Within every organization, there’s a tug of war going on at all times: how to produce the best products and services while streamlining effort, cost, and time. This challenge is the pinnacle of operational ambition, and training human employees is a critical factor in the equation. Even with automation in the mix to streamline and simplify your workflows, a successful operation will always rely on well-trained human workers.
Virtual reality, or VR, is a powerful tool for employee onboarding and training that helps improve operational efficiency in all kinds of industries — retail, grocery, consumer banking, logistics, manufacturing, and more — and across a variety of teams. In any situation where a better-trained employee might make a difference to operational efficiency, VR can help.
VR immerses learners in a situation that feels entirely realistic, allowing them to practice the skills and activities of their roles in advance of being “live” on the job. Today, VR is used across many different companies to enhance operational capability, improve order fulfillment, increase process improvement, and banish operational inefficiencies. Here’s why VR works and how it can be specifically applied to improving operational efficiency within an organization.
How virtual reality works to improve operational efficiency
Learners immersed in a virtual setting experience a phenomenon called “presence” — their brain treats the VR experience just as it would an experience in a real-life job setting. This hyper-realistic experience encourages the brain to create new neural connections.
At the same time, VR imparts a sense of “embodiment” in the learner as they physically and verbally go through the actions required to complete the in-headset training. Embodiment and presence are both highly effective ways to practice both hard and soft skills. Additionally, within a VR learning experience, the learner gets immediate feedback on the impact of their behavior and decision-making.
These effects combine for a powerful cognitive effect that makes VR training highly effective at securing long-term retention. Aside from effectiveness, some of the most significant benefits of VR learning include:
- Scalability. Learners can practice over and over again, repeating a module on demand.
- Authenticity. Learners report that VR modules are a more authentic and effective way to learn.
- Efficiency. VR learning can happen outside of “real life,” so the training process does not impact daily operations.
For organizations for whom operational efficiency is table stakes, this last benefit is perhaps the most important, making it ideal for training not just on operational procedures but on the soft skills all employees need to thrive in their roles and represent the company well.
New hire onboarding
Nearly every bit of research that’s been conducted into customer loyalty comes to a common conclusion: the majority of people won’t think twice about switching brands if they don’t get the customer service they expect. This can create a lot of pressure for a business that has to put new employees on the floor before they’ve had a chance to hone their skills in this particular position.
For employees that aren’t front-of-house, the risks of poor training are different: operational inadequacy or downright dangerous situations can occur in a warehouse, distribution center, or other high-stakes, fast-paced environment. But, particularly for companies where turnover is naturally high, effective and practical training is a major HR challenge.
Training brand-new staff in front of live customers or on the floor of a busy warehouse is risky. VR is a viable alternative because it helps employees “preview” the experience they’ll have in their job. Right off the bat, they get an embodied sense not just of the environment they’ll be in and the skills they’ll need but the company culture they’ll be joining. VR gives new hires practice with realistic decision-making in the moment. And, of course, quickly getting new hires up to speed saves organizations money.
Sprouts Farmers Market, a nationwide grocery chain with hundreds of stores and over 35,00 team members, struggled to scale their training across locations and still impart a deep sense of company culture to new employees. The company’s operations and HR teams enlisted VR learning methods to create a new way of onboarding and training employees. Their vision was to give every single hire the benefits of one-to-one mentorship with the best trainers, and also ensure a consistent experience and message no matter where the training was experienced.
With VR, Sprouts was able to reduce the time it takes to onboard for values training by 81% — from four hours to just 45 minutes.
Equipment training or new process rollout
Training isn’t just for new hires. Any time a new piece of equipment, technology, or system is introduced, a business has to find the most effective, efficient way to train relevant staff without negatively impacting the customer experience. The application of VR training to this model is highly effective, giving employees a chance to “practice” on new equipment or a new system before it’s even installed, in place, or onsite.
