PwC finds that virtual reality is the best place to practice difficult conversations at work

The company found people learned faster and better in a VR environment that included strong emotions and a safe place to make mistakes.


A new analysis from PwC found that virtual reality can save time and be more effective but must be rolled out at scale to be cost effective.

Image: PwC

When it comes to difficult conversations at work, virtual reality (VR) may be the best place to practice talking about sensitive subjects like race, hiring, and bias.

PwC compared classroom training, e-learning, and VR training and found that people who took a VR course about inclusive leadership learned more, spent less time in the training, and felt much more confident about putting the new skills into practice. The learners also felt more emotionally connected to the topic, which makes it more likely that they will remember the material and put it into use.

The new report, "The Effectiveness of Virtual Reality Soft Skills Training in the Enterprise," found that the main disadvantage of v-learning was the startup cost, which was 47% higher than the cost of building classroom and e-learning courses.

PwC's Emerging Technology Group, US Learning and Development spent a year developing, deploying, and assessing an e-learning and a VR version of an existing classroom course. The  training focused on how familiarity, comfort, and trust influence hiring, staffing, and performance reviews. During the training, learners are asked to understand personal and team member behavior that could potentially be caused by unconscious bias. The goal is to train learners to use only objective criteria in decision-making.

SEE: Virtual hiring tips for job seekers and recruiters (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Employees from a group of new managers in 12 US locations took the same training in one of three formats: Classroom, e-learning, or a virtual reality module. The project included pre- and post-assessments as well as a follow-up assessment to measure how well trainees had retained the information. The report found that:

  • 78% of all v-learning participants preferred the VR experience over traditional formats
  • VR learners were 40% more confident than classroom learners and 35% more confident than e-learners about acting on what they learned

As the report authors stated, "Confidence builds employee satisfaction, which can lead to better employee retention, and help improve work quality and reduce mistakes."

Scott Likens, US executive sponsor of the project and the director of PwC's emerging tech practice in PwC Labs, said the virtual training works because the quality of the content has caught up with the technology.

"You put people in these very dynamic, very immersive situations so they can practice difficult conversations and get immediate feedback," he said. "That way, if they get it wrong, it wasn't in a room with 10 - 15 of their closest colleagues."

The v-learning took a quarter of the time required for classroom learning and two-thirds of the time of an e-learning session. Also, learners were less distracted than students in both other formats.

The VR environment also provides a better place to practice new skills and uncomfortable conversations. The PwC team was first attracted to VR training after viewing a simulated conversation during which the participant had to fire a colleague. The virtual environment recreated the stress of that kind of conversation and allowed for a learner to make mistakes and receive feedback. In the PwC v-training, the learner gets dynamic feedback so that when he or she makes a choice, the strong behavior choices are reinforced while mistakes are met with corrective feedback, reasoning, and an opportunity to retry.

The researchers found that "because it was a realistic simulation where they played themselves, v-learners reported making decisions based on what they would have done in real life." The VR sessions seemed to spark more personal reflection as well:

  • 75% reported experiencing a "wake-up call" moment about the inclusivity of their behaviors
  • 75% of VR learners said the training helped them identify moments from their past when they were not as inclusive as they had previously believed

Likens said these moments happen because people are completely immersed in the experience with none of the distractions that come with classroom and e-learning. 

"You're all in and super intent on what's happening around you," he said. "This is truly about changing people's understanding and emotions and how they operate."

Recommendations for developing VR training

The learning team has this advice for companies thinking about developing v-learning courses:

  • Build a cross-functional team that includes HR, IT, designers, and learning scientists
  • Schedule a debrief after the training to reinforce the instruction with the team lead as the facilitator
  • Create tools and templates for easier script writing and content collaboration
  • Include VR as part of a hybrid curriculum that includes classroom and e-learning

The report authors found that VR is ideal for practicing soft skills in a safe environment, e-learning is good for learning how to use software, and classroom training is a good fit for topics that require collaboration and discussion.
The PwC team has reduced the course development timeline from 10 months down to three months since the start of the project.

Calculating the cost of developing VR training

In addition to measuring the effectiveness of v-learning, the PwC team calculated the ROI of the investment. The PwC team included 25 variables in the ROI calculation and had more than 28 different calculations to determine the overall return on investment. PwC found that these factors influenced the cost of v-learning:

  • Cost of facilitation
  • The number of locations needed to conduct training
  • The number of employees needing training
  • The fully loaded cost of each employee to be trained
  • How quickly the employees needed to be trained

The report authors found that "while VR requires more upfront investment to build and deploy than classroom or e-learn training, when delivered to enough learners VR training can be more cost-effective at scale."
Building VR training courses is more expensive due in part to the need for 3D artists and software developers, which aren't required for traditional classroom or e-learning content.
PwC found that with 375 learners, VR training is similar in cost to classroom training and at 1,950 learners, VR training hit cost parity with e-learning programs.
The key to a positive ROI is scale, but the time required to complete the training is also a factor because "the faster an employee can return to work, the faster you can achieve a positive ROI."

Managing the hardware

The PwC team used the Oculus for Business platform in part because it had a remote management component. The software allowed the team to turn on and off specific features, manage access, monitor the health of the device, and control which applications were loaded on the Oculus Quests. The study team sanitized the HMDs after each use.

The team deployed six headsets per location and expects to increase the inventory over time as more content is onboarded.
As of February 2020, the learning team has 250 HMDs across 25 locations and can host a one-hour training simulation for up to 2,000 PwC partners and staff a day, and train the 55,000 partners and staff in the US firm in less than five weeks.  

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...