Soft skills such as conflict resolution, teamwork, and leadership are more important than ever — but they can be tricky for employees to develop, especially as remote work makes many traditional training programs untenable. Without access to in-person education, what can businesses do to help their people develop these vital skills? The author suggests that Virtual Reality can offer an effective solution. VR enables immersive, interactive experiences in which employees interact with an avatar to role play difficult conversations and develop communication skills. Based on a survey of over 300 learning and development leaders, the author discusses how companies large and small are already using these programs to support customer service training, presentation skills development, and employee evaluation. Ultimately, the author argues that VR will be critical in enabling the next generation of workers to cultivate the soft skills they’ll need to be successful in any organization.
Today’s companies are facing a growing soft skills gap. Recent studies found that 59% of surveyed hiring managers and 89% of executives reported difficulty recruiting candidates with the requisite soft skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership. And these soft skills are only becoming more essential (and more difficult to develop) as the pandemic pushes people into temporary — or in many cases, permanent — remote work. Without access to in-person training and education, what can businesses do to help their employees develop these vital skills?
One promising solution is virtual reality. Unlike traditional e-learning solutions, VR tools offer learners a truly immersive experience: These interactive programs can run on VR headsets — what most people likely think of when they hear “virtual reality” — or on standard mobile or desktop devices, and they allow employees to interact and role play with avatars designed to mimic customers or other key stakeholders. According to Christopher Dede, a Harvard School of Education professor whose work focuses on applications of VR for education, “The future of VR is being immersed into an environment blending physical and digital worlds, where users interact via a headset, their computer, or their mobile device to role play with an avatar or learn a new skill.”
While traditional educational tools can sometimes feel boring or artificial, immersive VR training creates highly memorable, impactful experiences — without the potential risk of real-world consequences. This video illustrates a sample VR training simulation, in which an employee interacts with an avatar to practice leadership development and conflict resolution skills.
Not only can VR be highly effective, these tools can reduce both cost and logistical hurdles associated with traditional in-person training. Many employees already have access to mobile or desktop devices in their home offices, and VR programs are often more engaging and thus faster (and cheaper) to complete than alternative programs. A 2020 PwC study suggested that at scale, VR can be significantly more cost effective than traditional soft skills training options, finding that employees completed VR programs up to four times faster than in-person trainings, and 1.5 times faster than e-learning programs — in large part because the immersive experience made it easier for learners to stay focused. The study also found that employees who completed VR training felt almost four times more emotionally connected to the content than classroom learners did, and more than twice as connected as e-learners, illustrating the huge impact that VR can make.
To explore how leading companies are using VR for soft skills training today, my company (Future Workplace, an HR advisory firm) partnered with Mursion, a VR training platform, and a third-party independent research firm to survey more than 300 learning and development leaders across a variety of industries. Through our research, we found that more than two thirds of respondents had either already implemented a VR training program for soft skills, or planned to implement one within the next two years.
In addition to looking at these quantitative adoption rates, we also conducted a qualitative analysis of how these programs are actually being used in practice. And while the survey revealed a whole spectrum of different applications for VR training, there were three common areas in which we found many companies had already begun leveraging VR to support soft skills development:
1. VR Simulations for Customer Service Training
First, VR simulations can provide a low-pressure way to practice high stakes conversations. For example, one of the companies we surveyed was H&R Block, a global tax preparation firm that onboards 5,000 new call center representatives every year, including 1,600 who join in the busy second half of the tax season. These entry-level employees are expected to field complex, emotionally charged calls from a variety of (often angry) customers within just a few days of starting at the company.
To succeed in this role, these employees need interpersonal skills such as active listening, calm under pressure, and the ability to summarize and resolve problems. As Kim Iorns, Director of Learning and Development for H&R Block, explained, “Fundamentally, our employees were doing all the things we wanted them to do, but there was something missing in our customer interactions. There was not enough of a human connection — so we made it a priority to focus our training on developing empathy.”
in handling difficult conversations. The company also saw a 50% decrease in dissatisfied customers, a 9.9% decrease in customer handling times, and significantly faster issue resolution times among the representatives who completed the program.
2. VR Simulations to Develop Presentation Skills
VR can also be an effective tool for improving presentation skills. For example, multinational technology and professional services provider Cognizant has been experimenting with leveraging VR simulations to train new hires to more clearly articulate their value proposition when pitching potential customers. These new hires are tasked with leveraging various kinds of data to explain a complex product and tell a compelling story — or risk losing important clients.
To help these employees hone their presentation skills, Cognizant developed a multi-stage VR-driven training program. First, the new hires complete an interactive digital course on data-driven storytelling. Next, they practice giving a client presentation with a VR avatar who role plays as a customer. Finally, an AI engine built on Google NLP and Parallel Dots API analyzes the presentation for key words, emotion, tone, and body language, and turns that analysis into actionable feedback for the user.
As Kshitij Nerurkar, North America Head of Cognizant’s Learning Academy, explains, “Practicing client presentations is just one of VR’s many soft skill applications, enabling new hires to practice presenting without needing to be in a classroom, and then receive instant feedback to fine tune their communication and data-storytelling skills.” This capacity for immediate feedback and essentially limitless rounds of practice (without relying on expensive, human training resources) is a key advantage of VR-powered learning tools.
3. VR Simulations for Employee Evaluation
Finally, VR can help managers evaluate employees’ current skill levels for different key competencies, enabling them to more effectively allocate training resources and match skill profiles to job functions. For example, senior executives at HPE Financial Services (HPEFS) wanted to find a way to optimize training for their sales representatives — before the reps got in front of their valued, high-level customers. They decided to pilot a VR solution with 340 sales reps, in which the reps each conducted a 30-minute role play exercise with an avatar designed to simulate a C-level customer. These role plays were recorded and shared with the representatives’ managers, who used them to determine whether the employee should be enrolled into further training at a Basic, Intermediate, or Advanced level.
As Ronda Bowman, Global Learning & Development Leader for HPEFS, explained, “The VR for sales training was very helpful, as it enabled our reps to immerse themselves in a lifelike scenario and see how a customer might react to different sales techniques. For example, if a sales rep doesn’t ask enough probing questions of the customer avatar, the avatar will stop engaging with the sales rep and start answering emails on her phone — just like a human would. Managers can then review the practice conversations and work with individual employees to identify areas for improvement, instead of waiting to hear negative feedback from real unhappy customers.” The VR program not only provided HPEFS employees with improved training, but also offered managers and HR teams improved visibility into their sales reps’ current skills and opportunities for growth.
These are just a few of the ways our survey identified that VR can be used to narrow the soft skills gap. Especially as remote works becomes more common, it’s likely that VR will become the desired platform for many soft skills training programs, from senior leadership development to new hire onboarding. In fact, in my recent HBR article, 21 HR Jobs of the Future, my coauthor and I propose an entirely new HR role dedicated to VR: a VR Immersion Counselor, focused on creating, facilitating, personalizing, and scaling the rollout of Virtual Reality for professional development. VR-powered education is poised to help the next generation of workers cultivate the essential soft skills they’ll need to be valuable — and employable — in any organization.
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