The pool of deskless employees, many of whom make direct contact with customers and physical goods — comprises almost three billion people around the world. These employees are the lifeblood of businesses across nearly every industry, especially retail, hospitality and health care. They provide customer service, man registers, administer care to patients, accommodate guests, serve food, answer phones, stock warehouse shelves, respond to workplace crises and so much more.
Despite making up 80% of the global workforce and representing the final stop for smooth operations and customer satisfaction, the training needs of these workers are widely unmet. In fact, in one survey of part-time employees who earn less than $50,000 annually and don’t have a college degree (true of many deskless workers), many said the training they receive is ineffective or boring.
This lack of adequate training is frustrating for employees and an even bigger pain point for their employers. Poor training experiences and lack of employee engagement can lead to mediocre service, an unsatisfied employee base and high turnover. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reportedly found that more than 50% of all new hourly employees quit or are fired within six months of being hired. With a turnover rate of 81%, part-time retail employees lead the pack. These statistics are particularly alarming when you consider the cost of turnover: It can cost companies between $3,372 and $4,291 to replace hourly store employees, for example, and turnover reportedly costs restaurants an average of $150,000 each year.
The State of Frontline Training
To find a better solution to issues surrounding frontline training, let’s first assess it in its current state. The average cost to train an employee is $1,296, according to the Association for Talent Development’s 2017 “State of the Industry” report, and often takes months to fully onboard an employee. To date, the most high-impact training for frontline workers includes role-play scenarios, job shadowing and on-the-job practice, all of which can offer experiences that are engaging and directly relevant to the job.
However, these methods rely on an in-person trainer — a person who’s susceptible to bad days, performance anxiety, laziness, forgetfulness and a slew of other factors that make training inconsistent. Additionally, these methods require paying a trainer and coordinating multiple schedules in order to complete the onboarding process, which often causes delays in bringing the new hire up to speed.
Because of the costs and difficulties associated with such training, many organizations settle for training binders and online workshops. These methods, while inexpensive to produce and deliver, can be dry and rooted in theoretical explanations. They also don’t provide any flexibility for different learner preferences, and, as a result, the large segment of workers who don’t thrive with written materials are left in the dust. What’s more, these methods fail to offer meaning, actionable practice, leaving new workers ill-equipped to confidently start working when they arrive for their first day on the job. They also give managers a false sense of confidence, leading them to release underprepared and nervous workers to man the registers, wander the showroom floor and struggle through customer interactions.
Virtual Reality for the Deskless Workforce
Once a speculative technology, virtual reality (VR) has made waves in learning and development. According to ABI research, enterprise virtual reality training could generate more than $6.3 billion by 2022, and frontline workers sit squarely in the crosshairs of VR’s impact as a training tool. Traditional methods have often left businesses with the hefty task (and cost) of reinventing the wheel for every new hire and with disengaged employees going through the motions of compulsory training. VR, on the other hand, offers the convenience and affordability of a pre-written training program in an immersive, engaging medium.
Training in VR offers three unique superpowers no other medium can provide: immersion, presence and empathy. While wearing a headset, users are immersed in a 360° (or 180°) environment that lights up their entire field of view, surrounding them with interactive audio and visual content that grabs their attention while shutting out potential distractions in the room. Scrolling on a cell phone or catching up on emails isn’t an option in VR.
Additionally, the sense of presence provided by this immersion makes all the difference when it comes to learning. Rather than reading descriptions of scenarios and strategies, trainees are placed in the center of realistic, interactive simulations. Viewers’ brains treat well-made VR experiences as though they were happening in the physical world, engaging in self-directed learning and forming memories that carry over from the virtual environment into real life.
The major difference, though, is that organizations can guarantee consistency by recording their best trainers delivering lessons and walking every new hire through each scenario an unlimited number of times to observe how different decisions lead to different outcomes. It’s like job shadowing in overdrive. Now, trainees can arrive for their first day on the job armed with the confidence and competence that come from repeated practice and genuine, relevant experiences.
The third and final superpower of VR is empathy. VR enables users to walk in another person’s shoes by engaging them in completely new perspectives. Human interactions are especially tricky to master through reading assignments and multiple-choice questions. That’s why VR’s ability to expose trainees to eye-opening customer stories, refine their interviewing skills and enable them to practice navigating challenging customer interactions is so valuable.
In addition to its three superpowers, VR offers a number of benefits that are aligned to the particular training needs of frontline workers. Its effectiveness as a training tool is complemented by its efficacy: VR can reduce employee onboarding time by as much as 50%, saving time and money.
Some training organizations might worry about a disconnect between new hires and their managers when the managers aren’t doing the onboarding, but these fears are unwarranted. VR amplifies the impact of in-person training and strengthens the bond between manager and employee by creating new, deeper opportunities for review. Training in VR also provides analytics for employee assessment, from observing the viewer’s experience in real time to gaze-tracking heatmaps, provide new layers of information to guide feedback and advising. In this way, VR allows managers to move away from a “checking-the-box” training approach and, instead, to pursue meaningful, data-informed interactions during training time.
Finally, there is the matter of safety. Organizations have used VR to train pilots, police officers and military combat specialists, because it allows users to experience meaningful practice in a safe, consequence-free environment. Similarly, frontline workers can practice operating dangerous equipment or navigating a hazardous kitchen without any fear of consequence. With VR, employees can safely practice and review any activity in any environment before their first day, throughout the entire onboarding process and beyond.
VR is set to change the way businesses onboard and retain their frontline workers, and we can expect to continue seeing significant changes, as well as some overdue disruption in the pattern of disengagement and turnover among frontline workers.
If you are interested in bringing VR to your frontline organization, review your current training practices, and partner with a VR provider specializing in L&D to create a pilot program for a small segment of learners. After assessing the pilot’s impact and improving its shortcomings, you are set to expand your VR training solution to the rest of your frontline workforce!