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Virtual reality in HR can improve a variety of processes in recruitment, hiring, onboarding and employee training. Yet virtual reality has also been one of those cool technologies that are just around the corner -- for a couple of decades.
Things might be different this time, though, due to the widespread availability of low-cost VR hardware, improved content development workflows and the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is now practical to buy dozens or even thousands of VR headsets and give them to employees. Accenture just bought 60,000 VR headsets for training, and Bank of America is rolling out a VR training program across nearly 4,300 locations. Millions of potential employees have already bought VR headsets for gaming and entertainment, opening an attractive new channel for more immersive recruitment ads. And big companies like Nvidia, Microsoft and Meta (Facebook) are creating the technical infrastructure that could make broader adoption of simulated environments more of a reality.
The push to use VR in HR also involves its newer cousin, augmented reality (AR). The two often complement each other but aren't the same. VR provides a 3D experience using special goggles or headsets, while AR overlays 3D data onto a direct view of the real world rather than replacing it. Both are the technological drivers behind the metaverse, a trendy catchall for an emerging class of immersive, interactive digital environments that are sweeping through fields like gaming, entertainment, e-commerce and education.
"While few HR teams are using AR/VR today, as the metaverse becomes part of our lexicon and the cost of VR/AR tech and software come down, we'll be seeing many more use cases in the learning and development space," said Aaron Sorensen, partner and head of business transformation and behavioral science at Axiom Consulting Partners.
How VR and AR can impact HR
Computer-based training has been around since the '90s. VR brings a deeper sense of immersion that can improve training and employee engagement.
"What's different about AR/VR is the ability to interact with others in a dynamic way where teaming can be applied," Sorensen said.
Imagine, for example, a new cohort of high-potential leaders strapping on VR goggles and being put through complex business scenarios with key customers or a virtual board of directors or analysts. VR provides a way to expose people to situations they will likely encounter as they move through the corporate hierarchy but does it in a safe and controlled manner that aids learning and development.
"A key benefit of VR training is learners are immersed in the experience and not distracted," said Dan Eckert, managing director of PwC's applied research lab for AI and emerging technology. They cannot text, catch up on email, or play games on their phones. This leads to a much higher level of emotional engagement and content retention compared to other learning modalities, according to Eckert. VR is also valuable for high-stakes training where safety or other concerns make the realism required for effective learning too difficult or costly to create.
Here are six areas where VR in HR could pay off.
1. Hiring and recruiting
In some respects, VR is simply the evolution of flashy recruitment videos designed to build buzz by using the latest tech. General Mills demonstrated a 3D video recruiting experience back in 2015 that helped attract attention at busy job fairs. The biggest challenge back then was content creation. The video required a special rig built from multiple GoPro cameras.
Now it is getting more practical and less costly to create similar experiences using off-the-shelf equipment and dedicated 3D content-development tools. For example, in 2017, Toyota began working with InstaVR to create office tours that run on more modern VR equipment. InstaVR develops tools for capturing, editing, publishing and analyzing 3D experiences.
Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, said VR has not been widely adopted for recruitment but is coming. Recruitment videos have become common practice over the last several years, and VR has the potential to make these kinds of experiences even better.
"You can present your company in much better ways through AR and VR than you can through the traditional YouTube video," Mueller said.
Improvements in VR and AR will undoubtedly help. But HR teams will have to experiment to figure out how to make VR content stand out.
2. Vetting candidates
Others are not convinced that HR teams will invest a lot of money in flashy VR promos. But VR could make it easier to vet potential candidates by simulating and testing the skills required for a job.
John Sumser, founder of HRExaminer, said turning workplace simulations into VR experiences could help with high-volume hiring.
"Imagine you're hunting for people to do what Lucy and Ethel did on the assembly line; you could probably model that behavior and assess those skills with a virtual reality tool, and it might be better than the tools they currently use," he said.
