Learning and development programs have skyrocketed over the last several months as many companies were forced to adapt to the challenges of remote work coupled with the need to continuously develop their workforce. These challenges have brought with them needs for more specialized skills in order to ensure teams can effectively communicate despite being physically distanced or virtual. In particular, soft skills such as empathy, teamwork, and decision-making have become particularly important to employee success and overall resilience.
The shift to remote work and social distancing guidelines has caused many L&D leaders to rethink training, especially for soft skills, which traditionally has required face-to-face, in-person practice due to the high level of engagement needed for the training to be successful.
This challenge has led an increasing number of organizations to implement Virtual Reality-based (VR) training as a safe, consistent, and more effective method for employees to practice and develop their soft skills at scale. Allowing a learner to experience a scenario as they would in real-life / on-the-job has proven to be more engaging, more efficient, and just as effective. if not more so, than traditional approaches.
The need for experiential learning
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, e-learning had been viewed as a convenient way for remote employees to learn. But despite the ease with which an employee can access learning via computers and tablets, one has to wonder… is it effective? The answer is pretty simple. Not really. Online learning methods are not able to substitute or replicate the effectiveness of in-person training, specifically for soft skills, which often require people to role-play, act-out scenarios, and practice giving and receiving verbal feedback. Furthermore, with the aforementioned social distancing protocols in place and a world that has gone “remote” somewhat overnight, in-person training courses for soft skills are nearly impossible for the foreseeable future.
Many organizations are not only seeing the need for new learning methods during this time, but the employee’s desire to learn is also witnessing tremendous growth. Linkedin Learning, alone, saw a 153% increase in their online training courses and a 301% increase in professionals joining learning groups in a post-pandemic March and April, as compared to a pre-pandemic January and February. In the face of this growth, many companies have not yet transitioned their curriculum to adapt to the new world order, and are still depending on digital presentations, videos, and even video-conference breakout rooms. And given the number of distractions present in these remote environments, coupled with challenges like Zoom fatigue, it’s safe to ask ourselves… Are we really learning at all?
Training for soft skills in Virtual Reality can help solve many of these issues through VR’s ability to immerse the learner into a realistic and distraction-free environment. This sense of total immersion is a phenomenon known as “presence”, and it allows trainees to gain practical experience by helping the brain associate practice in the simulated environment with what happens in the real world. For soft skills, in particular, modules can simulate scenarios for difficult conversations, providing feedback, and identifying bias, which are hard to produce even in an in-person setting.
In VR, learners can practice repeatedly – and analyze quickly – until they feel confident and prepared. Not only does Immersive Learning fill in the missing aspect of hands-on practice, but studies have shown that it can also expedite time-to-proficiency and lead to higher engagement and retention rates. Of course, VR training is not a replacement for all learning modalities, as it is best-used to complement a comprehensive training program that includes training for skills that may not need immersive techniques to be effective. That said, for the learning opportunities where VR is the “right” fit, it is far-and-away a superior modality than its 2D counterparts, or even in-person sessions.
Scalability for a distributed workforce
Companies facing travel restrictions and health and safety guidelines now need training materials and methods that can be easily distributed and conducted across a remote workforce. This means in-person training can no longer meet the needs of a larger workforce since the cost of having trainers travel and learners gather due to health risks have become enormous challenges. The ability to effectively train remotely at scale is key, and with Immersive Learning, VR headsets can be easily distributed to multiple locations safely – and practice can be done without any potentially embarrassing judgement from co-workers or managers when learning is done in a classroom.
The future of learning lies in the data. Through VR-based Immersive Learning, we have access to unique data and insights that HR and L&D leaders have never had before now. For example, tracking eye movement and head motion can show where employees are focused in a specific scenario, which can lead to skills assessment and more informed decisions that can help to improve the way that training is being conducted. Organizations also have access to more information to assist in identifying potential skill fit for specific jobs, as well as insights for improvement when providing feedback to learners.
From assessing candidates for new roles or helping to evaluate employees as part of the promotion process, Immersive Learning allows us to observe a learner’s response to a specific scenario to gather performance data and identify specific qualities.
The results can then be used as input to find high potential candidates for a specific job profile. Of course, VR assessments are not the single deciding factor for hiring and promotional considerations, but advancements in data analytics can help companies continue to hone their training and career development approaches in a more unbiased way.
As companies look to rebuild or expand their operations, investing in training for employees is a crucial centerpiece of any organization’s ability to succeed and grow. Establishing a strong L&D program undoubtedly has a lasting impact on employee retention, morale, productivity, and satisfaction, as staff feel that companies are truly invested in their career development, while employers are also equipping them with the tools for success. VR-based Immersive Learning is proving itself as an effective tool for soft skills training, but it also holds the potential to become an indispensable tool for any training program.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Derek Belch is the CEO and co-founder of Strivr, a provider of VR-based Immersive Learning solutions for Fortune 1000 companies and collegiate and professional sports teams. Strivr offers an end-to-end solution and works closely with each company in a holistic approach to create an Immersive Learning curriculum that fits their specific needs. The company has conducted nearly 1.5 million training sessions in VR with Walmart and dozens of other enterprise partners such as Verizon, FedEx, Fidelity, and more.