Long reads

How augmented reality is infiltrating the world of HR

20 Feb 2020 By Sarah Ronan

No longer just reserved for computer games, virtual and augmented reality are moving away from the gimmick and fast becoming stalwarts of the people profession's arsenal

It says something about 2016, that its least surprising occurrence was grown adults chasing virtual creatures through public spaces. In a year that brought the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump, military coups and the Zika virus, why wouldn’t 45 million people across the globe want to lose themselves in the augmented reality (AR) of Pokémon Go? 

The launch of the game that year was part of a new wave of immersive technologies that included the release of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets. No longer the stuff of the Matrix movies, nor the sole preserve of Silicon Valley, AR – typically involving the superimposing of digital imagery onto the live view of a mobile phone or iPad screen – and its more technically involved, headset-orientated cousin, virtual reality (VR), were now sitting right in the palm of our hands and on our heads. 

And AR and VR had also made their way into our workplaces. In 2017, People Management reported on the rise of immersive technologies in learning and development and concluded that VR was, indeed, the future. So three years on, has the profession embraced VR and AR as more than just a hot new trend? And has the technology made it beyond training? 

“Augmented and virtual reality, far from being a novelty, are becoming a naturally occurring experience in everyday life,” according to Andy Lancaster, head of learning at the CIPD. “They’re increasingly recognised as a means to provide realistic scenario-based learning and learning in the flow of work,” he says, referring to the increasingly popular concept of L&D that takes you away from your regular work as little as possible. Indeed, the CIPD Profession Map now encourages HR practitioners to consider the impact of immersive technologies as part of its focus on digital working. 

John Fecci, commercial director for VR eLearning Studios, says the increased importance of these technologies is demonstrated by changing attitudes in the boardroom. “Three years ago [VR learning] would have come out of the client’s innovation fund. Now companies we work with… include it as an operating expense. It’s budgeted for because they know this training works in certain areas,” he says. “Some of our clients have tripled their budget for VR training this year. It’s no longer part of the ‘hype train’. For a lot of big companies, it’s now just part of doing business.”

For construction company GKR Scaffolding, ‘doing business’ inevitably involves minimising risk. The business has used VR in risk-aversion training since 2018, investing in four Samsung Gear VR headsets. The company has seen an interesting correlation between near-miss and incident reporting since. “There’s a massive blame culture in construction,” says Helen Gawor, business strategy director. “It’s the elephant in the room on all projects, so near-misses can often get swept under the carpet across the whole industry and go unreported, but they present an opportunity for us to learn.” 

Since introducing VR learning, GKR has seen an increase in near-miss reporting, while accidents have decreased. Gawor attributes this to the way they’ve approached VR L&D. “We built in time for discussion after employees had completed the training. We discovered these conversations were powerful because employees were relating what happened in the immersive environment with what was happening onsite. Because they had started talking openly, they realised they do need to speak up about real life incidents too.” 

Overall, Gawor believes VR has created a massive culture shift at GKR, but cautions against boarding the so-called ‘hype train’. “I was desperate not to create something that was a vanity project,” she says. “It’s not Disneyland for scaffolders.” Any organisation weighing up the costs of getting started must focus on one key objective, she says: what will this technology allow you to do that you couldn’t do otherwise? 

It’s a view supported by Lancaster. “The wider adoption of AR and VR in learning will be driven by the cost benefit in providing accessible solutions that mitigate risk and maximise realism,” he asserts. “To become mainstream in learning it must move beyond being a solution looking for a problem, to a welcomed means to drive organisational performance.”

Where AR and VR as a pragmatic, accessible solution is less clear cut is beyond its natural sphere of training for scenarios difficult to replicate safely for learning purposes – working on a scaffolding rig, within a nuclear power control room or as a surgeon, for example.

But there is still certainly plenty of activity cropping up in the wider L&D space, most notably diversity and inclusion training. For example, D&I specialists are using VR to show what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Brennan Hatton, co-founder and chief technical officer of Equal Reality, says traditional D&I initiatives like unconscious bias training are not cutting it. “There is lots of room for VR to make a big impact [in D&I],” he says. “The great thing about virtual reality is it can be a safe space to practise behaviour for high stakes social interactions.” 

A particularly topical application is for anti-harassment training, with VR provider Vantage Point developing an immersive experience that places people directly into scenes that illustrate the subtleties of grooming, harassment and discrimination in a visceral and interactive way. The training program – designed for both men and women – covers three modules: bystander intervention, identification of sexual harassment and learning to respond when it happens to you.

Applications in the wellbeing space have been perhaps less well received, however. Several companies have attempted to introduce VR and AR meditation pods – where employees don a headset and follow a short, guided meditation – but this is potentially just ‘the new ping-pong table’, say some.

But perhaps such applications beyond L&D could be where AR comes into its own. Fecci says AR is great for on-the-job use, such as installing equipment. Consultancy Blippar created a tool for Cisco, which allows technicians to launch installation demonstrations directly from their phones, increasing installation efficiency by 30 per cent and first time accuracy by 90 per cent.

