Communication. Empathy. Self-awareness. Collaboration. Self-motivation. Creativity.

Soft skills are all the rage — and rightly so. In the age of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, it has become clear that soft skills are the golden ticket to staying competitive in the job market. For leaders especially, soft skills are vital for both individual and organizational success. So, how can leaders develop the soft skills necessary for effective leadership? Virtual reality (VR) may be one answer.

The Case for Adopting VR in Soft Skills Training

VR creates a space where leaders can practice common leadership skills, including giving performance evaluations, delivering bad news and dealing with difficult employees, among many others, privately and without risk. In this virtual world, learners can experiment with different approaches to leadership so that they can lead more effectively in the real one.

In addition to reinforcing leadership skills, VR is especially effective for soft skills training, as it allows leaders to engage in situations requiring proficiency in skills such as self-awareness, empathy, communication, cultural awareness and more.

For example, DDI Labs’ “Exclusion Experience” is a VR simulation designed to help leaders understand what it means to be underrepresented in the workplace. In the simulation, participants attend a series of meetings led by a diverse group of female executives. The idea is that leaders (especially white males) participating in the simulation will better understand what it’s like not to be part of the “in group,” which will help them become more inclusive, empathic and culturally aware. Ryan Heinl, director of product management at DDI Labs, notes, “Once you have that awareness, you’re more apt to take some action.”

For maximum engagement and learner retention, L&D leaders should use creative simulated environments when using VR for soft skills training. All too often, however, Heinl says that training professionals end up recreating their own office environment in the simulation … but the potential of VR extends far beyond what’s familiar.

“You can literally do anything in VR. You can have a meeting at the MIT Lab and talk about innovation as a team, or you could go basically anywhere. You could go to the moon and have a conversation about where future resources are going to come from,” Heinl says.

Being able to transport learners anywhere, anytime, can obviously reduce training costs, but even more value lies in VR’s ability to effectively engage learners.

Alice Bonasio, immersive tech consultant, speaker and editor-in-chief of Tech Trends, says, “Travel, accommodation and downtime costs drop whilst learners spend less but better-focused time training from their location. But I feel, more importantly, by making training engaging and memorable, VR reduces the time to competency, which in turns benefits operational performance, improves the workforce’s well-being and reduces attrition rates.”

Thus, it is clear that VR has the ability to create immersive experiences in which leaders can develop and practice critical soft skills for success — but that’s not all: VR can accurately measure leaders’ soft skills and provide them with objective feedback.

Speech technology is one way VR can measure leaders’ soft skills and offer tangible feedback. Dean Slawson, co-founder and CEO of VRAINIUM, says, “Speech is a big area where you can do analytics based on what the learner is saying in a scenario or [how they are] interacting with peers in a distributed training.” Speech analytics can offer leaders feedback on metrics like how much they talk versus how much they listen or how often they ask questions (which demonstrates a high level of curiosity) versus how often they make statements, Slawson explains.

Another way VR give leaders feedback is with eye-tracking technology, which can determine if you’re looking at the person talking to you, and head-tracking technology, which can determine if you’re displaying active listening behaviors (e.g., nodding).“You can pick up on all of those non-verbal behaviors and give direct observational feedback, privately, to leaders,” Slawson says.

Ultimately, VR allows leaders to develop, practice and measure their soft skills by putting them in immersive situations that they may not have otherwise experienced. Bonasio says, “I see soft skills VR simulations very much as a tool to enhance training sessions by bringing previously impossible exercises to the classroom and letting leaders see the incredible potential of VR through practice.”

What L&D Leaders Need to Know

From preparing for potential challenges to overcoming initial hesitation, implementing a VR-based soft skills training program for leaders can seem daunting for the training professional, but it doesn’t have to be.

L&D leaders should actively plan for potential issues that may arise when using VR for soft skills training in order to better prepare themselves for its launch. Making the training content available in a different format (for learners who experience nausea or otherwise feel uncomfortable during the VR experience) is one way to be proactive in ensuring all learners are able to participate.

In order to overcome any initial hesitation associated with making the switch to a VR-based soft skills training program, Slawson encourages training professionals to take baby steps.

“You don’t have to roll out to your whole enterprise as a first step … If you feel like you see the advantages there and you want to try it, but you feel some uncertainty, the best thing is to take a small bite, get some experiences and learn from that — and then make any adjustments you need to make more broadly,” he shares.

The Future Is Now

As more and more organizations come to recognize soft skills as a requirement for effective leadership, and technological advancement continues to permeate the L&D field, using VR to develop leaders’ soft skills will soon become commonplace. L&D leaders can join the movement by using engaging simulations, preparing for potential pitfalls and taking the initial leap into the world of VR.

“We know that the need for these kinds of skills is only going to be increasing as technology changes going forward,” Slawson says. “So, if we’re not going to do VR as a way to adjust the soft skills gap, what are we going to do? If you think of it that way, it probably is the way forward.”