XR in HR: AR/VR for a Different Kind of Training in the Workplace

A report released last year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) contained some shocking findings:

  • 45% of harassment claims made to the EEOC are sex-based.
  • At least one in four women experience sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Around 90% of employees who experience harassment – whether sexual or on the basis of age, disability, nationality, race or religion – do not file a formal complaint.
  • 75% of victims who do report harassment experience retaliation.

The bottom line

Every year, sexual and other types of harassment cost companies dearly in time and money. According to the Center for American Progress, workplace discrimination costs businesses approximately $64 billion annually. Hostile work environments also negatively impact productivity, contribute to high turnover, and harm a company’s reputation. And it’s not just harassment. According to McKinsey, unconscious bias is a 12 trillion-dollar issue, which means we could add $12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025 by ‘simply’ advancing gender parity and diversity in the workplace. Gartner finds that inclusivity is profitable, especially at the executive level—inclusive companies outperform industry standards by 35%, generate 2.3 times more cash flow per employee, and produce 1.4 times more revenue. Evidently, diversity pays in money, innovation, decision making, and recruitment.

In compliance with federal and state laws, Fortune 500 companies and startups alike spend more than $8 billion on anti-harassment and diversity training each year. Nevertheless, the above stats are not improving; in fact, at current rates, it will take over a century to achieve gender equality in the workplace. Lab studies show that today’s methods for diversity training can change a person’s attitude for only about 30 minutes and can actually activate a person’s bias. Harvard studies of decades’ worth of data back this up, showing that diversity training is largely ineffective and even counterproductive.

Corporate diversity programs are failing. Harassment training at work is not making an impact. Only 3% of Fortune 500 companies today disclose full diversity data, while 24% of employees say their superiors fail to challenge sexist language and behavior in the office. What to do?

Current methods

Most onsite sexual harassment training consists of a speaker, video and/or awkward roleplaying. There are also classroom-style slide presentations, seminars, written content, and online courses. In other words, traditional corporate harassment prevention training is pretty lackluster and unlikely to end a culture of enabling harassers and dismissing victims’ claims. It’s now standard for employers to offer anti-harassment and discrimination training, but bias training for hiring and performance reviews is less common. This is a serious weakness, for employees who don’t understand their bias don’t know when that bias influences critical business decisions.

A better way

Virtual reality is gaining traction in enterprise for job training, especially for industrial environments. Studies show that people are quicker to understand abstract concepts and retain information longer in immersive environments compared to traditional training methods. Used by professional sports players and manufacturing workers alike, VR can create muscle memory (ex. operating heavy machinery) and simulate an infinite number of real-world customer service scenarios (soft skills training), but can the technology change attitudes?

Stanford researchers have been studying the impact of VR on human behavior and the medium’s ability to inspire empathy. In a recent study, they found that VR is more effective than our imagination for combating inter-generational bias. Because VR requires less cognitive load yet feels real, it encouraged subjects of the study with negative group attitudes to adopt the point of view of the “other.” If VR can affect cognitive behavior at the heart of real social issues, it suggests a profound tool for changing workplace culture.

The first time you can actually walk in someone else’s shoes – real uses cases of VR for anti-harassment and unconscious bias training

NFL

In 2016, the NFL turned to Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab in an effort to confront racism and sexism in the league, which struggles to retain women and minorities in leadership positions. The Lab had been developing scenarios designed to unsettle the user and engender empathy. The NFL wanted to use these scenarios with league staffers and players, to put them in the role of the victim. In one scenario or virtual simulation tested by the NFL, the user’s avatar was that of an African American woman being angrily harassed by a white avatar. When the user would reflexively lift his arms in self-defense, what he saw was his “own” black skin.

Equal Reality

In 2017, Equal Reality gained attention for its VR unconscious bias training. Unconscious bias is the most universal and stifling barrier to women’s progress in the workplace. Examples of unconscious bias towards women are reflected in findings such as:

  • Female employees negotiate as often as men but face pushback when they do
  • Female employees get less access to senior leaders and mentors
  • Female employees ask for feedback as often as men but are less likely to receive it than their male counterparts

Equal Reality develops virtual simulations, in this case workplace scenarios in which users interact, taking on multiple perspectives in order to learn to identify examples of pervasive bias as well as more subtle discriminatory behaviors. In 2018, realizing that paid actors and ordering a bunch of sailors to sit in a classroom and talk about behavior were doing nothing, the Royal Australian Navy adopted Equal Reality’s solution. Wearing a headset and holding two controllers, sailors are able to experience what it’s like to be in a wheelchair, treated differently and excluded from workplace conversation because of one’s disability.

Through My Eyes

In April of this year, BCT Partners and Red Fern Consulting announced a VR program called Through My Eyes, which trains employees to recognize unconscious bias through virtual scenarios. In one simulation, the user is a bystander, observing how bias plays out in different situations. In another, the user is one of the characters in the scene. Users’ choices and reactions in the virtual environment generate data, which is fed back to them and used to customize the training to each individual.

Vantage Point

Two-time survivor Morgan Mercer started the VR corporate training platform Vantage Point, which takes VR beyond simple roleplaying to illustrate the subtleties of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, the user’s response to each situation in Vantage Point changes how the scenario plays out. The scenes involve a lot of grey area and are designed to teach both men and women communal accountability. In one simulation, the user’s talking with four coworkers, one female and three male, about an upcoming conference in Las Vegas. Trying to discuss her presentation and noticeably uncomfortable as the men begin to engage in locker room banter, the woman is suddenly grabbed by her boss who tells her to “pack something fitting.” Depending on how you, a witness, respond, the narrative either escalates or deescalates.

In another simulation of a colleague’s going-away party, a male coworker approaches the new female manager taking over the position. The user must grapple with what’s acceptable and what’s not, what’s a joke and what crosses the line, and when charisma becomes chauvinism. In the end, he or she must make a choice between speaking up or calling HR.

Vantage Point has three training modules: Bystander intervention, identification of sexual harassment, and responding to harassment when it happens to you. Last year, Tala (a fintech startup) and Justworks (the payroll platform) piloted the technology. In addition, Mercer draws on scientific research to develop best practice guidelines for the solution, which she hopes will become the standard for sexual harassment training. Though it’s too soon for any hard statistics, Vantage Point is receiving a lot of interest from investors and Fortune 500 companies alike.

Protecting workers

VR doesn’t tell you how to behave; it places you in the proverbial shoes of another, compelling you to empathize with that person because it feels like whatever is happening is happening to you. Doctors today are using VR to better understand the patient experience and improve their bedside manner. Further proof of the technology’s power is its use in PTSD treatment programs and transition programs for soon-to-be-released prisoners. In enterprise, anti-discrimination and harassment training doesn’t have to be a box checked off by HR; with VR, this training might actually end real-world harassment and boost company performance.

 

Image source: Equal Reality

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and early confirmed speakers, to come on the conference website.

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