VR for telework: a temporary gimmick or the next home office essential?

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VR for telework

By Pavel Novik

Last year’s necessary shift to telework, undertaken by thousands of companies across industries, spurred a gamut of workplace innovations. To overcome teamwork, productivity, and motivation challenges, many forward-minded businesses turned to such solutions as automation, IoT, AI, and VR.

Due to its capacity to bridge the physical boundaries of remote communication and render digital experiences life-like, virtual reality, previously the preserve of the gaming and entertainment industries, saw a particular rise in enterprise adoption. Today, more and more companies rely on VR tools to hold team meetings, educate and upskill employees, and facilitate remote recruitment. But do these applications bring about a qualitative change and thus can have a future beyond the pandemic, or is it innovation for the sake of innovation?

To answer these questions, the AR/VR testing specialists from a1qa examine three common VR use cases in the digital workplace and look into their business benefits and limitations.

VR use case 1. Video conferencing

Since the early 2020, video conferencing has become a supporting tool of day-to-day teamwork. But companies soon started to notice that video chats came short of substituting in-person communication, which affected the flow of meetings. This is where previously sidelined VR conferencing apps started coming in handy.  

These platforms allow users to create virtual avatars, get together face-to-face with colleagues in realistic meeting rooms to discuss, brainstorm, or present. Employees can also bring documents, images, videos, and 3D models into the virtual space and interact with them freely, making their meetings more productive. What is more, communicating in a virtual environment, the participants can read all of their interlocutors’ social cues, from posture to facial expressions and hand gestures, which greatly enhances understanding.

Yet the proliferation of virtual meetings is hampered by one simple fact—only a minority of workers are VR-savvy. Although the VR headset ownership rate has been increasing slowly over the last few years and spread in 2020, the growth was driven predominantly by gamers. Spatial and several other VR conference tools have a browser participation mode that allows users without VR equipment to join virtual meetings from a PC or mobile, but it offers limited participation capacity and a much poorer image quality.

This way, employees who do not typically enjoy VR games will probably have to buy the pricey equipment and master the technology solely for the purpose of meetings. VR sessions also require better bandwidth, and, considering the unhurried deployment of 5G for consumer use, connectivity will cease to be the problem only in a few years.  

Another notable drawback of shifting to VR-enabled meetings is health risks. According to the experiments conducted at the University of Minnesota, wearing a VR headset for as little as fifteen minutes caused motion sickness and fatigue in 55% of users, with the incidence among women much higher than among men—78% and 33% respectively. While the long-term effects of head-mounted devices and hand controllers on eyesight, spine, neck, and wrists are to be assessed, the interim findings are anything but lackluster. Considering that an average online meeting lasts longer than fifteen minutes and some workers can have several of them in a day, there is a strong risk of VR video conferencing causing your employees’ discomfort.  

VR use case 2. Employee training

Even in the modern times of telework and social distancing guidelines, employees’ training has to carry on, as newcomers need to be onboarded while existing workers need to regularly upgrade their knowledge and acquire new hard and soft skills. When arranging for online education, many companies decided to depart from traditional training software with its numerous limitations and invest in VR instead—and they were not disappointed.

VR training has been on the radar for some time, but its pre-pandemic applications were sporadic. Customer-oriented companies relied on VR for soft skill training, while high-risk industry enterprises offered it to employees for honing operational skills.

The competitive advantage of VR technology is that it allows users to train in hyper-realistic environments as much as they need to and at their own pace, without the fear of making a mistake. PwC’s 2019 study on VR effectiveness for soft skill training, conducted with the support from Oculus for Business and Talespin, demonstrates the superiority of VR-enabled learning over classroom-based and online education in many respects. The users training in VR were 245% more confident in what they had learned, were more focused during the lesson, and felt much more emotionally engaged with the content. What is more, employees using VR managed to complete their training four times faster than those studying in classrooms and 1.5 times faster than online learners.

Despite the much higher upfront development and device costs, the study found VR to be a more cost-efficient corporate education option than classroom-based and online learning down the line as it scales effortlessly and requires only minimal upkeep and updating. Beyond this, since the necessary equipment and software are provided by employers, VR training puts no additional financial strain on employees, unlike VR conferencing.

The same problem of VR fatigue and motion sickness can prove a major deterrent to immersive training. Still, when you employ experienced VR developers to create your corporate education program, you can expect them to guide your employees through the initial headset fitting, adjust the equipment individually for their maximum comfort, and teach them how to use it properly and avoid feeling unwell.  

VR use case 3. Recruitment

For HR teams, the required switch to remote recruitment proved to be particularly taxing. While interviews can be conducted over the phone or video calls, such vital hiring activities as engaging the applicant and assessing their hard and soft skills, team and cultural fit can’t be adequately conducted online. By sticking to unengaging, ill-fitting, and botched processes, HR specialists risk misjudging candidates and drive away those dissatisfied with a poor experience.

VR has been in HR divisions’ toolset for some time, although mostly as a sort of gimmick. Large tech-savvy enterprises offered immersive job and company tours at career fairs to provide employees with a real-life look at their potential workplace. This was and still remains a pretty effective tactic, as 65% of candidates admit they would be more likely to consider the offer if they could experience the job through technology, found the PwC survey cited above. But as in-person gatherings are discouraged, virtual reality can become the job fair venue instead.

In 2020, PwC presented a virtual reality recruitment park where students can log in as avatars and walk around, exploring the lines of service and career prospects the company offers, meeting recruiters, or talking to staff members about their experience. PwC claims that Virtual Park is not only an engaging way to meet prospective employees during the pandemic but is also instrumental in a wider candidate outreach and therefore fosters better workplace diversity and inclusion.

Beyond virtual tours, VR is also increasingly applied in the assessment of applicants’ skills. Today, such leading companies as L’Oreal, Accenture, and Lloyds Banking Group ask candidates to complete a range of tasks, from puzzles and games to code cracking and quests, in a simulated environment. These challenges are aimed at showcasing the future hire’s personality traits, analytical abilities, soft skills, and potential with no regard to their sex, race, and educational background.

However, the low level of VR headset ownership again undermines all these innovative, diversity-promoting initiatives. When a person does not have the means to visit a virtual career fair or pass tests in a simulated environment, they need to be offered full-fledged alternatives, which only doubles the burden for HR departments. Also, the applicants susceptible to VR fatigue risk showing poorer results during the assessment than those less prone to it.      

The bottom line

In all the three use cases, VR shows the potential to bring about a qualitative transformation to the botched telework processes and help remote workers feel more connected to their team and management. Yet, the technology’s further proliferation is impeded by insufficient ownership rates as well as the high cost and technical deficiencies of the VR hardware.

Today, such leading companies as Facebook, Microsoft, HTC, Samsung, and Magic Leap are actively working on their VR products, striving to make them more accessible to the wide public in both price and usability. Thus, with the improved devices soon to be introduced on the market and more tech-savvy people joining the global workforce, VR has all chances to become an essential part of the digital workplace.  

About the Author

Pavel Novik

Pavel Novik

Pavel Novik is QA Unit Manager and the Head of the Mobile Testing Center of Excellence at a1qa.

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