Listen here for an excerpt from Chad Astmann's recent podcast on virtual reality in the workplace:

Click to read audio transcript

[Speaker: Chad Astmann]

Hello and welcome to another podcast mini-series. I'm your host, Chad Astmann. I'm a senior partner at Korn Ferry and I'm an excited observer of the exciting ways advanced technology is impacting human capital management. Thank you for joining me on today's episode where we will be exploring the metaverse and the potential implications it might have on the world of work. And here to discuss today's topic, I'm delighted to be joined by Sarah Birdsell, who is a leader on the executive management team at Meta. Okay, so let's jump straight in.

[Speaker: Sarah Birdsell]

When we think about these immersive connections, it's not about replacing that human connection that we get when we're physically together, right? There's nothing better than sitting together with your team in person. But what we've learned so quickly for the last couple of years is that, that can't always be possible, and it shouldn't always be possible. And we need to think about new ways to attract talent and to bring people together. And the other end of the spectrum has been, of course, the you know, head and shoulders view or the Brady Bunch view, connecting people together as well. And that's good to a certain extent, and that's good for some meetings still, but you know, there's that middle ground of a product like Workrooms, where you can high-five your colleagues without having to travel to be there, where you can whiteboard together. And so that collaboration one, I would say, or virtual meetings is a little bit more on the emerging front.

Where we're seeing people really drill into on the early adoption phases of their organization journey is learning development. So, driving home the need to focus and invest in their people and bring that to life. And I'll share with you two different types of stories of customers that we're working with. One would be a Hilton Hotel.

Hilton built training so that their head office employees could understand and learn what it was like to be a frontline worker. So that empathy training for executives, everything from, “how do I deliver room service carts” to interacting at the front desk during a check-in process. So, they built something for their head office employees, but as a way to create that connection with their distributed employee workforce.

Another example has been Walmart. So, Walmart now has trained over a million of their global customer service employees through virtual reality. And what they found is that two components. So first being they were able to get a full 60-minute training course delivered in 20 minutes because you're able to do active role playing and you're able to really engage in different types of senses.

The second part to that is when you're engaging in those different types of senses, you put on that headset, there's a little bit of tension that you get, you know, the nerves kind of rally up a little bit and it replicates that real life interaction experience. So, the stickiness of the training and their ability for them to replicate those skills they've learned was stronger. And so, they're looking at this from a, how do you train your frontline in a scalable way, that makes it far more impactful?

Our priority for us is making sure that we have avatars that represent how people want to be represented. Whether that's a wheelchair, whether it's cochlear ear implants, anything that's part of their identity has to be there in order for them to feel belonging in their organization. But also really interestingly enough, when you think about other forms of identity, there's a lot of mixed research about what people are looking for. So, you know, we see, for example, someone who may be an amputee. In some cases, they want that represented because that's them. In other cases, they don't necessarily want that representation to be as accurate as their true self, true physical self. And so, I would say the first part about inclusivity is identity and making sure that that's really important as well. But also thinking about what are those other ways that you can attract talent that may have some barriers today.

So, for example, can you have cameras on the virtual reality headset, pick up ASL and translate that into captions for someone else? So there's a lot of organizations that are really leaning into that and a lot of emerging technology that's helping to cross those boundaries and make sure that everyone has a place.

Does this enable us to cross boundaries, blur boundaries, and have people become engaged and connected with people regardless of where they're at, whether it be their home office or if they chose to commute? Absolutely. I think one of the magical things is, you know, if you go back to that, the Brady Bunch view of work, we've all been on calls where all of a sudden someone turns off their camera or shows up at a meeting and their camera's not on. And our human reaction is, well, maybe they're not engaged, right? Maybe they're just not interested in this meeting so they're not even gonna bother turning the camera on when everyone else has their camera on.

The reality, of course, is maybe that person's feeling under the weather that day, or they've got a sick child at home, or there's just laundry piled behind them and they're not comfortable. And so the ability for someone to put on a headset and have their avatar be there with them, for them to always show up in the best way that they want to show up, even though they may be working in their pajamas, is pretty special.

There's a lot of things that we're discovering in this space. Organizations are having questions about does my dress code policy apply to avatars? Is it appropriate for someone to maybe be a little bit more business formal on a physical event, but then they can show up in a virtual meeting and maybe a more casual t-shirt? And so those conversations are things that we need to mentally get our heads around and understand things like…

What is the appropriate body language for your avatar? Maybe when you walk into a meeting, you may be more of a handshake type personality, but are you going to be okay with a high-fiving avatar? And so what does that look like? So I think there's a lot that's happening in that space from a research perspective to understand what are those right behaviors and that perception about does something need to be different in a virtual environment than a physical environment?

The other part of course is, is what does that avatar look like? Today I would say our avatars are a little bit more on the cartoon side of the spectrum. They're coming a long way and certainly the types of cameras and the headsets make a difference too. The Quest Pro has a different type of camera that's going to pick up your facial expressions and that level of detail about how your face moves when you talk is different than an older version of your hardware device.

But what does that representation look like? Do we need to make sure that our identity and our avatars are updated to reflect who we are today versus our aspirational selves? And so, things like our Codec camera research that we're doing where we're creating research-based avatars that identify all the nooks and crannies of our facial experience so that when we roll our eyes and make those faces in meetings, that level of detail picks up. I think so for me, identity and making sure the level of accuracy shows up is going to be super key.