Like with new hire training, using VR for the rollout of a new protocol ensures consistency so that everyone has the same training experience. It also allows team members to repeat the training experience as many times as is necessary to truly learn. By custom-creating VR learning modules, HR and L&D departments can make virtual use of the best teachers and trainers nationally and globally, getting them virtually in front of employees at every single location without paying for them to travel to each location one at a time.
Walmart has more than 5,000 stores across the US, and literally millions of associates working in those stores. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Walmart was an early innovator in automating in-store pickup for customers. The first iteration of this effort was the company’s in-store pickup towers, a revolutionary idea when it arrived on the scene in 2016.
The challenge? How to train existing Walmart staff to stock and manage the towers so customers could easily pick up the items they’d already purchased online. To scale this type of training to 180 of its stores quickly, Walmart instituted VR training that taught things such as:
- The correct order for checking out a package
- How to check out age-restricted items
Embedded quizzes tested the learner throughout the module, and the VR training module was repeatable, so associates could experience it as many times as needed to cement the knowledge in their minds.
“Previously, we had to send three to four people to the store to train how to set it up, how to maintain it, how to interact with customers with it. Now we just send a pair of VR goggles.”— Andy Trainor, VP, Learning, Walmart US
The end result: Walmart’s VR training module on pickup towers was trimmed from eight hours to 15 minutes (a 96% reduction).
Frontline workers have finally been recognized as utterly essential not just to your company but to the greater economy and society. Train them well, and you’ve conquered a major aspect of your operations.
VR helps frontline workers and those interfacing with customers practice procedures, processes, and, perhaps most importantly, soft skills before they’re in front of actual customers. When combined with traditional learning methods like classrooms and shoulder-to-shoulder training, it’s been found that companies can reduce time to proficiency by up to 50% with VR-based learning.
For Walmart, another important application of VR was to more effectively and quickly train front-of-house employees on how to stock and maintain the “wet wall” — industry lingo for the verdant, open-fronted produce fridge of a grocery store. VR modules gave new team members hands-on experience stocking and maintaining the wet wall in a realistic virtual environment, reducing wasted time in the actual store.
When Walmart conducted A/B testing to compare VR training with standard training, the results showed that team members who trained with VR performed 16 times better than those who did not.
Distribution center operations
Logistics is a bigger industry than ever before, primarily due to the boom of e-commerce. To cut a healthy profit, logistics companies must make their operations utterly efficient, trimming out any wasted time or duplication of effort. Despite the proliferation of robots and other machines in warehouses and shipping facilities, real human beings are still a critical part of logistics, and training them well is the key to maintaining operational efficiency.
For logistics companies specifically, there are areas where VR has profound applications:
- Hazard spotting and safety training
VR is especially effective for these types of training because it can teach situational and spatial awareness within a busy warehouse or distribution center environment, and it can also teach specific techniques, such as how to properly lift heavy items. VR is also highly effective at safety training, giving workers the chance to practice spotting hazards in a safe virtual environment where no lives are on the line. For this reason, VR can actually help reduce injuries and other safety incidents.
This can be especially important in an industry that often has a seasonal workforce. Getting large numbers of new employees up to speed is a critical factor in operations for logistics companies.
“Strivr’s VR-based Immersive Learning technology has become an integral part of Prologis’ community workforce training platform. We have received extremely positive feedback from our customers who see it as a valuable and scalable tool in eliminating skills gaps.”– Steven Hussain, Director of Community Workforce Programs, Prologis
Improving operational efficiency with VR
The benefits of using VR to properly train workers on more efficient, higher quality operational standards are clear. With VR used as a training tool, there are fewer interruptions to the flow of business, training is often less expensive, and it takes place more quickly, even across multiple locations.
Immersive Learning is an experiential training methodology that builds on the fundamentals of VR by adding advanced learning theory, data science, and spatial design for the most effective and engaging training possible. Immersive learning also grants insights into the behavior of users by collecting detailed in-headset data about performance, attention, and engagement.
An Immersive Learning platform allows for scalable, highly effective learning that’s proven to drive performance improvement and boost learning outcomes. Today, Fortune 500 companies train customer-facing employees with Immersive Learning for culture-building and customer experience.