Place a worker from 30 years ago in an office today and they would probably feel like they had been dropped in an alien world. This presents brand new challenges for managers supporting their employees in the modern workplace – a challenge that is understandably significantly heightened when it comes to HR managers.
The big data boom of the last 10 years has led to a number of solutions to the age-old problem of people managing. And two of these are making serious headway in changing the way we approach HR practices: AI and virtual reality (VR). Currently, 88% of companies worldwide use some form of AI in their HR practices, according to consulting firm Mercer's Global Talent Trends 2019. Meanwhile, a number of organizations across the world, NASA included, have begun to implement VR into their training regime.
DATAx spoke with Kyle Jackson, CEO of Talespin, a company at the forefront of this HR revolution with its brand new virtual human technology for training the workplace of tomorrow.
Using VR and AI to develop empathy skills
"Our virtual human technology puts users in a VR environment where they can practice challenging workplace conversations with emotionally realistic AI characters," Jackson explains. "The characters convey emotions, use speech recognition and natural language processing (NLP) to listen and converse and feature thousands of unique conversation paths for users to navigate."
The goal is to provide increasingly digital workforces the chance to practice soft skills – "like empathy and communication" – with measurable results and actionable feedback.
"It's revolutionary because it is the first time we are using technology (AI, VR, game engines and analytics) to measure and improve interpersonal skills," Jackson tells us. For example, in one of the simulations, employees are tasked with firing a virtual employee, 'Barry'.
Ask any manager what their least favorite part of their role is, and more often than not they will reply that it is having to let go of employees. It certainly does not help that this is a difficult situation for individuals to prepare and train for.
This was one of the factors that propelled the creation of Talespin."If we could make a VR termination feel real, and show people where they made mistakes, or successfully navigated the scenario, then we knew we were on the right track," says Jackson. "Hundreds of hours of testing in Fortune 100 innovation labs and learning and development team demos later, and we're into virtual human deployments for client use cases ranging from sales training to delivering critical feedback and coaching and mentoring.
"Our goal with this technology is to give people a safe place to fail and practice conversations that are normally difficult to simulate, and in turn, giving them a baseline of confidence and experience to help them prepare for real workplace conversations," he explains. "Before these technologies, there was no way to realistically practice a situation like an employee termination or giving a colleague critical feedback. Now employees can simulate these stressful professional situations and build confidence before facing the real thing."
Training employees in fun virtual worlds
The use of VR training is on the rise. It helps that a recent SuperData study found that companies adopting augmented reality (AR is VR's sister technology in which virtual objects and characters are placed directly into our real world) and VR-based training could save as much as $13.5bn in costs incurred by traditional training across multiple industries. That is before we even touch upon the human side of the technology, and the second we consider that we see that there is another key element to it: Fun.
"VR and AR also add a layer of gamification to job training, making it more entertaining and engaging while encouraging repetition and continuous learning," says Jackson. "These learning tools offer employees a clear path to developing skills and enable them to engage more deeply with their own career development."
Job training is more effective when an element of gamification has been included, especially in our highly-digital, highly-connected world where workers attention has never been more difficult to hold. A Udemy's survey recently reported that nearly 70% of workers feel distracted when they're on the job, with 16% admitting that they're almost always distracted. Engagement is something that HR departments struggle to integrate into the – often repetitive – real-world training all employees occasionally need to take part in.
"When your training comes in the form of a video game with virtual versions of real-world tools and virtual humans that represent customers, vendors and colleagues, you walk away with experience that feels real and the opportunity to go back and 'replay' your training," points out Jackson. "We're creating virtual experiences that are realistic enough to give people real confidence, and a playbook for carrying out their jobs in the real world."
So, what does the future workplace look like with technologies like this effortlessly throwing the concept of 'business as usual' out the window? Jackson predicts that VR specifically will help limit friction in the workplace, especially since, for the first time ever, five generations are now rubbing shoulders day-to-day.
"This new model will facilitate more efficient and effective skill development, which helps people as they move between teams, encounter more diversity, shift departments or projects and deal with organizational and technological change," he concludes.
"Ultimately, VR and AR have the potential to transition us from being unprepared and nervous about the constant state of change to embracing change as a comfortable new steady state. Organizations are a living and breathing thing, and technology that lowers communication barriers and fosters collaboration can improve employee satisfaction while delivering better results for the business."