How VR can improve soft skills training in businesses


November 18, 2018 - Dom Barnard

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.

What is virtual reality?

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

Automotive engineering with VR in an office

Traditional soft skills training

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:

In-person training sessions

  • Pros: Increased user engagement compared to online training. Other participants in the training can be used to create group scenarios to practice.
  • Cons: Expensive and usually requires travel to the training center. With a global workforce, standards of training can vary widely.

Online courses

  • Pros: Cheaper than in-person training and participants can complete from anywhere.
  • Cons: Low engagement and completion rates. Users only learn the theory and aren’t able to practice in different scenarios.

Actors

Actors are sometimes part of in-person training sessions depending on the company training budget.

  • Pros: Participants can practice different scenarios with the actors, such as dealing with difficult customers.
  • Cons: Tends to be very expensive, as typically multiple trainers are required depending on size of the training group.

Virtual reality: The new way to improve soft skills

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?

Press or media ambush in hotel lobby in VR

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.

Pros

  • Lower cost than traditional in-person training due to repeatability
  • Users can actually practice different business scenarios in the virtual world – something that is not possible with a regular online course
  • High levels of immersion and low possibility of distraction due to the user having a headset on
  • VR headset costs can be as low as $20 each for a good VR experience - see our list of recommended VR headsets
  • Users can practice their skills from anywhere in the world, at any time, using mobile-based VR headsets
  • Users can practice alone, where they may be more comfortable training verbal communication skills
  • Insights into students soft skills behaviours, reflective of real world behaviours
  • We can measure lots of factors in VR, helping us to understand which lead to improvement and then determine best learning path for the student
  • Users learn through experience, resulting in improved memory retention
  • Research with VirtualSpeech has shown high levels of learner satisfaction and knowledge retention

Cons

  • A few users may experience motion sickness using VR. We’ve found that keeping training in VR to short sessions (no more than 15 minutes) can resolve this issue for most.
  • The technology isn’t mainstream yet so it might be the learners’ first experience using VR. Therefore, thorough documentation and guides are essential for uptake
  • Not everyone is comfortable putting on a VR headset
  • Headsets need to be shipped to different locations if multiple offices use the technology
  • Most smartphones are able to run VR experiences, however there are a few older mobile devices that may not be able to – see the "Will my mobile device run the app" section of our FAQ for more information
  • Negative transfer of training is a vital aspect that must be addressed

VR usage demographic

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.

Business man practicing soft skills in VR

VR applications already in use by businesses

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:

  • BMW engineers and designers, for example, are actively leveraging VR to test out the look and feel of visual components to save time and money in the prototyping.
  • Airbus, for its part, has reduced inspection time of aircraft under production by 86 percent by allowing assembly workers to step into complete 3D models.
  • Jaguar Land Rover use VR to inspect the ergonomics and interior layout of vehicles, alter styling on the exterior, review electrical cabling through a vehicle and check if there are any collisions with the CAD models.

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.

Oculus Go headset

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.

How can VR help develop soft skills?

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.

Learn, practice, feedback, improve

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.

Training functionality and capability in VR

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:

  • Immediate feedback for the user – with in-built speech analysis tools powered by AI, the learner can receive instant feedback on how they performed in the virtual world. Were they using a good amount of eye contact? Did they speak too fast? Were they too quiet? They’ll know instantly.
  • Load in your own slides – users can load their own presentation slides into the virtual room to practice presenting with. This is especially useful for sales pitching and public speaking training.
  • Track progress – learners can measure and track their progress within the VR app to easily quantify their progress over time.
  • Record speeches and upload to learning portal – users can record what they are saying, whether that be giving a presentation, leading a meeting, giving feedback, and so on. They can then upload this audio recording to the learning portal and send to professional trainers or colleagues for detailed feedback.
  • Realistic virtual environmentsphoto-realistic environments provide learners with the realism they need for effective practice of soft skills.
  • Reactive avatars – avatars can respond to what the user is saying by picking out keywords from the conversation and analyzing other aspects of the speech. For example, if the user is speaking too quietly, the avatar can respond by asking the user to speak more loudly.
Employee getting feedback in VR

A user receiving instant feedback on their speech in VR with the VirtualSpeech app.

Why is VR training more effective?

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.

Soft skills will become increasingly valuable

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:

Types of VR for soft skills development

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:

360 degree videos

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 with a 360 degree camera in VR.

Emotional intelligence training, using a 360 degree camera to capture emotions and facial expressions.

Passive VR

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.

Interactive VR

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.

Conclusion

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.