It will probably be several years before these kinds of simulations are good enough to perform meaningful tests, but this might be a good time to get started, according to Sumser. Current supply chain challenges and political issues may motivate many companies to bring manufacturing jobs back onshore. VR simulations could help their HR teams identify candidates with the right talents rather than ones who may have the right credentials but lack the necessary talent, he said.
It is widely believed that a better onboarding experience can lead to happier and more efficient employees. "VR for meetings, workshops, training and virtual classrooms offer a fantastic way to onboard new employees," Eckert said.
This is particularly important in the wake of the social isolation caused by the pandemic and working from home. The pandemic interfered with the social aspects of the onboarding process, such as connecting to people and team building.
"VR offers something you cannot get from a 2D video call: presence, the feeling of being connected to others," Eckert said.
The technology enables people to onboard together even though they may be thousands of miles apart, an invaluable benefit because it quickly allows new employees to build trust and develop professional relationships with their colleagues, according to Eckert.
VR can also help employees learn the physical skills required to start a new job much faster. For example, Walmart worked with Strivr, which makes a VR training platform, to reduce the time needed to teach new hires goods-pickup skills from eight hours down to 15 minutes.
4. Employee training for soft skills
VR shows tremendous promise for simulation training for soft skills, such as leadership diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) and interpersonal skills. PwC worked with Talespin, a VR content development platform, on a soft skills study that found people could train four times faster than in a classroom, were 2.75 times more confident in applying the new skills and 3.75 times more emotionally connected to content than classroom learners.
In the past, this type of training was customarily reserved for the executive team and an organization's highest performers. VR democratizes it and enables it to scale to everyone.
Academics are even exploring how VR might improve training to meet DEI goals. For example, Courtney Cogburn, an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, developed an application that allows users to experience being black firsthand.
5. Career development and learning
VR and AR also show strong potential for technical training. They are already widely used in high-stakes jobs where mistakes can be hazardous, such as the aviation, defense, oil and gas, and chemical industries.
"Industries such as manufacturing, aerospace and government agencies are ahead of the curve in using VR and AR to develop technical or complex skills," said Kelly Rider, chief learning and talent officer at PTC, which is building software for digital twins. "For example, industrial companies are using VR and AR to learn how these systems work, improve workforce efficiency, improve quality and yield, and reduce waste caused by human error."
Eckert predicts these early tools will be improved by the use of new headsets capable of cognitive load measurement, a technique for matching training materials with an individual's ability to process and retain the information. This data will continuously feed into an AI-based human resources management system and learning management system to determine what training is needed for a specific individual to complete a task or a role and customize training on the fly.
"Cognitive load measurement will [enable] growing your human resources more effectively and account for a variety of learning styles and truly enable neurodiversity," Eckert said. But the systems will require new ethical and privacy safeguards because the data has the potential to be misused.
6. Workplace of the future
Some HR professionals believe that VR and AR could help bring back the sense of camaraderie that suffered a blow as teams stopped physically working in offices. All the major video conferencing applications are starting to support shared spaces for virtual offices.
Lisa Rowan, a research vice president at IDC, predicts many companies will continue to have a geographically dispersed workforce. "Some of these things might be put together to provide a feeling of togetherness when you're working alone in your house," she said.
Drawbacks and challenges of VR and AR in HR
Enterprises will need to navigate a few challenges on the way to widespread adoption of VR in HR.
First off, the VR industry is still sorting out the ergonomics of long-term use of VR headsets. While younger workers may revel in spending hours in virtual environments, older folks may experience motion sickness, dizziness and other issues that preclude extended use.
Next, more work needs to be done to improve content development and management to provide more immersive experiences. Most of the work today focuses on building 3D game-like experiences. Soft skills training will also require simulating human behavior and measuring progress in meaningful ways.
In the long run, VR has immense potential to improve training. The need will only increase as the pace of technological, societal and business change accelerates.
"HR needs to provide a robust, efficient, effective and enjoyable way for their employees to train and learn new skills," Eckert said. "VR training is something an organization can start with now."
Additional reporting by Tony Kontzer.