In many work environments, situational awareness can mean the difference between safety and harm or even death. This is true across a spectrum of industries. Think of the warehouse worker who doesn’t notice a heavy box about to fall off a high shelf. The emergency responder who needs to know exactly what dangers to look out for and how to react to them in the field. The armed robber in the retail store acting suspiciously moments before pulling out a gun.
These may seem like dramatic examples, but they happen every day across the country and around the world. Well-trained employees make the difference between “just another day,” and things have gone horribly wrong. But teaching situational awareness has long been a matter of training methods such as operating manuals and training videos, which are inadequate for this particular type of learning. And on-the-job practice can be downright dangerous.
That’s all changing with the advent of virtual reality (VR) as a situational awareness training tool.
What is situational awareness, exactly?
Situational awareness is the ability of a person to recognize what’s happening around them: the sights, sounds, smells, and perceptions of the behavior of others in the environment. Situational awareness is particularly important in the workplace because it directly impacts decision-making — both the decisions that are made and how fast they’re made.
Take the warehouse example. Workers looking ahead and down won’t necessarily notice that heavy box teetering on a high shelf and will neglect to step out of the way and alert others when it falls. In this environment, situational awareness might mean being visually aware of what’s going on all around, including above, even amidst the hustle and bustle and constant clamor of the warehouse environment.
Every type of workplace has its challenges when it comes to situational awareness, so the key is to identify them and train for them, from the time an employee is onboarded and throughout their employment with the company. Situational awareness is not something that can be learned once with a textbook or training video and then put in the back pocket for when the worker needs it. To be truly effective, training for situational awareness has to be a full-body experience, and it requires repetition to cement in one’s memory.
Why VR works so well for emergency training
Virtual reality provides measurable improvement to employee situational awareness/analysis. This is specifically important in emergency training, which is harder to train for than almost anything else. “Learning by doing” is the most effective way to train, but most employees don’t have a chance to “practice” for rare and dangerous situations such as an active shooter or armed robber. VR can provide the embodied, realistic experience required to cement the appropriate reactions in the minds of learners.
Verizon has around 1,600 retail stores and 22,000 retail employees across the US. Unfortunately, like all electronics stores, Verizon is a magnet for shoplifters and, occasionally, armed robberies. For this reason, the company is invested in training all of its frontline employees to handle the possibility of a dangerous robbery situation.
After Verizon implemented a VR-based training pilot to specifically enhance situational awareness, the company reported that
felt more prepared for the possibility of being put in such a dangerous situation
As Lou Tedrick, leader of the company’s L&D organization, reported, “Their hearts were racing; they felt like they had experienced a robbery. By the time they got to the third module, the amount of confidence they’d gained was astronomical.”
When situational awareness matters in the workplace
Situational awareness is not just about hazard spotting and diffusing dangerous situations. It has applications across many aspects of employee training. For instance, adequate training on situational awareness can be used to encourage inclusive behavior when it comes to worker diversity.
VR training is a whole-body experience in which the learner is fully immersed in a situation. If that situation is a conversation with another person — an avatar in the training module — they get a chance to have real conversations with all the feelings, reactions, and responses that can involve. Using VR to train on this type of situational awareness helps bring the learner from an emotional response to an emotionally intelligent response over time — particularly because VR training can be experienced over and over again until the learner has “nailed it.”
With VR training, learners can also stand in the shoes of people different from themselves, gaining different perspectives and the valuable soft skill of empathy.
How Immersive Learning adds to VR training
VR training alone is highly effective for enhancing situational awareness, but when it’s presented as Immersive Learning, it’s even more successful. Immersive Learning is a groundbreaking VR training methodology that combines the sense of presence VR imparts with advanced learning theory, data science, and 3D design.
In terms of safety training, for instance, it’s important that workers be able to recognize when others around them are exhibiting unsafe behaviors and know how to react. With Immersive Learning, the headset used for training can track the head and eye movements of the learner, giving an indication of where they’re looking and what they’re focused on. Giving learners feedback on this data helps them refocus their attention and correct their behavior.
The design of an immersive Learning module also often incorporates things like multiple-choice quizzes and scene hunts into the headset experience so that learners have the opportunity to test and refine their skills in the moment they’re experiencing learning. Immersive Learning not only enhances situational awareness via VR experiences; it also provides feedback for L&D leaders.
If situational awareness training is important to your organization, VR will have the biggest and most measurable impact on your people.
Interested in a quick tour of what Immersive Learning enables? Check it out.