Derek Belch, CEO of Strivr, on the growing trend of “upskilling” employees in a competitive labor market, and how virtual-reality based Immersive Learning programs can improve training effectiveness, lower costs, and drive better measurable business outcomes.
Amazon made headlines this summer when it announced a decision to retrain some 100,000 workers, roughly a third of its workforce, who were at risk of losing their jobs due to automation. This move is the most recent example in a trend of companies increasingly investing in employee education in order to attract, grow, and retain talent — and ultimately provide a better experience for its customers.
Reskilling and upskilling employees, especially hourly workers, is becoming more critical as new technologies like AI automate certain functions that people have traditionally handled. This training can now become a differentiator for an organization, offering an employee experience more clearly focused on personal growth and career path development. The ‘war for talent’ is real, and the value candidates place on learning has become a higher priority when assessing potential job opportunities. And for organizations that have historically experienced high employee turnover, ensuring new workers are prepared to deliver high-quality on-the-job performance is imperative. As they say, ‘the customer is king,’ and a well-trained frontline worker could hold the key to an entire company’s brand reputation.
Recently Sephora and Starbucks undertook company-wide empathy training after high-profile incidents led to accusations of bias and insensitivity. This type of training can often come at a high cost. Amazon is saying it will spend $700 million to train workers transitioning to new positions, made up largely of a combination of pilot programs, classes and tuition. Starbucks and Sephora closed all of their stores nationwide during their training, which led to millions in lost profits. (An estimated $12 million in Starbucks’ case.)
This investment in training is important, but how can enterprises achieve this massive undertaking in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable cost, especially when considering the massive number of employees they must reach?
It’s all about rethinking the approach to employee development. Employees want to be more engaged and better prepared, while employers want a workforce that is ready to perform.
Enter Immersive Learning.
Immersive Learning is an experiential training methodology that uses virtual reality (VR) to simulate real-world scenarios in a safe, controlled, and engaging environment. Immersive Learning provides the benefits of on-the-job, individualized training, but in a way that is much more easily accessible and scalable across the entire organization.
Training the brain with VR
Traditional L&D methods rely on manuals, textbooks, videos, and lectures, and has evolved into eLearning, but many of these approaches are still insufficient at making a real impact on employee performance. VR drives behavioral change by strengthening the brain’s connections to translate learning to real-life, on-the-job events and decisions that present themselves to the employee throughout the course of their career. A recent study validated this by showing that the retention rate more than doubled when participants acquired new information through an immersive learning environment versus traditional methods.
Through specific spatial design, the brain perceives VR environments to be indistinguishable from reality. While a user is still consciously aware that they are in a simulated environment, the brain responds as if it were an actual, real-life experience – everything from a user’s balance to cognition, visual processing, spatial awareness, and more. This gives users a sense of “learning by doing”, but without actually “doing”. This is especially important in roles where “doing” in the real world is really difficult, whether due to the nature of the task being impossible to simulate, dangerous to simulate, or very expensive to simulate.
VR also offers on-demand access, allowing for repetitive learning to develop the muscle memory needed to achieve proficiency. This opens up numerous opportunities for workplace training, to which previous classroom or seminar training models simply cannot compare.
An example of this is found with JetBlue. The airline leverages VR for detailed, hands-on training for ground technicians to properly inspect the A320 family of aircraft, building expertise through repetition to easily and quickly identify mistakes on a “dirty” plane. In the commercial airline world, training technicians using real equipment means taking an aircraft out of commission or renting it at significant cost. VR addresses these challenges by simulating the real-world scenario and providing access to an aircraft, on-demand and an infinite number of times.
Building “soft skills” in VR
As we have seen with companies like Amazon, Sephora, and Starbucks, soft skills are incredibly important, especially for employees in customer-facing roles that represent their brand to the public on a daily basis. Skills including communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence, and empathy are difficult to teach in a classroom setting but are becoming essential skills as the workplace evolves socially and technologically.
VR is particularly well-suited for soft skills training, and allows users to explore options, engage in exercises, and have real responses based on emotion. Decision-making, handling conflict, and creating emotional empathy can be developed and improved quickly. For example, Verizon is leveraging VR as a practice & assessment tool for developing empathy for its customer-facing staff. Before VR training, 59% of these associates considered themselves very or extremely confident in dealing with an upset customer. After VR training, that number rose to 96%.
VR for upskilling at scale
Immersive learning offers training that doesn’t force employers to choose between scalable learning and effective learning. It also provides a unique set of data and insights that organizations can use to evaluate and assess workforce performance and competencies. With VR, companies can place employees in new environments before beginning a new role, allowing for more effective training and quantitative metrics for assessment.
We have seen this approach used by Walmart to assess workers’ potential for a new role or a promotion, analyzing data gathered in VR to identify how certain traits correlated with potential on-the-job performance. The use of Immersive Learning has also been found to limit bias inherent in many traditional hiring decisions, helping to both increase diversity and reduce potential turnover when an employee is placed into a role that may not ideally be suited for their skillset.
The Bottom Line
Immersive Learning can accelerate upskilling programs by providing higher engagement rates, instant familiarity with real-world scenarios once on the job, and ongoing, repetitive learning throughout an employee’s career for everything from operational efficiency, empathy and “soft skills,” customer service, and even dangerous situations.
In post-deployment surveys, employees rave about the immersive learning experience and are more engaged versus traditional training modules. Many have emotional responses to the experience. One of the most vivid examples is a dramatic learning module recently deployed at Verizon that simulated a robbery in a retail location. Verizon found that 97% of its in-store associates felt more prepared to handle a store robbery after an immersive learning curriculum was implemented to train on these high-risk situations.
Immersive learning has shown there’s a more effective way to provide engaging training programs at scale. Millions of employees across the Fortune 1000 are already learning with immersive technology, driving performance improvement, boosting learning outcomes, and elevating the employee experience. VR is transforming the employee journey, from recruitment to onboarding, and is now driving learning to a new level and preparing workers for roles of the future.