As you’re delivering an important presentation, you feel the momentum swinging your way. “I have to say, we’re greatly impressed,” the human resources (HR) director says. “We feel you could be the right partner to help our employees develop their soft skills. But I was wondering … I recently read an interesting article about virtual reality. What is your perspective? Would that be something we could include in the curriculum?” You don’t quite know what to say. “We’ll look into that,” you mutter. “We’ll get back to you.” You get the sinking feeling this is not the answer they were hoping to hear.

Today, innovation is more disruptive than ever, changing the nature of work fundamentally and at a pace we’ve never seen before. According to the estimates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), more than one billion jobs are likely to transform in the next decade. The demand for specialized soft skills will grow tremendously, especially in industries like sales, human resources and education. To address this huge reskilling and upskilling challenge, we need new solutions that can drive sustainable behavior change at scale. Could VR be the solution we need? Or is it just a cool gimmick?

In short: Yes, VR could be the change we hope it to be in the learning and development (L&D) field. A recent study by European L&D provider Lepaya and Parable, a VR training provider, found that VR can measurably enhance the learning effectiveness of soft skills training. Specifically, the study indicates that VR, as a standalone tool, outperforms facilitator-led and traditional eLearning modules when it comes to teaching theory and creating situations for practice in a controlled setting. So, VR could help to strengthen the development of soft skills … but how? Consider these best practices to get started.

1. Combine VR With Traditional Learning Methods

VR has proven itself as a standalone learning tool and can add great value when paired with other learning methods. It allows for a series of scripted situations most suited to effectively digest frameworks and to stimulate practice through lifelike interactions. This makes VR a powerful tool to help learners internalize the theories (e.g., through videos, articles or eLearning modules).

Another effective way to leverage VR is to use it as preparation for a personalized, live session led by a facilitator or an actor. Afterwards, VR could also be an ideal way for participants to run through new scenarios at home to reinforce concepts and create a sustainable learning experience.

2. Design VR-specific Learning Flows

The VR experience is completely different from facilitator-led sessions or traditional eLearning.. Fully leveraging these benefits requires existing content to be redesigned. This may seem like common sense, but too often we’ve seen companies trying to fit new-world solutions onto old-world practices. Look, for example, at the way that some organizations attempted to recreate their exact face-to-face way of working with virtual tools, instead of benefiting from all the possibilities digital had to offer, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply replacing eLearning materials (e.g., articles or videos) or facilitator presentations with a like-for-like VR element might boost immersiveness and add to the “wow” factor, but it will not drastically enhance effectiveness.

3. Create a Safe Environment for Practice

One of the main benefits of VR is that it allows us to craft real-life situations for our participants to submerge themselves in and practice new behaviors. Doing so can be awkward. We ask people to put on VR goggles and talk aloud to virtual counterparts. This awkwardness actually boosts learning as it pushes participants out of their comfort zones. At the same time, it requires a safe and private environment in which they can behave naturally and speak freely.

The biggest barrier to large-scale adoption of VR technology in L&D is the associated cost and effort. What we need are affordable and convenient solutions that empower us to create and distribute content at scale. With rapid advancements in software, hardware and conversational artificial intelligence (AI), it will only be a matter of time before affordable, easy-to-deploy VR training becomes more readily available. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t already get started. The technology is there, and studies have proven its value. With digital transformation and the pace of change continuing to accelerate, VR might just be the million dollar idea that will help us address the huge upskilling task ahead of us.

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