Soft skills have typically been learnt on the job, through interactions with colleagues, clients and other stakeholders. Training people in soft skills is hard because people behave differently in similar situations, so a "one size fits all" approach isn’t very effective.
Practicing these skills in virtual reality (VR) can provide the bespoke experience employees need to develop these skills. In this article, we discuss how using VR to create realistic virtual scenarios for employees to practice real-world situations in, is an effective method of training and upskilling the workforce.
Virtual reality is the term used to describe a three-dimensional environment that can typically be explored and interact with by a user. When the user puts on a VR headset, they are completely immersed in this virtual world.
People tend to associate VR with gaming but the possibilities of VR extend far beyond that. VR is now being used in healthcare, real estate, marketing, and corporate training to name just a few. For example, someone can put on a VR headset and be immersed in a virtual conference room, where they can practice giving a speech to an audience, providing a more realistic and effective way of practicing than to a colleague or in front of a mirror.
Read more about Applications of VR: 20 Non-Gaming Industries already using VR
Soft skills can be enhanced through existing training methods, such as in-person training days and online courses. However, these come with their own benefits and limitations:
Actors are sometimes part of in-person training sessions depending on the company training budget.
VR opens up new, exciting possibilities for soft skills training. Being able to simulate different soft skills scenarios from anywhere in the world is extremely powerful, as it allows each learner to practice their skills with no real-world consequences. Companies can also be sure that employees are receiving a standardised, high quality level of training.
It’s hard to practice many soft skills scenarios using traditional methods, and that’s the real difference with VR. Without VR, how do employees practice giving a presentation to directors? Delivering a sales pitch to new clients? Being ambushed by the media? Laying off employees?
User being ambushed by the media in a hotel lobby.
With VR, these different scenarios can be practiced exactly at the point of need and as often as required by the learner, until they are confident and ready to face that scenario in the real world.
While some might assume that more senior members of staff would be reluctant to use VR, our feedback from employees we’ve trained with our VR courses has shown there is no significant difference in uptake amongst different age groups. Both younger and older employees are as likely to embrace the technology and find benefits using it.
VR has proven to be a great tool in manufacturing and engineering, saving both time and money. Here are how some companies are already using VR:
The cost of VR headsets has reduced dramatically in the last few years, from thousands of dollars per headset, to under a hundred dollars. This empowers companies to train each employee with VR, instead of it being used only for expensive engineering and manufacturing processes.
The cost of VR headsets have come down considerably in the last few years, making it a viable tool for company wide employee training.
Soft skills can now be trained in realistic VR scenarios, including communication skills, sales pitching, business networking, dealing with the media, overcoming workplace stress and presentation skills.
Read out list of soft skills which VR can improve.
Virtual reality can bridge the gap between online classes and traditional face-to-face training. The unique difference is that it enables learners to practice different business scenarios in a realistic way, so that they are more prepared when facing similar scenarios in the workplace.
For example, let’s say an employee wants to practice giving difficult feedback to a colleague for an upcoming yearly performance review. They could put on the VR headset and be transported to a virtual meeting room with the colleague as a virtual avatar. They can then practice delivering the feedback and the avatar can react to what is being said by picking out specific keywords from what the user has said and linking these with pre-loaded replies.
With advances in AI, speech-to-text and text-to-speech technologies, users will eventually be able to have conversations with the avatars, with the avatars reacting to what is being said in real-time, as a real colleague would.
Feedback is a vital part of improving a skill. With the example given above, the user has a conversation with the avatar and can be given instant feedback on their performance, giving them areas to focus on when they repeat the exercise. Learning managers can also assess the capabilities of their employees (before and after the training), something which is typically very hard to do with soft skills.
There are many aspects of VR that enhance the learning experience. Here are just some of the features available with VirtualSpeech soft skills VR training:
A user receiving instant feedback on their speech in VR with the VirtualSpeech app.
VR gives users and managers unprecedented behavioural data capture that provides systematic, objective, and highly unique insights into performance. This helps identify areas that need improving and helps to justify ROI, as managers can both measure and track progress made.
As we’ve already discussed, VR also lets users practice these soft skills from anywhere in the world, at any time. At VirtualSpeech, we’ve found that employees also repeat the VR training scenarios over several months, increasing knowledge retention and helping to overcome the Ebbinghaus Forgetting curve.
This repeated learning helps users become comfortable with soft skill scenarios and better able to deal with the same scenarios in the real world.
VR enables users to learn through experience, a topic we cover in more detail in our Experiential Learning with Virtual Reality article. VR shifts the training away from passive learning towards actively working with new challenges and experiences.
VR can also simulate a range of random actions to occur, which the user needs to react to. An example of this is a media ambush scenario we’ve created, where the user starts in an elevator going down to a hotel lobby. The doors then open and the user is ambushed by a dozen press reporters, with cameras flashing and difficult questions being asked).
An overlooked benefit of this type of training is that the user can practice independently. Often with soft skills, people need to verbally communicate and may not feel comfortable fully committing to the training with other people around them listening. This is particularly true at in-person training sessions, where role play scenarios force participants to practice with other colleagues around them, often leaving people feeling uncomfortable.
We’ve also found that soft skills can be seen as a slightly embarrassing skill to want to improve. Unlike ‘hard skills’ which have to be learnt from scratch, there is a perception that we should automatically be good at soft skills - something that is not true for the majority of people.
A study by McKinsey estimates that up to 30 percent of the hours worked globally could be automated by 2030. More than 2 million jobs will be created due to this change and it is our uniquely human skills that will become more valuable.
As the cost of robots decreases and the performance of artificial intelligence improves, jobs will become increasingly automated. Traditional skills like teamwork, communication and critical thinking will become more important than ever.
Some economists predict that the best paid jobs will combine these business and communication skills with new tech skills people are trying to learn.
To learn more about this topic, take a look at the following articles:
VR can be broken up into several broad categories, all of which can be used to train soft skills. Here’s an overview of these categories to give you an idea about the capabilities within VR training:
This is when a real room is filmed with a 360 degree camera, with real people being in the room as well. This type of training is great for complex situations where human emotions are required from the virtual avatars.
Face rigging and lip syncing technology are not quite good enough yet to truly simulate emotions on virtual avatars, so this is a good option for when realism is the main objective.
Use case examples: our emotional intelligence training uses 360 degree filming, as accurate human physical and verbal emotions are necessary from the avatar. With a 360 degree video, the avatar can be an actual human filmed with a 360 degree camera, ensuring that the emotions are accurate.
Emotional intelligence training, using a 360 degree camera to capture emotions and facial expressions.
Passive VR is when the user does not need to interact much with other people in the scene. This type of environment can be the most realistic, as the audience can be green-screened, non-reactive avatars and the environment highly rendered.
Use case examples: this type of VR is most suited when the audience is mostly passive, such as training for giving a presentation in a large conference hall.
When the user does need a level of interaction with other people in the scene, but the emotions and animations of the avatar are not critical (otherwise 360 degree filming is required). The VR needs to have mechanisms for learner to interact with the scene, such as pushing buttons or selecting objects.
Use case examples: this type of training is suitable for practicing to lead a meeting, giving a sales pitch and so on - essentially where the avatars need to react to what is being said.
VR will soon become a staple of employee training, and companies who are early to adopt the technology will have a huge advantage over their competitors.
Companies who adopt VR will save money and employee time by replacing expensive in-person training with hybrid online VR courses. In-person training will still be essential for training upper management, but will likely be replaced for regular employees with VR training and implemented into corporate LMS systems.