Why Use VR for Soft-Skills Interpersonal Training?

One of the use cases we’ve seen a rise in demand for using Virtual Reality (VR) with is in and around the subject of soft-skills, interpersonal training within organisations. Many clients have worked with us to explore and deploy VR training solutions at scale, including Vodafone, Lloyds Banking Group and Severn Trent, to name a few.

What is it about VR that makes it a great technology for delivering soft-skills training, as part of a wider blended solution? We’ll look at some of the reasons below but first, let’s look at some of the common issues with delivering soft-skills training currently.

The Trouble With Traditional

Soft-skills training is nothing new and has taken many forms over the years, as organisations realise the need to improve interpersonal skills within teams and for dealing with clients, customers and each other. As more emphasis is placed upon empathic management and improved mental health and well-being awareness of ourselves and one another, various schools of thought have appeared, risen in popularity or been discredited.

Without focusing on any specific topics, the general methods of delivering soft-skills haven’t changed much, which is where VR can bring about positive change and enhancements. Some of the common friction points around delivering soft-skills training could include:

  • Ability to scale – quite often, cost savings associated with delivering training sessions only apply when a critical mass or scale of training can be deployed, with a required percentage of employees reached. Traditionally soft-skills training is delivered in small groups or with one-to-one, face-to-face training, making scale impossible to achieve without additional, ongoing costs.
  • Subjectivity of feedback – soft-skills training by its very nature is a very human orientated process, understandably so, but much of the feedback and learning outcomes are based upon subjective interpretation of learner performance, rather than objective metrics and measurement.
  • Desire to partake – learners are often unwilling or less enthusiastic about undertaking soft-skills training, either through embarrassment at having to carry out roleplay scenarios, or perform within a group session, with the feeling that it is a requirement rather than a desire, based around an organisational tickbox. Similarly many will feel that it is a waste of time as they feel they already know how to communicate.
  • Consistency of learning – when multiple sessions are run concurrently in order to improve reach and scale, or when human actors are employed to provide the one-to-one roleplay, performances can vary of the course of a day and as a result, learners may not always feel they are getting the same experience, outcomes or depth of training that their colleagues received. Similarly, with inconsistent training, measurement and metrics becomes fuzzy and validation and ROI becomes hard to measure effectively against learning KPIs set out for the L&D teams leaders.
  • Confidence of learners – many of these other friction points lead to learners not feeling confident about applying the outcomes of the training to real world scenarios, or feel it is easier to carry on as normal and stick with methods of communication they know and are comfortable with.

Utilising VR for Soft-Skills Training

Of course, as with everything as we always clearly state, VR is *not* a magic bullet, it will not solve all the pain points listed above in one fell swoop just by integrating it (and be wary of others who tell you otherwise), but it can greatly reduce many of them and enhance your training in other ways, all of which culminate in a collection of benefits and advantages (when applied to valid use cases).

Working with Lloyds Banking Group, who first approached us in 2017 to challenge us to highlight to them how VR could be used for soft-skills training, has allowed us to go on a journey of discovery, user testing, refinement and iterative improvements over a number of applications, which they have now deployed across the organisation of 175,000+ employees.

Starting with a proof-of concept, based upon existing training material on difficult conversations, we were able to quickly and for relatively low costs, determine the use case and validation of VR for such training. This led onto the 1st larger piece Personal Vitality + Resilience, increasing depth, outcomes and complexity of the experience. This allowed them to achieve immediate and long-term cost savings and see the employee adoption of soft-skills training improve, with a waiting list for self-learning content appear for the first time.

To help scale and widen deployment, we worked with Lloyds Banking Group and the Oculus for Business team to onboard them as customers, enabling them to control and determine their own hardware device requirements and allocation. Having quickly dismissed Oculus Rift and PC VR setups as being too unwieldy, with a high faff factor, LBG adopted Oculus Go and Quests to scale up with.

With over 200 devices currently deployed around their 6 main, nationwide learning centres for employees, further soft-skills training courses were signed-off and developed for deployment, further increasing complexity and depth of the learning experience and outcomes, as well as the range and coverage of employees and relevant teams to carry out the training. Relationship Management currently covers 4 main topics of soft-skills training and is deployed across 5 departments.

This increase in complexity has seen learning scripts increase in scope, which in turn increases the branching narrative logic pathways. From proof-of-concept (15 lines) to PV+R (150 lines) to Relationship Management (1,500), we have had to create our own internal toolsets to make that script-to-screen pipeline process more straight-forward, less time-consuming and easier for designers and developers alike. Similarly, as the depth of the narrative increases, so does our own and clients’ desire to see more human responses from the 3D animated characters.

Whilst a shorter experience, the recently deployed ‘Coaching Intervention‘ soft-skills VR training experience on Oculus Go, brings in other psychological and counselling techniques such as Transactional Analysis, to help team managers recognise child/adult/parent ego states and how to work with colleagues to reach adult-to-adult conversations.

There has long been a fear within traditional eLearning that 3D is expensive, takes time and difficult to get right. Thankfully the toolchains and processes themselves have improved over the years, as have the options at capturing and animating human characters but we have also been able to improve and create our own through readily available hardware like iPhone mobile devices with depth cameras, allowing us to live link VoiceOver Artist facial animation capture direct to their 3D characters at time of recording, or HTC Vive Trackers providing full body motion capture at a low cost, all of which we can pass onto our clients and partners.

As a result of these refinements and improvements to our own processes, we have now created our own toolchain called Dialogic to incorporate into future soft-skills interpersonal VR training learning experiences.


