The gap in soft skills is getting worse for today’s businesses. According to recent surveys, 89% of CEOs and 59% of hiring managers asked said it was challenging to find applicants with the necessary soft skills, such leadership, teamwork, and communication. Furthermore, as more individuals are forced into temporary or, in many cases, permanent remote labor due to the epidemic, these soft skills will only become more crucial and challenging to acquire. What can companies do to support the development of these essential abilities in their employees if they lack access to in-person training and education?
Virtual reality is a potential remedy. VR technologies provide learners with an immersive experience that is completely different from typical e-learning solutions. These interactive programs enable staff members to engage and role-play with avatars created to resemble customers or other important stakeholders. They can operate on conventional mobile or desktop devices or on VR headgear, which are probably what most people think of when they hear the term virtual reality. “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,” says Christopher Dede, a professor at Harvard School of Education whose research focuses on applications of VR for education.
While immersive VR training produces extremely memorable, impacting experiences, standard instructional tools can occasionally feel fake or uninteresting. Additionally, there is no danger of real-world repercussions. This video shows an example of a virtual reality training simulation where an employee may practice leadership development and dispute resolution abilities by interacting with an avatar.
In addition to being incredibly successful, virtual reality (VR) solutions may also lower the expense and logistical challenges related to conventional in-person training. Many workers already have access to desktop or mobile devices at their home offices, and virtual reality (VR) courses are frequently faster (and less expensive) to finish than other courses since they are more engaging. According to a 2020 PwC study, 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, when implemented at scale, VR can be significantly more cost-effective than traditional soft skills training options. The enormous impact that virtual reality (VR) can have is further evidenced by the study’s finding that employees who underwent VR training felt more emotionally attached to the subject than classroom learners did, and more than twice as connected as e-learners.
My company, Future Workplace, an HR advisory firm, teamed up with Mursion, a VR training platform, and an independent research firm to survey over 300 learning and development leaders from various industries to find out how top companies are currently using VR for soft skills training. According to our research, over two thirds of respondents either planned to adopt a VR training program for soft skills over the next two years, or they had already implemented one.
We did a qualitative examination of the real-world use of these programs in addition to examining their quantitative adoption rates. Even while the poll indicated a wide range of potential uses for virtual reality training, we discovered three areas in particular where many businesses had already started utilizing VR to assist the development of soft skills:
1. Virtual reality simulations to teach customer service
First, practicing high-stakes talks in a low-pressure setting can be facilitated by VR simulations. One of the businesses we polled was H&R Block, a multinational tax preparation company that hires 5,000 new contact center agents year, 1,600 of whom start during the hectic second part of tax season. Within a few days of joining the organization, these entry-level workers are expected to handle complicated, emotionally charged conversations from a range of (often irate) clients.
These workers must possess interpersonal skills including active listening, composure under pressure, and problem-solving and summary abilities in order to excel in this position. “Fundamentally, our employees were doing all the things we wanted them to do, but there was something missing in our customer interactions,” said Kim Iorns, Director of Learning and Development at H&R Block. Because there wasn’t enough interpersonal interaction, we prioritized empathic development in our training.
VR simulations were incorporated into H&R Block’s onboarding process in order to guarantee a consistently great customer experience and assist in the development of these critical soft skills in new personnel. Workers might rehearse having challenging customer discussions and get real-time feedback by using a laptop or a virtual reality headset to role play these talks with a digital avatar (without endangering a genuine client connection).
Following the implementation of the VR training, H&R Block discovered that 70% of their customer service agents preferred the new VR program over conventional learning resources, and that the agents frequently said that the VR simulations enhanced their ability to handle challenging interactions. Among the workers who finished the training, the organization also observed a 50% drop in unhappy clients, a 9.9% decrease in customer handling times, and noticeably quicker issue resolution times.
2. Using VR Simulations to Improve Presentation Techniques
Moreover, VR may be a useful tool for enhancing presenting abilities. For instance, Cognizant, a global supplier of professional services and technology, has been experimenting with using VR simulations to teach new recruits how to better communicate their value proposition to prospective clients. In order to explain a complicated product and convey a gripping tale, these new recruits must use a variety of data sources, or else they run the danger of losing significant customers.
A multi-phase VR-driven training program was created by Cognizant to assist these staff members in improving their presenting abilities. The new hires must first finish an engaging online course on data-driven storytelling. They then practice presenting to clients using a virtual reality avatar that assumes the role of the client. Ultimately, an AI engine based on Parallel Dots API and Google NLP examines the presentation for important phrases, tone, emotion, and body language, translating the results into useful feedback for the user.
“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,” says Kshitij Nerurkar, Head of Learning Academy for Cognizant in North America. The ability to receive instant feedback and almost endless practice sessions (without depending on costly, human training resources) is a significant benefit of learning aids driven by virtual reality.
3. Virtual Reality Simulations for Staff Assessment
Finally, managers may more efficiently deploy training resources and match skill profiles to job roles by using VR to assess employees’ present skill levels for certain important skills. Senior management at HPE Financial Services (HPEFS), for instance, was looking for a means to maximize sales representative training before the representatives met with their esteemed, high-level clients. The sales representatives engaged in a 30-minute role-playing exercise with an avatar created to mimic a C-level customer as part of their decision to test a virtual reality solution with 340 sales representatives. The managers of the representatives received the role plays on tape, and they utilised it to decide if the representative needed to be enrolled in Basic, Intermediate, or Advanced training.
“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,” said Ronda Bowman, Global Learning & Development Leader at HPEFS. For instance, the customer avatar will cease interacting with the sales representative and begin responding to emails on her phone, much like a person would, if the sales representative doesn’t pose enough insightful questions to the avatar. Managers do not have to wait to get negative feedback from actual disgruntled customers; instead, they may analyze the practice interactions and engage with individual workers to discover areas for development. In addition to bettering training for HPEFS staff members, the VR program gave managers and HR departments more insight into the abilities and room for advancement of their sales representatives.
These are only a handful of the ways that virtual reality (VR) may be utilized to overcome the soft skills gap, according to our poll. Virtual reality (VR) is expected to become the preferred platform for many soft skills training programs, from senior leadership development to new recruit onboarding, especially as remote work becomes more prevalent. In fact, my coauthor and I suggest a completely new HR position just for VR in our most recent HBR article, 21 HR Jobs of the Future: a VR Immersion Counselor. This role’s primary responsibilities are to design, facilitate, customize, and scale the use of virtual reality for professional development. The next generation of workers is expected to benefit from VR-powered education by learning the critical soft skills that will make them valued and marketable in any kind of workplace.