VR for Corporate Training: Making Employees Uncomfortable (Intentionally)

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

You strap-on a virtual reality (VR) headset and are immersed in a (virtual) meeting in an office environment, when your manager makes an inappropriate comment to a female coworker. Immediately, you get a text from your coworker on your virtual cellphone, asking you what to do—”Should we say something or go to HR?” As you watch the situation unfold, your surroundings change, depending on the choices you make.

The scene is from a new genre of corporate anti-sexual harassment training programs that put employees in awkward situations. But that, of course, is the point.

According to Morgan Mercer, founder of Vantage Point, the company that created this training content, “If you don’t speak up when you should or ignore things you should have noticed, you will be trained on what you did wrong and how the situation would have played out if you had made the right choice.”

“All soft skills training, from diversity and inclusion to communications, should move to VR.”

—Morgan Mercer, founder of Vantage Point

For Mercer, VR has emerged as the most effective way to train employees because it fully immerses people into a situation and creates empathy. “When you feel like you are friends with a character, you are more likely to understand and more likely to act,” she explained. “And you can’t form the same kind of relationships with characters on 2D screens.”

VR in the #MeToo Era

Mercer, herself a survivor of sexual violence, remembers the specific moment she realized people lack formal education and training around how to prevent—and even talk about—sexual assault.

After listening to a TED Talk titled “Women as Weapons of War,” given by Sara Elizabeth Dill, former director of Criminal Justice Standards and Policy for the American Bar Association, Mercer engaged Dill in discussion about the topic during a private speaker dinner after the talk. That’s when Mercer realized the hitch: “I saw that most people didn’t know how to respond to sexual harassment or gender-based violence.” (Dill, a friend and mentor at the time, is now an advisor at the company, Mercer noted.)

Shortly after the TED Talk experience, Mercer decided to teach people how to respond. She chose VR training because of its immersive power and ability to measure behavioral data.

“People spend years trying to read body movement and facial responses,” she said. “In an immersive environment, you can track eye movement and measure how close people are to each other and, quite literally, measure reactions like you can’t in 2D-videos or in real life.”

For Mercer, VR is a powerful tool when it comes to anything that involves human interaction and behavioral change. “All soft skills training, from diversity and inclusion to communications, should move to VR,” she added.

And while metrics are only part of the equation, Mercer notes the “big number of requests” for virtual reality training that have risen with the sense of empowerment around the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

Immersing into Difficult Conversations

It appears Mercer’s prediction about soft-skill training through VR is already here. Walmart, the US’s largest private employer, has equipped all 200 of its training academies with a VR program that includes preparing for tough situations, such as the chaos of holiday sprees.

“Black Friday is a once-a-year event, and several new store associates have never experienced it,” Danny Belch, vice-president of marketing at Strivr—the startup that originally developed the immersive technology to train football players in college and NFL and is now implementing it in Walmart’s training academies—said. “VR works great to help [employees], and their managers understand the dynamics of such a busy day before they have to manage customers through it.”

Walmart’s senior manager of communication, Beth Harris, agrees. “VR allows associates to experience a lifelike store environment to experiment, learn, and handle difficult situations without the need to recreate disruptive incidents or disturb the customers’ shopping experience,”she said on Walmart’s blog.

According to Belch, Walmart is also using VR to help store managers practice tough conversations with employees who don’t show up on time or treat customers poorly. The retail giant, too, plans to introduce VR training to teach employees how to have more inclusive conversations with people of all races and genders.

Test Before You Leap

According to a recent University of Maryland study, head-mounted VR displays bring a superior spatial awareness—about a 12 percent improvement in median recall and an 8.8 percent improvement in overall recall accuracy compared to desktop computer-based training.

Yet, while initial results from use of virtual reality as a corporate training tool are compelling, Belch warns this is only true for those who do it in the right way. “People read and hear about how VR training can improve engagement and recall, but might not have seen it in action and don’t know how to implement it,” he explained. He advises companies instead to start small.

“Pick a specific, difficult conversation employees need to practice,” he said. “Put it on VR and see how their workers react before going big.” The reason has something to do with what Belch describes as preparing employees for a distinct shift in learning culture.

To best prepare employees to confront issues from sexual harassment to customer engagement, leaders, too, need to be prepared. “Decide whether it will be a central training center or a workshop,” he said. “Think about who will use it and for how long, who will facilitate the training and what will happen to the data you collect.”

If leaders understand the goals and progression of the program, Belch concluded, “there is no better way to prepare for a difficult situation than to experience it under the VR headset.”