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Virtually perfect training: How HR leaders can harness the power of VR

by Tom Symonds

Put on a virtual reality (VR) headset and you can enter a fantasy world of dragons and
monsters, but VR can also create a world that looks very much like our own. In this virtual
version of our world you can collaborate with colleagues on the other side of the globe, fail at
a task without any real repercussions, and learn how to deal with an emergency scenario
without facing any actual risk.

This is VR for corporate training. As the technology becomes both more sophisticated and
affordable, an increasing number of organisations are exploring its potential: recent research
suggests that nearly 75% of small and medium-sized businesses will be experimenting with
VR or augmented reality (AR) technology by 2022.

For learning and development (L&D) teams, VR offers an immense opportunity. It’s a technology that could revolutionise the way that training is delivered. Critically, though, it could also overhaul the way that training is analysed, helping teams demonstrate the ROI of programmes and improve them through iteration. The potential of VR for people management teams also reaches far beyond training, with other initiatives – from onboarding to cultural change to recruitment – ripe for VR disruption.

A wealth of data

A VR platform places employees in a rich virtual world that can replicate a specific working
environment. Once the headset is on, employees are immersed in a digitally-rendered
workspace that’s been created to take them through a training process.

Crucially, every action that the employee takes in the virtual space is captured and fed into a
dashboard, providing a wealth of actionable data. The platform can capture things like
reaction times, areas of focus, task efficiency and even where an employee spends the most
time looking. As the training is repeated, more data layers are added, making it more reliable
and trustworthy.

This means that the training itself can undergo a constant process of readjustment and
improvement. If most employees are experiencing difficulty performing a particular task
within the virtual environment, this may indicate something that can be improved with the
training process. Alternatively, it may shed light on a structural issue that needs addressing.
And if an individual employee is struggling to perform an individual task, then this may
highlight an area of personal improvement that can be picked up in their next review.

The productivity puzzle

VR platforms aren’t just about proving benefits, though. They’re also about creating them.
Once a headset is on, the likelihood of distraction and low engagement across all task areas
is considerably reduced. Virtual environments, especially ones with additional gamification
elements, are far more likely to elicit engagement than standard training. A recent University of Maryland study suggested that 40% of VR trainees score at least 10% higher in recall ability
compared to a standard desktop display.

Focusing on increased engagement has never been more important. According to Gallup’s
recent State of the Global Workplace study — which defined ‘engagement’ as viewing the
workplace positively, going beyond the bare minimum and interacting emotionally with the
value they’re creating — only 15% of employees are actually engaged at work. The cost of this
‘engagement gap’ is estimated to be as much as £5.5 trillion every year, with the burden
falling on salaries, business margins and even the government’s tax revenue.

High-stakes, high-risk – high-stakes, low-risk

Whether it’s simulating a client meeting, a pitch to a prospective buyer or an interview with
a job candidate, VR environments can place employees in highly realistic, measurable
scenarios that enhance their everyday performance. It can do this without incurring any of
the accompanying risk to commercial relationships, too.

In sectors like petrochemicals, medicine and logistics, many companies have used VR
environments to train employees in equipment installations, industrial maintenance and
emergency response procedures, where traditional training methods are of limited use. For
obvious reasons, recreating a real life emergency scenario is impossible, but conventional
training options in PowerPoint and in-person sessions cannot capture the situation’s
practical and emotional challenges.

A VR environment is programmed to be as realistic as possible. Once dropped into the virtual
world, an employee’s brain can be tricked into ‘believing’ that the scenario is a real one,
which triggers genuinely dynamic emotional responses, and means that the employee is
practising procedures under more realistic conditions.

Virtual culture

The human-centric application of VR doesn’t end there. Many businesses can struggle with
maintaining a coherent culture, and particularly those with a strong international presence.
Whether it’s conflicts between national approaches or the problem of sheer geographical
spread, it’s hard to join two employees under the same cultural umbrella when they’re
thousands of miles apart.

In an era of globalisation, testing your company culture may be just as hard as making one
that ‘works’. Many managers may be content with their company values and organisational
practice without knowing whether it’s been integrated in other areas or regions.

In a virtual world, though, distance ceases to hold as much meaning. VR’s limitless potential
ensures that you can work, communicate and bond with team members around the globe in
a fun and gamified way. Some companies, for example, have experimented with ‘global
leaderboards’ on internal games that keep employees regularly engaged.

And once employees from Africa, Europe and the Middle East have all met in the same ‘room’
— or the next best thing, at least — there are few better ways of knowing how well they’ve each
integrated into the company culture. With scores of data from the meeting stored in the
dashboard, companies can look reflexively to adjust a culture and optimise it for the future.

Harnessing the potential of VR

The leaders who see this technology as an opportunity rather than a threat could find that it
becomes an invaluable tool, not just for upskilling workers, but also for transforming the
reputation of their own department into one that’s strategic, data-led, and focused on future

Tom Symonds is CEO of Immerse.