- PwC and tech startup Talespin have teamed up to train employees on implicit bias using virtual reality.
- VR-based implicit bias training immerses its participants in scenarios where they learn to make inclusive hiring decisions and point out instances of discrimination.
- Studies have show VR learners required less time to learn, had a stronger emotional connection to the training content, were more focused when learning, and were more confident about their takeaways from the training.
- It comes at a time of public reckoning that current corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives aren't doing enough, especially when it comes to implicit bias during the hiring process.
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Virtual reality could permanently alter the way businesses approach diversity and inclusion trainings.
Despite spending billions of dollars on D&I initiatives, US companies are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago, and implicit bias in hiring remains one of the biggest culprits. Implicit bias refers to the unknown assumptions people make about others based on their gender, ethnicity, age, or minority status, rather than their professional qualifications.
Some companies are exploring new options for diversity trainings. PwC is one of them.
The professional-services firm is working with software company Talespin to implement VR-based implicit-bias training programs —and it could be a new frontier for how companies approach diversity, equity, and inclusion training.
The Big 4 consulting and tax firm completed a pilot with Talespin last year, and it has since used virtual reality programming to train over 4,000 employees on implicit bias.
How the VR training works
The training places employees in simulated office settings designed after actual PwC offices, where they speak with virtual characters through a head-mounted display. During the five-to-seven-minute training modules, they are prompted to make decisions about who to hire and promote, and must use inclusive leadership practices introduced prior to the simulation.
Kyle Jackson, CEO of Talespin, told Business Insider that PwC employees using the VR tool are trained on how to recognize unconscious bias when hiring. They have to think about how even a candidate's name on a résumé can stir up implicit biases, he said.
Studies have shown, for example, that résumés with names that sound "white" get more call backs than those that don't. Employees using the VR training are asked to formulate responses if these biases are expressed in a hiring meeting by a colleague, or a senior partner.
Scott Likens, emerging technology leader at PwC, told Business Insider the firm wanted to test how VR diversity and inclusion training compared to more traditional computer-based training. PwC selected a group of new managers in 12 US locations to test out the VR between February and October 2019.
The results were promising. A PwC study found that VR participants required less time to learn, had a stronger emotional connection to the training content, were more focused when learning, and were more confident about their takeaways from the training. And to top it off, the VR training program was more cost-effective at scale than classroom or online learning modules.
VR could present a viable training method for companies looking to update their practices. So far, traditional diversity, equity, and inclusion training programs haven't worked. US companies spend $8 billion annually on diversity and inclusion initiatives, and implicit bias seminars have become ubiquitous across the American workplace. But their efforts are still falling short.
Virtual reality has already taken off across a range of industries since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Hospitals are using virtual reality simulations to train doctors and nurses on treatment of coronavirus patients, and computer software company MeetInVR is developing a tool for companies to host virtual reality meetings. Talespin also offers training for managers who need to have difficult conversations in the office.
VR reduces the distance between the learner and the experience
With VR, learners can immerse themselves in the experience at hand without feeling self-conscious about learning in a group setting. Compare this with a conventional, in-person training session: though employees might also be able to role-play in person, self-consciousness in front of colleagues may hamper an employee's ability to engage as closely with the scenario.
"Our own biases creep back in and our own fears creep back in terms of our participation, because we can't actually role play," Jackson said. "A lot of people's nerves creep up and role play does not work for them. So even as much as I try to put myself in somebody's shoes, I can't."
The key lies in the immediacy of the VR experience, Likens said.
"It comes back to experience as a driver for behavior change," Likens said. "VR has a weird way of doing that. You're in the shoes of a situation which you might not ever be, or at least not frequently."
VR training reduces the distance between the learner and the experience at hand, allowing participants to empathize with situations more deeply. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, worked with a group of researchers to see if people were more inclined to feel empathy after experiencing a VR simulation of homelessness. It worked: A significantly higher number of participants who had experienced the VR signed a petition supporting affordable housing for the homeless compared to those who had just read about it. A few months later, in February 2017, the Virtual Human Interaction Lab launched VR-based implicit bias training for the NFL.
PwC is not the first business to explore VR diversity initiatives — but it's doing so at a crucial time. Both the pandemic and the backlash against racial injustice have made companies more open to approaching workplace racism and discrimination with new solutions.
"I think it accelerated the acceptance of the innovation," Likens said about the current moment. "We're getting executives to put on a headset, whereas a year ago they wouldn't have. But being at home, being disconnected from our teams, I think it's triggered this desire to do something big. And I think VR now is being accepted as a 'here and now' thing, not a future emerging technology."