My last parting thoughts and challenge to everyone is continue to be curious. It is a space that is constantly evolving, and you know, it's always interesting to lean in and learn about what every organization is doing. Almost every organization has an aspect of VR that they are working with. So, continue, continue to be curious. Things are constantly developing and it's all for the betterment of all of us.


We’re all familiar with “Zoom fatigue,” but could the metaverse be a viable alternative?

From AI to VR, technology is rapidly upending traditional approaches to employee engagement. While AI is primed for immediate use in the workplace, barriers to widespread VR applications remain. Costs, technology hurdles, data security, and physical side effects, like eye strain are challenges. Yet while some people feel AI is minimizing human connections, the benefits of the metaverse—the ability to interact in 3D environments where people feel immersed in the action—remain an enticing possibility for many organizations focused on employee well-being.

The future of virtual reality in the workplace includes practical applications for employee training, engagement and connection—and could one day make video calls as dated as dial-up.

Let’s meet in the Metaverse

First, a quick primer on the metaverse. To join this immersive reality, individuals wear a headset that helps the brain have a true physical experience in the virtual world. Just like meeting in real life, when you meet someone in VR, you reach out your physical hand to shake their hand. If you’re in a large meeting and want to have a private conversation with someone, you get up and walk to the side. Your body is moving within this physical space. That’s a big difference from a video call room, made up of co-workers squinting into their computer cameras, toggling their mics on and off.

The metaverse isn’t replacing in-person connection anytime soon. But when being together in person isn’t possible or practical–especially for geographically dispersed remote teams –the metaverse may be the next best thing.

“As companies continue to bridge the gap between in-person and remote teams, keeping employees connected is critical,” says Chad Astmann, Senior Partner at Korn Ferry. “A VR headset levels the playing field by bringing everyone into a shared experience. Right now, early adopters are focused on learning development and employee training.”

VR in the workplace: What global organizations are doing

On his podcast, Astmann recently discussed how organizations use VR for employee training, particularly how a global hotel brand uses the metaverse for head office employee empathy training. The goal is for head office employees to understand the frontline employee experience, covering everything from front desk check-in to delivering room service carts.

Similarly, a major retailor has now trained over one million of its global customer service employees with virtual reality. As an example, the VR training currently being utilized in Walmart offers teams two key benefits. First, employees can cover more content faster since they are actively role playing versus passively absorbing training manuals. Second, the content was is “stickier”, making a longer-lasting impression on employees by allowing them to practice the skills in the moment in hyper-realistic scenarios.

Meet your VR workplace avatar

What do employees look like to one another in the metaverse? This is a question that organizations are exploring, particularly when it comes to representation and inclusivity.

The goal is for an avatar to show people the way they wish to be represented. For example, if an employee uses a wheelchair, they should have the option to be shown with one. There are also additional opportunities for inclusion. A camera on a virtual reality headset can pick up ASL and translate that into captions for someone else, helping people be more engaged and connected.

Unlike a video call where employees have the option to turn their camera off, the metaverse requires everyone to have an avatar.

“On a video call if someone turns off their camera, there’s a perception they’re not engaged or focused on the meeting,” says Astmann. “Of course, the reality may be that person isn’t feeling well or didn’t have a chance to be dressed as professionally as they might like. In the metaverse, everyone has an avatar. It levels the playing field. The employee can still show up as their best self, even if they’re sitting at their desk in sweatpants.”

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Overcoming barriers to entry

Costs, a negative user experience, and integration hurdles are three primary barriers to VR adoption in the workplace. Today’s VR technology has already come a long way in a short time, and industry leaders are continuing to make rapid leaps forward for user experience and comfort. But not all employees are on board yet.

“If someone only tried a headset once for gaming or entertainment, they may remember a clunky and uncomfortable experience, or even have felt sick after extended use,” says Astmann. “User experience is improving dramatically, but companies will still have to counter these lingering perception problems.”

Another challenge: like any new technology, there’s a natural concern about how VR will change human interaction. But just like with video calls, VR won’t replace the importance of human-to-human interaction in a real physical space.

One thing that’s helping: overall costs are continuing to decline. Prices for entry-level headsets, for example, are continuing to fall. This makes it more affordable for companies to experiment with the technology and help employees experience the benefits.

Looking ahead: The future of virtual reality

From engaging workforce training to more genuine virtual connections, the metaverse offers an array of opportunities, but are employees interested?

A study of 1,500 employers in the U.S. conducted by ExpressVPN found that 3 in 5 employees and 4 in 5 employers are interested in an immersive workforce. The potential is there, but companies need to be willing to experiment.

“While many people have tried VR headsets, they’ve done so in the context of gaming and entertainment, so bringing VR to the professional world can seem like a leap,” says Astmann. “As people become more familiar and confident using VR, the benefits of an immersive experience over a flat 2D video call will be clear.”

Organizations can start by identifying use cases for implementation and set up internal trials for employee feedback. Static, passive experiences—like employee training— are ripe for transformation. Like any new technology, VR is a tool, not a magic bullet. In addition to investing in new tech, organizations must also invest in their people to unleash their true potential.

Curious about what’s next for VR, AI and how advanced technology is impacting human capital management? Find related articles here, or contact one of our experts. 

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