Another area potentially ripe for AR is onboarding. Blippar has worked with several companies including General Electric (GE) and pizza chain Papa Murphy’s to implement AR within onboarding and inductions. In the case of GE, new employees are able to scan the company’s internal catalogue with their phones to be introduced to GE’s product line. “I think AR can generate substantial ROIs, along with better engagement rates with the overall onboarding process for all those industries and sectors where higher [staff] turnover rates are the rule,” says Marco Delvai, vice president of business development (EMEA) at Blippar. “Food delivery, ride hailing and fast food chains could harness the power of AR in making certain aspects of the process more visual, engaging and fun.”

There is also scope to use AR in workplace collaboration. The platform Spatial, for example, turns the space around you into a shared augmented workplace. Users create an avatar of themselves on their desktop and any colleague using a headset, such as those by HoloLens or Magic Leap, can see them in their space. They can both then screenshare by dragging live windows into the virtual space around them. The aim is for remote users to collaborate and share content as if in the same room, essentially teleporting their own avatars to any office. 

“Many companies we work with have employees who work on distributed teams and often have to travel for meetings,” says Bri Scully, customer experience manager for Spatial. “This kind of AR tool provides an effective alternative to business travel.”

Professor Roy Kalawsky, director of the Advanced VR Research Centre at Loughborough University, believes there is certainly an appetite for this kind of AR application, but warns of some concerns. “You have to consider GDPR. Have you got permission to broadcast the image of those in the workspace around you? And there’s the chance you’ll put staff under more pressure to be on call,” he says. 

Of course, if HR is to fully embrace AR and VR in all its processes, the question of cost will need to be answered. Kalawsky estimates that while the software is relatively affordable, a VR headset for commercial use still costs between £2,000 and £3,000. This is where HR teams need to focus carefully on their objective.

“HR will need to think about who the end user is and whether they require absolute realism in that piece of training,” says Kalawsky. “People have most of this technology already. It’s sitting in their mobile phones. We can do all of these things, but it’s important to keep asking ourselves: ‘what’s the value in doing it?’”  

VR and AR in action

Health Education England

For an organisation as complex as the NHS, the arrival of immersive technologies has transformed how it delivers learning. As part of its Technology Enhanced Learning Programme, Health Education England (HEE) has a Fellow researching applications of immersive technologies in healthcare education. They are also supporting NHS trusts to set up their own localised ‘VR labs’ to deliver training, as well as setting up a special interest group, which will draw on nationwide experts. 

James Freed, chief information officer for HEE, says the value of this technology is being felt across the NHS. “Virtual reality... is proving effective in the context of multi-role training, where employees with different professional backgrounds can engage simultaneously with the same scenarios,” says Freed. Using VR, HEE has created interactive 360° videos that provide a ‘day in the life’ experience of different health professionals, and it is working on a pilot to deliver fire safety training. 

AR has also been adopted to support discrete learning. In one HEE initiative, medical students specialising in mental health wear Google Glass headsets while conducting psychiatric sessions with mock patients. Their tutor can observe via the Glass and offer advice and guidance to the learner through an earpiece. They’ve also introduced AR into the onboarding process for some NHS trusts, using the headsets to orientate new members of staff both in the UK and abroad.  

As part of its efforts to win the support of key stakeholders, HEE is also running an Immersive Technology Thought Leadership event in March 2020 to showcase the technology. “Immersive technology is going to play an increasingly important role in how we train and educate the health and care workforce,” says Dr Neil Ralph, head of technology-enhanced learning at HEE. “It is becoming increasingly important that those involved in delivering education and supporting the workforce are equipped to make decisions that will ensure the best return on investment.”

Accenture

The professional services company now uses virtual reality in its early years recruitment processes, and it has proved invaluable across multiple metrics. “It’s just one part of the hiring process,” says Adrian Love, recruitment director (UK&I) for Accenture. “But the experience and the technology is designed to be deliberately mutual, giving the candidate an insight into our business and providing us the opportunity to assess them.”

Using a VR headset, candidates enter an Egyptian crypt and are asked to solve a series of hieroglyphics. It’s an exercise designed to identify candidates with the potential to become software programmers. “Some candidates have the skills by virtue of their academic background. And lots of candidates may not have the skills yet, but they have the aptitude,” says Love. “One of my favourite pieces of feedback was from a dyslexic candidate who said that because we chose this narrative storytelling approach, it enabled them to shine in a way other assessment processes with other organisations hadn’t, so [the technology] further supports diversity.”

Aside from being an assessment tool, the technology has also reduced the administration burden on the recruitment team, says Love, allowing them to spend more time with candidates at recruitment fairs and events. And it also makes Accenture more attractive to prospective candidates. “Graduate recruitment is very competitive,” notes Love. “We wanted to do something to differentiate us from the market.” 

And it worked. The firm attracted more than 20,000 graduate applications last year in half the time this would normally take, and more than half of graduate hires are female, with many taking up tech roles. Love hopes to expand the technology to experienced hires and eventually trace the use of VR in recruitment to performance data, to show it doesn’t just improve the hiring process, but also attracts the best talent.

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