Empathy & Embodiment

The term “empathy machine” has been attributed to VR many times over the recent years, stemming from the 2015 TEDx talk by Chris Milk. Here he borrowed and applied the term Roger Ebert used to describe film, to Virtual Reality storytelling. Certainly, his first 360º film ‘Clouds Over Sidra’ switched a number of people onto the potential power of immersive storytelling, winning many awards and sparked a lot of debate over empathy Vs. sympathy and what the viewer was actually feeling. A VR headset of any kind can be used to watch the 360º video experience via the YouTube app and draw your own conclusions.

Whilst this film opened up many avenues and created a number of similar immersive stories as a new way for charities to connect with fundraisers, being non-interactive 360º video, it suffered from the Patrick Swayze effect, where viewers were metaphorical ghosts unable to partake or impact the outcome of the narrative in any way.

A key connector to soft-skills training however is this empathy possibility, where viewers are put into the shoes of someone else (partly due to the nature of the first-person viewpoint typically provided by VR experiences) and are quite literally able to experience the world through another person’s eyes, whether it be 360º video or fully rendered 3D computer graphics.

Through this sense of agency, by providing an element of interaction and decision, then the viewer becomes an active participant in the narrative, impacting and affecting the outcome based upon their specific behaviours and choices made (entirely linked to the scenario and options logic programmed into the training experience of course).

When tied to soft-skills training, this virtual roleplay can enable learning outcomes without the typically awkwardness of doing it in the real world, either through being able to self-study in isolation, or that at the time, the experience is only being played out and visible to the learner, rather than the whole group audience. (We can of course talk about multi-user group experiences but quite often, single learner experiences are the norm.)

This is why when asked, we often describe the ‘Working at Height‘ experience we created for Vodafone as falling within this category. Whilst it does take the learner through the process of understanding the correct Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), raising awareness of risks and hazards, and actually climbing up a rooftop-mounted mobile phone mast, it is not specifically designed to train people how to do that in the real world. The actual intended audience and learners are the managers of these maintenance teams, to help them empathise with their crews around the challenges and dangers of the job, or the importance of correctly working PPE, so that everyone is looking out for health, safety and well-being of the workforce, to meet the global push to reduce fatalities on the job, following their mantra of “Work Safe, Home Safe”.

Similarly, our diversity and inclusion immersive learning experience ‘D&I: Perspectives VR‘ enables learners to spend some time in the shoes of an employee living with unseen disabilities or experiencing one of the many microaggressions unconsciously demonstrated by work colleagues towards one another. Created in partnership with one of the leading global financial institutions HR department, D&IPVR mixes a blend of 3D imagery, stereoscopic actor capture and a unique provision of traditional 2D illustrated animation in VR, to provide characters, personas and situations based upon real-world stories, such as being the only woman in the room, living with hidden disabilities or being a care provider for an elderly parent.

When learners are embodied within a virtual avatar, either as a representation of themselves or another person or even creature, more powerful influence and outcomes can be achieved through record and playback, as well as the “seeing the world through another’s eyes” aspect. Early research by Mel Slater and more recent talks look at the possibilities of the benefits of using VR and embodiment of virtual avatars and the outcomes of putting learners into another’s shoes, or being able to record and playback a learner’s voice within a scenario based upon swapping bodies to see and hear another’s viewpoint, even if they have just recorded it themselves based upon what they believe or wish it to be.

This is the approach we took with the Severn Trent Coaching VR training experience deployed earlier in 2020. By allowing the learner to change places between the characters and having their previous choices played back to them from the alternative viewpoint, whilst hearing the internal monologue of the character/s, they are able to better understand and feel the outcomes of how they chose to convey specific communications styles and their impact.


Impact of VR Soft-Skills Training

Studies and research shows the benefits of integrating immersive learning experiences delivered via VR into your blended training approach as follows:

  • Learner “superpowers” – Gives learners enhanced capabilities, tools and confidence
  • Reduced time to train – Learning objectives can be delivered in shorter sessions anywhere
  • Reduced costs to train – Learners do not need access to real world assets or travel for training
  • Reduced risks of training – Virtual scenarios allow safe fail states without real world repercussion
  • Improved training scenarios – Edge cases and greater depth of interaction and involvement
  • Greater knowledge retention – Learn by doing, building up muscle memory
  • Deeper formed memories – Greater number of senses involved with learning
  • Greater memory recall – Greater knowledge retention and deeper memories to draw upon later
  • Repeatable – Virtual simulations can be easily replayed and repeated or customised
  • Consistent – Many forms of traditional training suffer from consistency of training where humans are involved to provide the same level of quality over and over

However we wanted to discover the data behind these claims, so set about to find any many publicly available studies and papers available to compile into our own report. Download our report now to see how the statistics show VR can benefit training and read our findings and conclusion on what these metrics mean.

But don’t just take our word for it – PwC recently released a report into months of research they carried out, looking specifically at the impact of VR for soft-skills training with some specific quantified metrics and outcomes, which should give many the confidence to embrace Virtual Reality for training in general, as well as interpersonal training. They looked at the effectiveness of VR training compared to traditional eLearning and virtual learning. You can read it for yourselves on the PwC website.

Get in touch with us if you would like to know more and learn how our immersive learning experiences based upon VR training can help you and your organisation provide measurable successes for delivering interpersonal soft-skills training, whilst saving your training budget for a solution that doesn’t cost the earth.



Get in touch

We’re always happy to talk to you about how immersive technologies can engage your employees and customers. If you have a learning objective in mind, or simply want to know more about emerging technologies like VR, AR, or AI, send us a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.