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Face-to-face communication has always been the core of many workplaces – unfortunately this took a 180 degree turn when the pandemic came. This interaction was now discouraged, and anywhere that human contact could be minimized or prevented would be adjusted accordingly. Since the way we work has changed, studies have shown that there is now a preference to work remotely as compared to in-person.
Harvard Business School Online surveyed 1,500 people, most of whom felt that working remotely was actually beneficial to their careers. Another survey of 1,800 conducted by The Straits Times in Singapore also had similar findings, with 8 out of 10 supporting work-from-home practices. It seems like the pandemic has brought about a larger number of workers in favour of adopting this new way of working as the ‘norm’.
This is where virtual reality (VR) in the workplace comes into play, changing the way we work and interact with the people and spaces around us. With employees’ attitudes toward work changing, why not adopt solutions to satisfy this while also making operations more efficient?
A crucial part of retail is learning to deal with unusual circumstances, such as an armed robbery, which many may not know how to appropriately respond to. Working with Strivr, wireless network operator Verizon engaged VR for emergency scenario training for employees - namely presenting them with a robbery simulation.
Doing this through VR meant that employees could be trained without actually physically putting them in a (constructed) dangerous situation, while still triggering a stress response within the employees. This ensures that employees are put in a training simulation as close as possible to a real-life one, so that they are sufficiently prepared when faced with the unlikely scenario.
Proving the effectiveness of Verizon’s training program, employees who have gone through robberies in real life state that the simulation is very close to the actual situation, says head of learning and development Lou Tedrick. On Strivr’s website, it is shown that a whopping 97% of staff members who went through the program felt more prepared to face such perilous situations. In less than 6 months, there was even a 10% increase in customer satisfaction.
In similar fashion, on the opposite side of the globe Japan’s FamilyMart partnered with VR company InstaVR to help provide a virtual training programme for employees in 2020, including covering store operations. To test the effectiveness of using VR, they studied two groups of employees - one trained in person and one trained through VR. It was found that training time to grasp the material provided was reduced by an average of 30 hours in the VR group.
To enhance the programme’s accessibility, the training material can be translated into six different languages - useful for employees that may be more comfortable with learning in a language that might be their native.
On InstaVR’s page detailing the project, it recognises the usefulness of using VR for such a scenario in a time of COVID-19, since it reduces face-to-face interactions between the teachers and students (employees). It also helps reduce the hours demanded from teachers, taking some load off their shoulders regarding the training programme.
During the pandemic, companies were mostly operating remotely, and many used video conferencing sites like Zoom and Skype to hold meetings and social events for employees. However, a year into work-from-home practices, these virtual meetups start to get mundane and tiring (see: Zoom fatigue).
To help alleviate this, two companies have tried to change up the meeting environment – of course without the need for employees to leave the comfort of their homes. Payroll company Remote and PR firm Tyto have both tried using VR with their respective teams, as an alternative meeting platform to the usual suspects. Providing employees with VR headsets, they use the platform Rec Room, which is available not exclusively for VR use but for handphones and computers too.
However, noted are the flaws in using this technology in place of real-life interactions. While the use of Rec Room does help to stimulate social interactions similar to those in a physical office space, it is still less effective when it comes to work meetings, in aspects like it being harder to put up presentation slides as compared to say, Zoom. A dual-platform approach might still be needed to create an effective virtual work environment.
Rec Room isn’t to be underestimated though, with a recent funding round valuing the company at $1.25 billion, with the pandemic likely being a factor that led to its high number.
Recently acquired by Apple, Spaces is a company focused on bringing VR onto video conferencing sites, such as Zoom and Skype which have been popular especially during the pandemic. The software creates an avatar for everyone, making presenting via these platforms more like real-life presentations, and also making it more engaging.
One example is it’s whiteboard feature. In real-life, having to squeeze yourself and a whiteboard into the frame of the video call while ensuring that the whiteboard’s content is visible to other call participants can be hard. Spaces helped improve on this, so that presenters will no longer need to worry about their video call setting and constantly have to readjust the environment they are in.
However, since the acquisition by Apple, Spaces’ website is no longer available for public access - and so sadly none of us can newly experience it by now. According to Variety’s report on the deal, Apple “confirmed the purchase but declined to comment further (as is its usual policy)”. Seems like it will all be on the down-low for now.
Hopefully, as it is now in Apple’s hands, we can expect to see it surface in the market again within the next few years - especially since video conferencing platforms are unlikely to leave us anytime soon.
While some of the above case studies show VR implementation in the workplace before the COVID-19 pandemic, they are easily suited for the present circumstances – and the future. VR is known to be especially favourable given that there are little real-world consequences, which makes processes like training less daunting in sectors like retail.
On the topic of cost, as of now VR hardware is still quite expensive - particularly when we look at smaller companies - and creating the personalized software to go with it is too, thus VR in the workplace might still have a slow uptake as companies have to allocate sufficient budget towards a VR initiative.
However, a 2020 study by PwC suggests that while this may be true, in the long run VR is more cost-effective as compared to traditional learning methods. This leads to a faster time to reach a positive return on investment (ROI), which of course, who wouldn’t want?
Another consideration when integrating VR into workplaces to ensure its sustainability and welcome among workers is likely issues with safety. With the remote and distant nature of VR, sexual harassment can become even easier. According to a survey conducted in 2016 by The Extended Mind and Pluto VR, 49% of female respondents and 36% of male respondents reported sexual harassment while using VR. Companies who wish to bring VR into the picture should be aware of this and provide appropriate channels to help counter this.
Lastly, while new technology is always enticing to adopt, do recognise that not all workplace scenarios are suited for VR use, as some are better done through tactile functions.
Perhaps the pandemic has shown remote working as a viable alternative, and so utilising VR is the future of working, since it seems to make certain workplaces more efficient.