Soft Skills But They're Not Easy: How Virtual Reality is Modernizing HR

Written BY

Emily Friedman

February 2, 2022

We’ve previously written about the use of XR in HR for soft skills training, as well as anti-harassment and diversity and inclusion training. Since the pandemic began, AR/VR/MR (XR) has become the only way to deliver this training to employees in many cases. Moreover, COVID has created new sensitive situations in many industries such as customers refusing to wear masks in stores, restaurants, and the sky.


The skills gap isn’t limited to hard skills; there’s high demand for soft skills from both employers and their employees as more tasks are automated and new Covid strains continue to make remote work necessary. Even pre-pandemic, 92% of companies said that human capabilities are as or even more important than hard skills in business today. More recently, 59% of hiring managers and 89% of executives reported difficulty in recruiting employees with the desired soft skills. These include communication, teamwork, leadership, conflict resolution, customer service, creative thinking, good judgement, and more.


Statistics show that traditional sexual harassment training was inadequate before the pandemic despite greater focus on creating safe and diverse workplaces. The move to remote work hasn’t changed matters much. In fact, according to Project Include, gender-, race- ethnicity-, and age-related harassment has increased since March 2020. Moreover, U.S. employees only dedicate about five minutes a day, or 1% of a typical work week, to formal learning.


VR is well-suited to soft skills training for many of the same reasons it’s desirable for learning hard skills: Cost, logistics, fewer distractions, etc. Perhaps above all, immersive tech allows for essentially unlimited practice scenarios without risk of real-world consequences like customer dissatisfaction. Today, VR, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and avatars can be combined to practice everything from difficult interpersonal conversations to job interviews. Furthermore, immersive training can be delivered anytime, anywhere (flexibility, scale), and with the addition of tracking sensors provide better, more accurate performance feedback leading to more personalized training. (See our article on haptics.)  

You might be wondering why one would use VR over, say, in-person role playing. Aside from the global pandemic, there’s the expense of human training resources, risk to workplace relationships and productivity, and plain old awkwardness. Interacting with an avatar may feel unnatural at first, but the technology has gained greater acceptance and familiarity thanks to virtual meeting platforms like Spatial and Horizon Workrooms. With AI fast advancing, avatars are only getting more realistic, both visually and in their responses to human actions in virtual situations.  

VR is also more effective for soft skills training than other programs: In a 2021 study, PwC found that VR learners were 4x faster to train, 275% more confident in applying the learned skills after training, 3.75% more emotionally connected to the material, and 4x more focused compared to classroom learners. Results were similar for e-learners.



But is it cost-effective? According to another PwC study from 2020, virtual reality can be cheaper than traditional soft skills training programs at scale, meaning if you have enough trainees. That number is apparently over 375 trainees compared to the classroom and over 1,950 compared to e-learning. At 3,000 learners, the report finds, VR becomes 52% more cost-effective—good news for large, global companies.

Diving a little deeper into the costs: A VR headset today can cost anywhere from $299 for the Oculus Quest 2 to $1,300 for the HTC VIVE Focus 3 or HP Reverb G2 Omnicept Edition. (The Varjo VR-3 is $3,395 plus a yearly subscription fee of $795.) PwC found that VR content initially requires up to 48% greater investment, but devices are getting smaller and less expensive and content creation tools easier for non-developers every year. Consider that just a few years ago, a good VR system could cost well over $5,000. Now, something like the Quest 2 can be delivered to employees anywhere and used right out of the box. Quality is also increasing: Each new generation of headsets is capable of more and more realism, especially with the integration of advanced haptics, eye tracking, hand tracking, etc.


PwC’s is just one study around inclusive leadership training. ROI might be different for anti-harassment training or sales training. Qualitative factors should also be considered, including employee satisfaction, confident leadership, and a more inclusive workplace. I think it’s safe to say, though, that immersion by nature is more powerful than 2D video, which – if you have just 1% of your work week to spare for training – is no small thing.

Image source: Equal Reality

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