Finding more effective ways to train workers remotely has become imperative since COVID-19, and virtual reality (VR) can provide the kind of engaging, immersive, and flexible training tool that gives users a feeling of “being there.”
That feeling has become even more important since so many training programs cannot be in person or in large groups because of the global pandemic and social distancing rules. VR provides a chance for organizations to give learners a meaningful experience that ensures training initiatives won’t lag—but also won’t violate CDC guidelines.
Virtual reality is used by organizations such as the U.S. Navy for training purposes. The Honor Foundation, which helps veterans transition into the civilian working world, uses VR to provide a learning environment that simulates business environments, and helps veterans get experience in things such as finance and job interviewing.
According to Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience Theory, instructional activities need to be built upon more real-life experiences because “action-learning” techniques result in up to 90 percent retention, compared to 10 percent of what is read and 20 percent of what is heard. In VR, training can be customized to include “what-if” situations that trainees might face in real life—even something that might have once been inconceivable, such as working during a pandemic.
The immersive experience of VR and the ability to provide such a wide array of training experiences means learners are attuned to the experience, boosting their retention of information. There are no distractions such as buzzing texts, dinging e-mails, or even someone walking by—the user is completely in that world and the lack of distractions leads to more rapid learning.
UPS drivers, for example, pick up the lingo used in communicating with supervisors much faster when VR training is used. A PwC study on using VR to teach soft skills found that VR learners were up to 275 percent more confident to act on what they learned after training—a 40 percent improvement over classroom training and a 35 percent improvement over e-learning. In addition, VR learners were up to four times more focused than e-learners and completed training, on average, four times faster than classroom training and 1.5 times faster than e-learning.
Study Shows Benefits
I was part of conducting a simulation in 2013, using a virtual-world platform that I co-founded called VirBELA. This simulation included 30 MBA students from 10 countries and eight universities. After they were put into teams, they were tasked with managing a large global car manufacturer for five years. The goal: boost sales, profitability, and shareholder value.
This simulation that had multiple challenges for workers scattered in different locations revealed the advantages of VR: Data collection allowed us to understand specifically why some teams were stronger than others; participants in different locales said they still felt part of a team; learners said there was a feeling of physical presence; and facilitators said it was easy to observe behaviors such as teamwork, analytical skills, and leadership.
As businesses and organizations consider new ways to train during COVID or just want to enhance and improve their training methods, other advantages of VR to consider include:
- Better bias training. Colleges such as William and Mary are using VR simulations to educate trainees about unconscious biases and how to improve communication between workers when they are subjected to discrimination. VR can help someone experience emotions from a different perspective and learn to deal with difficult situations without making them worse.
- Teachable soft skills. Training for hard skills is one thing companies are often good at—this widget goes here; this is how to use this software—but they don’t always train for soft skills. Soft skills—the ability to communicate well with others, be empathetic, be an active listener, and have a strong work ethic—are critical in the workplace today as teams work with diverse groups of colleagues and customers. In a VR or mixed reality (MR) environment, trainees can practice negotiating, communicating in difficult situations, or speaking in meetings in scenarios that mimic ones they are likely to face in the real world—without feeling embarrassed or intimidated that other trainees are watching them.
- Less expensive. When training workers for Black Friday shopping crowds or how to deal with a crisis situation such as a pandemic, hiring actors and multiple trainers and finding the space to erect realistic scenarios can be costly—far more costly than the equipment for VR.
- Enhanced data collection. Managers and other training instructors can monitor trainees who seem to be thriving as team leaders, or ones who are struggling to find the right language to use in tense situations. With VR, decisions made about such workers during training are based upon data supplied through the VR experience, as noted in the earlier case study.
- Improved safety and security. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are almost 1 million workplace deaths yearly. Putting employees and trainees in virtual situations can help them avoid potential dangers and learn how to react in risky scenarios. For example, Ford uses VR experiences to simulate construction of upcoming models in its plants years before the cars are actually made. The goal is to encourage workers to create tools and processes they need in order to have a safe production environment. The Joint Virtual Reality Trainer for the U.S. Military Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) provides a high-quality, realistic, and safe way for trainees to get a fully immersive, realistic training experience in some of the world’s most challenging locations.
As companies seek to maintain their competitive edge during the pandemic, continued training on everything from soft skills to safety procedures will be key in ensuring quality work gets done. Using virtual reality has been proven to be effective and cost-efficient—a win-win during a time when we need it most.
Alex Howland, Ph.D., is president and co-founder of VirBELA, an immersive technology platform that’s redefining the future of business, events, and education. Howland created VirBELA in 2012, before it was purchased and made public by eXp World Holdings in 2018. VirBELA builds virtual worlds that help organizations bring their business and in-person experiences to life online. Howland leads the development of VirBELA’s products and services—continuing to expand the platform to accommodate not just business workspaces, but classrooms, event spaces, and recreational areas, as well. VirBELA’s diverse clients include University of California, San Diego, Army War College, Honor Foundation, and Deloitte Digital UK. Prior to co-founding VirBELA, Howland was an instructor in the Psychology Department at University of California, San Diego, where he taught Industrial and Organizational Psychology to undergraduate students. His expertise in organizational psychology gives him a unique perspective on creating virtual work and education spaces. He designed VirBELA specifically to create a unique virtual experience, where users feel psychologically safe and are more likely to collaborate, brainstorm and succeed. Howland has a Bachelor’s of Science in organizational psychology from Providence College, and a Ph.D. from Alliant International University, San Diego.