uses VR to acquaint new crew members with safety procedures before they start their jobs.
Don't Neglect Human Interaction
Although using VR to train employees is in its very early stages, there is huge value in using VR to train employees, said Sarah Brennan, CEO and principal of Accelir Insights, a Milwaukee-based HR technology consulting firm. Brennan predicts that VR will have a significant impact on hiring and onboarding staff.
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"I would not be surprised to see VR being used for hiring," Brennan said. "Before candidates take a job, they can really understand what it would be like to do the job. They'll get a better sense of what it feels like to be in a busy kitchen, or what it feels like to be behind a desk when you are getting yelled at by a customer."
HR managers need to be aware that in some extreme cases—like preparing soldiers for what they might see in war zones or coaching emergency workers for what they might encounter in a terrorist attack—workers using VR need additional support, she said.
"A lot of things could go wrong, and my fear would be that we jump too far to relying only on the technology," Brennan said. "There needs to be the communication and the opportunity for questions and interactions with another person. Managers have to make sure that they take care of the whole person. Don't assume that the technology can handle it all."
Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami. She covers business, technology and public policy.