The COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing efforts to keep employees, partners and customers as safe as possible, have led to profound and swift changes in the work environment, even to the point of rethinking what the workplace is and where it is. As we look toward an end to the pandemic, we are discerning what happens next. Which new technologies and processes should we try to retain, and which technologies are we happy to curtail? How do we upskill employees in 2021 and beyond?

The Role of Virtual Reality: Learning by Experience

Learning needs to happen at all levels and all parts of the talent pipeline. From onboarding to leadership training, from discrete skill acquisition to improving soft skills, employees are — or should be — learning frequently. As organizations contemplate hybrid in-office/work-from-anywhere (WFA) models, virtual reality can provide powerful learning experiences to remote and on-site employees.

Virtual reality (VR) can even be effective for soft skills training. Such upskilling requires two contributors to learning: the motivation to learn new skills and the understanding of what the skills are and when to use them. Motivation and understanding are so important because soft skills training is, in essence, habit change. The goal is to change the habits of how we interact with people in various types of situations.

Habits are automatic behaviors. We do them without thinking much, if at all. Habit change requires effort, and in order to exert that effort, we need to be motivated. Of course, we also need to learn what to do instead — what it is that should become our new habit. VR can provide both aspects by enabling learning through experience. It can put people in new identities and positions, thereby giving them perspectives that they otherwise wouldn’t experience. In essence, virtual reality can create emotional and cognitive simulations.

Emotional and Cognitive Empathy

We know from years of research that virtual reality is good at inducing a particular type of empathy: emotional empathy, which is feeling what another person feels. It is more than simply “knowing” what it might be like for someone in their shoes. Such “knowing” is cognitive empathy — understanding what someone likely thinks and feels without feeling it oneself. Cognitive empathy is what we experience when someone tells us about a situation and we understand what they’re going through.

Emotional empathy is harder to attain than cognitive empathy, because it requires us not to feel how we would feel in the other person’s shoes but to imagine how that other person feels. It requires us to leave our own head and heart and enter into someone else’s. VR can help develop emotional empathy in a way that other media can’t. This profound emotional empathy then creates the motivation to learn, to change, to upskill.

Emotional empathy and cognitive empathy can provide the path toward compassionate empathy — being moved to act differently. For instance, one VR program puts learners who are not Black men in the shoes of a Black man to experience the world as he might experience it. Such an experience can be a revelation and motivate people to behave differently. Research tells us that it’s one thing to read or hear about someone else’s experience and another thing to experience it for ourselves.

Emotional empathy and a motivation to learn are not enough, however. We have to know what we should do differently. Some bias awareness training programs don’t address this “what now?” issue. Virtual reality can help here, too, as it can help learners try new behaviors. Practice in VR endows the user with the sense of having behaved in new ways in real life. When we’re in a headset, we know that our experience isn’t real, but it sure feels that way.

That said, like developing any habit, a one-shot experience is a start but can’t be both beginning and ending. Training (and post-training reminders) should occur over time to allow consolidation of the building blocks of the new skills and as practice in the “real world” provides additional feedback. Ideally, such learning and consolidation is continuous, and employees’ skills deepen and develop more and more nuance.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic on experiential learning, which shares insights from learning leaders like this one.