Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development, Technology

Workplace Training in the Remote Era: Strengthening a Culture of Inclusion with VR

For most businesses, many employees are working from home because of COVID-19. This new environment calls for upskilling, as many employees are in need—and are eager for—training on new tools, apps, and soft skills. It also should require putting diversity and inclusion (D&I) at the heart of the conversation.

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Tapping into a variety of backgrounds and experiences can help businesses drive better outcomes, overcome challenges faster, and elevate growth. Through deliberate inclusion efforts, businesses can combine training with purpose by enriching their workplace culture while positively impacting the communities where they work and live.

Currently, sending workers to a classroom for in-person training is likely out of the question. Given today’s reality, this may be a good time for businesses to turn to two previously undervalued technologies that can offer benefits in training and other areas: augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). These technologies can help organizations train their employees and help create a productive and safe workplace—without breaking the budget.

AR overlays digital content and images (such as instructions for operating equipment) on a user’s view of the physical world by using a mobile device, a headset, or smart glasses. In contrast, VR immerses trainees in an environment that’s similar to a classroom but without its possible distractions.

VR further enables individuals to practice in a safe, comfortable environment, which is especially important in leadership courses or for training on topics like D&I, where learners can practice having important but challenging and potentially difficult interactions with a virtual human (avatar). Having the ability to keep trying a task until they get it right (without any judgments) can help make employees feel more comfortable and more confident in their decisions.

AR and VR can be useful to help establish a greater awareness of D&I as a unifying component of an organization’s culture and purpose — something that has become a recognized challenge for organizations, particularly while working remotely.

Enhancing Skills While Cutting Costs

Until recently, VR has been used primarily for simulation training, such as learning safety procedures, simulating flights, and operating and maintaining equipment. Now, however, companies are also using VR for soft skills training, such as handling employee interviews, building resilience, managing change, and developing inclusive managers.

In today’s budget-strained environment, it’s also essential to consider the cost of training employees. VR does well there, too. At 375 learners, PwC’s recent VR study found VR training achieved cost parity with classroom learning. At 3,000 learners, VR training became 52% more cost-effective than classroom training, and at 1,950 learners, it achieved cost parity with e-learn courses. The more people a company trains using VR, the higher the return can be in terms of employee time saved during training.

Another cost consideration is that VR no longer requires a complex, expensive setup; VR systems are now priced at only about 20% of what they cost two years ago.

During this time of working from home, VR headsets can be shipped to employees, picked up and sanitized by a company that decontaminates the units, and then sent to other workers. This can still be more cost-effective—and respectful of employees’ time and workplace safety—than requiring them to travel to an office facility or training center.

As people continue to observe social distancing, VR learning is as effective as it is engaging. According to our latest study, VR-trained learners felt an emotional connection to the content that was 267% greater than e-learners and 130% greater than classroom learners. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed also reported experiencing a wake-up call moment when they realized they were not as inclusive as they thought they were.

Going Beyond Training

Though the potential benefits of using VR and AR in training can be substantial, the opportunities in other areas can be just as significant, especially during this pandemic, when businesses should operate as efficiently as possible and make every dollar count.

Take health care, for example. VR and AR can help doctors diagnose patients more efficiently, review their test results at bedside without a computer or paper notes, and enable higher surgery success rates.

VR and AR can also help the retail industry, which has been heavily impacted by COVID-19, by creating new ways to engage, entertain, and interact with consumers. These technologies can give retailers the ability to create innovative customer experiences, such as virtual fitting rooms.

AR can even let a consumer see how furniture would look in his or her home by superimposing an image of that furniture on a room in the person’s house. Retailers can also use VR and AR for consumer research to get a better understanding of customer behavior.

In manufacturing, VR and AR can be used to speed up a product’s time to market. At one engineering company, for example, employees located around the world work virtually using digital visualizations to create new products collaboratively. And some automotive companies are already using VR to reduce from weeks to days the time between a vehicle’s initial design and its physical modeling. The time-consuming requirement to build physical prototypes can be reduced significantly or potentially even eliminated, helping manufacturers bring products to market much more quickly.

These technologies can also help improve processes, enhance productivity, and improve accuracy. For example, while working on or repairing equipment, an individual can view instructions or videos that are superimposed on the machine, leaving their hands free to do the work.

VR and AR also can provide assistance to companies in the hard-hit travel and hospitality sectors by offering an immersive way for potential travelers to virtually explore hotels and tourist destinations. The hope is that these virtual tours will help encourage travelers to visit those places when it becomes safe to do so. Use of these technologies for travel is expected to grow more quickly when they become less expensive and more popular for consumer use at home.

Telecommunications firms are also starting to look seriously at VR and AR—driven in large part by COVID-19 and the need to make live events, such as business meetings, conferences, education, sports and concerts, etc., virtual. Telecom’s interest in these technologies has been given a boost by the launch of 5G and its improved bandwidth, which significantly improves streaming and the downloading of large files.

What It Takes to Get Started

Companies that are thinking about implementing VR or AR should follow these five guidelines:

  1. Build a business case, such as ways to use VR and AR to speed up processes, reduce costs, improve worker safety and productivity, and/or create new revenue streams.
  1. Develop a solution that includes both hardware and software, as well as a plan for their deployment.
  1. Create a positive user experience by developing a system that’s comfortable and intuitive to use.
  1. Show VR and AR in action by starting small and exploring the tech’s potential with a pilot.
  1. Measure the results of the pilot, and use them to direct your next steps. These might involve making a bigger investment in the current solution or taking a completely different path.

Adding VR and AR tools can improve how businesses operate during—and after—the pandemic, making processes more cost effective when budgets might be shrinking, fueling innovation through increased virtual collaboration, and helping create safe spaces for teams to foster awareness and belonging through purpose-driven training sessions.

Most employees will probably continue working remotely, or in a hybrid capacity, for the foreseeable future. They will likely need training on soft skills such as collaboration and new ways of working, especially as businesses increasingly raise awareness around situations in which words or actions  help cultivate an inclusive environment, even virtually. Providing safe spaces to coach and help build awareness about potential implicit bias is important to  employees recognize potential blindspots to help prevent them.

Scott Likens leads PwC’s Emerging Tech practice in the United States. With more than 25 years of emerging technology experience, he has helped clients transform their customer experience and enhance their digital operations.

Likens has worked across industries with some of the biggest multinational companies to transform their business by applying a local lens to global digital and emerging tech trends. He has expertise using emerging technology and advanced analytics in many areas, including e-commerce, digital architecture, mobile technologies, and social customer engagement. Likens is a regular speaker at global conferences on emerging technologies, including blockchain, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, robotics, and automation.