According to a January 2021 article in Harvard Business Review, 59% of surveyed hiring managers and 89% of executives reported having trouble finding hires with soft skills “such as communication, teamwork, and leadership.” An added challenge, especially when working remotely, is that people master soft skills through practice. So, after reading, listening to, or viewing instruction on how to improve their skills, learners will need opportunities to engage in deliberate practice.
Just bringing learners together for training involves a lot of planning and coordination, from scheduling the time, booking an appropriate location (at least pre-COVID), and arranging any needed travel. Virtual Reality (VR) training, like other forms of online training, eliminates several of the challenges related to putting together an in-person workshop.
Many companies are now considering making remote work an option even after the pandemic. Lack of physical proximity will make the skills required to build interpersonal connections even more vital for retaining clients and employees. Providing an immersive online training environment for remote workers is an excellent way to ensure that they have or can learn the skills mentioned above (plus others like conflict resolution and customer service).
Types Of VR
The main categories of VR are the following:
- Non-immersive VR
Users interact with a virtual environment via a computer screen. Examples are typical video games on a computer or game console and 360-degree interactive tours of a location. Users interact with the environment and avatars through a keyboard, a mouse, or a controller. All the while, they are aware of their physical environment.
- Semi-immersive VR
Users interact with realistic simulations (e.g., a flight simulator). This category is usually used for education or training. As long as users focus on the 3D graphics on high-resolution displays, they will feel as if they are performing the required tasks. However, once they look away from the screen, they see their real-world environment.
- Fully immersive VR
Users are completely surrounded by the virtual environment through the use of head-mounted displays (and possibly sensory gloves). This provides the most realistic experience and the one that most people imagine when they think of VR.
In addition, the VR environment can be configured to suit specific training requirements. If a company has opted for Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT), learners can gather in a virtual classroom, a meeting room, or even an informal space such as an eatery. The virtual space can even have breakout rooms. Users will interact with each other and the instructor via avatars that represent them. They can view videos together, share PDFs, and otherwise interact unhampered by their geographical distance from each other.
Another option is having learners work on their own. In that case, instead of collaborating with colleagues, learners interact with “virtual humans” in a 3D setting that resembles their work environment. The setting can even include items as part of the scenario (e.g., a device or a form).
Advantages Of VR Soft Skills Training
Whatever the type of VR used, learners will be able to hone their soft skills by engaging in role-playing and receiving feedback regarding their words and actions. With VILT, instructors can provide real-time guidance and also have the option of sharing further insights after viewing a session recording. While not as flexible as actual human instructors, well-designed virtual humans can provide real-time feedback and provide an individualized performance overview right after the session.
An added benefit of virtual humans is that learners will have more time to experiment with what to say and do in different scenarios. Virtual humans won’t run out of patience, no matter how often learners run through a particular scenario. Also, while feedback features will let users know whether they made appropriate choices in a scenario, there is no risk of alienating even training colleagues. If learners make mistakes that send the scenario in an unwanted direction, they can simply view the feedback and try again. As a result, they feel more at ease and are more open to receiving feedback about their performance.
Efficacy Of VR Soft Skills Training
While learners can have more time for practice, research shows that they won’t need it since using VR appears to significantly cut required training time. A 2020 Harvard Business Review article reported on Verizon’s use of VR to train call center employees on how to de-escalate a conversation with an upset customer.” The article reported that per-person training time dropped from 10 hours to 30 minutes.
Also, PwC published a 2020 study of a group of new managers who were given the same training on inclusive leadership in one of three learning modalities: a physical classroom, eLearning, or VR. The study results showed that the VR course trained employees four times faster than classroom training.
Being able to practice the required skill in a realistic scenario was found to greatly boost learners’ on-the-job confidence. The PwC study revealed that the managers who participated in the VR training were 40% more confident than classroom learners about applying the skills they’d learned. Their confidence level also exceeded that of the managers who’d taken eLearning by 35%. The Verizon employees’ VR training enabled them to be better at objectively monitoring their own on-the-job handling of customers.
Additionally, the PwC study found that VR’s use of realistic scenarios and virtual humans helps learners make emotional connections with course content. As stated in a 2018 Training Industry article, “Memory formation is linked to emotional response.” So, learners’ emotional response to the VR scenarios enhances their ability to retain the course information.
Through deliberate practice and by receiving personalized feedback, learners can improve and assess their competency to hold challenging conversations and use other soft skills in real life. While practicing soft skills in an immersive, no-risk environment has many benefits, L&D will have to take the cost of VR training into account. According to the PwC study, “VR content initially requires up to a 48% greater investment than similar classroom or eLearn courses.” However, the greater the number of employees that undergo VR training, the more cost-effective that training becomes. The PwC study estimated that 375 learners put VR training costs on par with classroom training and 1,950 learners put it on par with eLearning.
Of course, these are general estimates, but they give a good starting place for determining whether VR is indeed an option for a particular training requirement.