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4 ways to teach workplace soft skills with VR

Soft skills
Professional development
Tips & guidance
min read
Young diverse female executives interacting with each other at desk in modern office

Enterprise leaders today are faced with a unique and growing challenge around building and teaching soft skills to employees within their organizations.

Around the globe, corporate learning experts are pushing the need for soft skills training. Josh Bersin, in a recent article, casts doubt on “reskilling” the workforce if there isn’t a strategic and targeted approach to build the right skills. He presents the case for changing the paradigm around soft skills – calling them “power skills” instead – and urges companies to find innovative ways to teach soft skills to employees.

Bottom line is simple. We need to take these ‘power skills’ seriously, and build experiential programs that start at the top.

Josh Bersin
Global L&D Analyst

Amid the clamor, virtual reality (VR) training in the workplace has emerged as a powerful soft skills training tool.

Using VR in soft skills training for employees

Dozens of Fortune 1000 companies are using VR training in the workplace to teach and build on employees’ soft skills. Key benefits of VR training in the workplace include:

  • The training influences real-world behavioral changes and delivers unique, actionable data and insights.
  • The learner is physically immersed which leads to higher impact and retention.
  • Training is available to learners and can be repeated on demand.
  • VR training provides safe access to risky, hard to replicate situations.

This innovative and engaging VR approach is known as Immersive Learning. Unlike traditional ways of teaching soft skills to employees – like watching videos, reviewing case studies, or even role-playing – Immersive Learning combines VR with expert instructional design and data science, so learners are highly engaged and retain more.

Why immersive learning excels at employee soft skills training

Scientific research has proven that VR training in the workplace is a better medium for learning and practicing a variety of soft skills.

In VR, learners are completely immersed in a realistic virtual environment meant to replicate their work environment, so that they experience a phenomenon called “presence.” This means their brain is treating the VR experience the same way it would treat real life, which makes their soft skills training more authentic and memorable.

In addition, learners get this experiential training on-demand, which leads to better long-term retention. They can practice soft skills in a realistic environment as many times as needed to feel more confident and capable on the job. With presence and on-demand reps, learners are strengthening the brain connections needed to drive real-world behavior.

Watch the video below to learn more about the science behind immersive learning from world-renowned VR expert and Strivr Co-Founder, Jeremy Bailenson, PhD:

Once learners have gone through soft skills training in VR, L&D leaders can then review detailed data about their performance. They gain access to both traditional data like soft skills proficiency, and deeper insights like attention and engagement.

With complete immersion, on-demand practice, better long-term retention, and actionable insights, Immersive Learning is highly effective and engaging for teaching soft skills to employees.

Recap: How to make the most of VR for soft skills training

  • Determine the challenges or goals you want to accomplishfor example, better customer experience or improving management.
  • Identify the critical skills your employees will need to get there – such as handling difficult conversations, coaching, or D&I.
  • Use a data-driven approach to evaluate performance and determine what to train for next.

4 case studies on soft skills training in VR today

Some of today’s leading companies, like Walmart and Fidelity, have had remarkable success using Immersive Learning and VR training in the workplace to develop these four types of soft skills training for employees.

01. Navigating difficult conversations

Every day, people are required to have conversations at work that often are uncomfortable or emotional. Examples include:

  • Managers communicating changes with negative impact
  • Employees raising concerns with their manager
  • Settling disputes between colleagues
  • Handling an angry customer

Store managers for several retailers use VR training in the workplace to practice having conversations with team members on a variety of difficult topics, including tardiness, incorrect customer service practices, and shift changes. Immersive Learning offers repetitions in a safe environment for learners to make mistakes and try again. In the headset, learners experience a computer-generated simulation that closely mimics the office most store managers have.

Front-line associates also go through soft skills training in VR to experience challenging situations with customers. These modules often recreate actual interactions that have happened, so that associates get to practice handling them even before they’re ever on the job.

02. Giving actionable feedback

Feedback is critical to effective coaching, healthy teams, and strong company culture. But do your employees and managers know the proper techniques for giving feedback? Whether you have an organizational methodology or use industry best practices, VR training in the workplace is designed to simulate feedback conversations designed for learning, practice, and evaluation.

Academic research shows that even when people know a character isn’t real, they can still listen to, respond, and build rapport with that character in a way similar to a real human.

DDI, in partnership with Strivr, offers Immersive Learning as part of its leadership training. In one module, learners sit across from a direct-report who is struggling to work effectively with a colleague. They are guided through the feedback session in VR, which is recording their speech, as well as head and hand movements. Then, learners have an opportunity to watch and listen to themselves for self-evaluation, an important tactic for long-term retention of the material.

03. Learning & practicing empathy

Watch the video to hear Jeremy Bailenson, PhD share discuss his research on teaching empathy in VR:

In VR, people are able to get out of their own bodies and walk in the shoes of another. This is known as “embodiment,” and is central to why teaching empathy in VR is so powerful for soft skills training for employees. Learners get to experience the world in a new way – perhaps from the perspective of a frustrated customer or an employee who’s feeling down.

A powerful example comes from a utilities call center training experience: in the headset, associates are transported from the call center, where they receive a call, to inside the home of the caller. Learners experience the sights and sounds of being the caretaker for an elderly father with emphysema, or the challenge of resetting breakers in 100-degree heat while on the phone with the company.  

These associates are able to experience the lives of their customers in VR, rather than simply read or watch videos about it, which helps them relate more sincerely and offer better assistance.

04. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I)

DE&I training is a major priority for most enterprise organizations today. Teaching inclusive behaviors and preparing teams and managers for tough conversations in the workplace is at the heart of creating diverse and inclusive companies.

Watch the video below to see a scene from Walmart's DE&I training module. Click and drag with your mouse to look around the full environment while watching the video.

For the most effective learning to take place, modules for DE&I first immerse learners in a realistic scenario simply to observe a colleague exhibiting non-inclusive behavior. Then, they participate in an interactive, face-to-face conversation with that colleague to discuss why non-inclusive behavior is out of line with the company’s core values. The learner discovers how to stand up to and counter biases in a constructive way.

Soft skills training with immersive learning

While there are dozens of soft skills to teach soft skills to employees that are needed to be successful in the workplace, not all of them are meant to be taught in VR. VR workplace training is not a “magic bullet.” But for difficult conversations, feedback, empathy, and diversity & inclusion, enterprise L&D leaders are finding that Immersive Learning outperforms just about anything else out there in providing soft skills training for employees.

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