Large nonprofit organizations and media companies, like the United Nations and the New York Times, have recently used virtual reality to stimulate empathy. Should companies do the same for their employees? Empathy is important for leaders to develop, as it’s key to soft skills like relating well with others as well as “hard” applications like business transformation. Empathetic employees are better at customer service, work better with each other and have better sales.
While virtual reality (VR) cannot create empathy, it can help facilitate it by demonstrating to employees what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes – literally. In fact, John Carlos Lozano, chief creative officer at SweetRush, and Dana Thomas, vice president of content development at Relias, believe this use case is a great – if not the greatest – opportunity for VR in corporate training.
SweetRush, for example, developed a virtual hotel for its corporate employees to experience what it was like to work in a hotel. “They don’t understand what those people’s jobs are like, yet they are making decisions for those people day in and day out,” Lozano says. By virtually working at a front desk or cleaning a guest room, employees were able to develop empathy for their colleagues and, hopefully, make better decisions in the future.
Because the company believes that VR and other new technologies will play an increasingly important role in training in the near future, SweetRush recently acquired emerging technologies company IDEA Workshop and created a new emerging technologies group called SPARK. Adrian Soto, founder of IDEA Workshop and now director of future technologies at SweetRush, defines “emerging technologies” as “technology that’s currently being developed, that’s going to be rolled out within the next four years [and] something that simply changes the game.” And technologies like VR and its cousin, augmented reality (AR), are a natural fit for SweetRush, based on its experience in 3D animation and storytelling, says chairman and co-founder Arturo Schwartzberg.
In a different industry, Relias recently launched an empathy course for caregivers of patients with dementia. The course enables learners to have a negative experience with a caregiver as a person with limited cognitive ability, complete with sound problems to replicate hearing loss. Thomas says Relias initially intended the course for organizations onboarding new caregivers, but supervisors who participated wanted their more experienced employees to take the course as well. Altogether, he says clients have reported positive impacts from the training.
Michael Ventura, author of “Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership,” says that VR can also be used in training to help designers, marketers and strategists understand their audiences better. For example, organizations are using VR to help designers understand customers with disabilities to create better products for them. It’s also used “as a form of cultural immersion” to help employees understand people in different parts of the world. “If you want to truly understand a consumer segment deeply,” Ventura says, “VR can be a powerful tool to provide the sort of rich, virtual immersion necessary to gather perspective while remaining efficient.”
“Education and how people learn is always changing,” says Lozano. To keep up with your learners, consider using VR to help them develop empathy – but follow these best practices to do it right.
1. Find the right vendor.
One of the biggest challenges for organizations that want to start using VR for training, says Schwartzberg, is finding a VR company that “has that expertise but can also [do it] for a price tag that works in the learning and development market.” Many VR vendors have clients in the entertainment industry, which typically works with a much larger budget than L&D managers have. They may not have the expertise in learning and development, as well. Find a vendor with reasonable prices (they’re out there, Thomas says!) and an understanding of instructional design and training development.
2. Test, test, test.
“Everyone’s moving towards a more iterative, adaptive process,” says Lozano, but many companies “aren’t really there yet.” However, using an agile design process is critical for VR and AR, because you will likely need to develop and test several iterations of your program before launching it. Thomas agrees, saying that organizations “need to be prepared to experiment and try and fail a little bit.”
3. Use it for the right reasons, with the right people, at the right time.
Lozano says organizations may be too quick to use VR because “it’s an exciting, shiny new tool.” But the first question you should ask yourself is if you need to use VR to effectively deliver a particular training program. Make sure the audience will be receptive and engaged and that the modality fits the content and the goal of the training. For example, it may be difficult for a 35-year-old caregiver – even one with a great imagination – to really understand what it’s like to be 80 years old, hard of hearing and suffering from dementia. Virtual reality can help him understand in a way that another modality may not.
Be empathetic yourself, and put yourself in your learners’ shoes, says Ventura. Understand how they would like to receive training and who would most benefit from VR. “As living, breathing humans, it’s important that we remember our humanity and not get lost in the magic of technology for technology’s sake.”
4. Use the tools correctly.
Research shows that even just moving your head (but especially walking or otherwise interacting with the scene) makes you more likely to experience empathy in virtual reality. However, if you’re going to involve movement, be sure to design it carefully to prevent motion sickness. To avoid the problem completely, Thomas says, focus on character-building and creating experiences that cause learners to feel certain emotions.
Additionally, he says, don’t just put a VR camera in a classroom and film an instructor teaching a lesson. There’s no benefit to using a VR camera over a two-dimensional camera in that situation – it’s a waste of money.
5. Provide follow-up.
Thomas recommends using discussion groups to cement the learning and help employees apply it in their work. After experiencing a simulation, learners can discuss what they noticed and felt and what they would do differently if faced with that situation in real life. “The best scenarios,” he says, “are going to be the ones where people are really taking these [experiences] into the real world with discussion groups and talking about the experiences.”