Posted: 09 Jul. 2019 05 min. read

Developing immersive soft skills learning experiences

Virtual reality

In our last blog, Virtually real learning experiences, we explored the rise of VR technology as a tool for learning and development and some of the key considerations for implementing VR for learning experiences. In this blog, we explore how VR technology can accelerate soft skills development.

‘Power Skills’, ‘Transferable Skills’, ‘People Skills’, ‘Soft Skills’….call them what you may; the debate goes on around whether attributes such as teamwork, communication and critical thinking can be taught effectively. Adhvaryu et al. have recently shown that soft skills training works. ‘Non-cognitive’ training provides a cumulative return on investment for businesses, reducing attrition and improving both general productivity as well as individual performance.  Furthermore, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), characterised by the marriage of physical assets and digital technologies will depend upon those entering the job market having these essentially human traits which, for now, are irreplaceable by machines.  

Josh Bersin noted that soft skills are just as much in demand as hard skills.  While our own Human Capital Trends report rates soft skills as a priority, suggesting that soft skills are as important to develop as technical skills, if not more.  Communication, collaboration, empathy, leadership and cultural awareness are just a few soft skills that have been flagged as critical for the future.  Deloitte Access Economics estimate that by 2030, soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs. However, currently they receive insufficient focus in organisational learning and development programs given the time and effort required to simulate difficult workplace scenarios, such as resolving conflict within a team meeting or managing a difficult customer service interaction.  So how can virtual reality (VR) technology accelerate soft skill development?   

The current application of VR to learning 

Globally, early adopters are leveraging VR to enhance their learning and development. Why? Because VR provides a platform for immersive, effective learning experiences that can be accessed at any time. It’s been widely shown that we learn best by doing. We benefit from ‘real-world’ practice and if we don’t use it – we lose it.  It’s no surprise then that VR training solutions are gaining traction due to their ability to create realistic, on-demand and cost-efficient learning scenarios. VR has most notably been adopted in industries with high-risk working environments, such as energy and mining, manufacturing, aviation, health and defence. In these environments, the creation of realistic, repeatable, non-hazardous and accessible solutions has been shown to increase competence, reduce trainee error in complex technical scenarios, drive time and cost-savings and help learners retain knowledge longer than traditional methods.  

Talespin's Virtual Human Technology
Talespin's Virtual Human Technology

VR has the potential to provide relevant, immersive, safe, data-enhanced soft skill learning experiences that can be applied just-in-time.  Allowing employees to truly walk in someone else’s shoes – rather than just imagining it, may have profound organisation-wide impacts on inclusion, diversity and team cohesion.  Perspective-taking in VR has been found to promote more pro-social behaviours and empathy, both immediately and developing over time as demonstrated by Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab: Becoming Homeless.  VR also provides a safe and controlled environment with which to move learners outside their comfort zone to practice critical skills such as having difficult conversations and conflict resolution. Talespin are leading the way, providing a range of challenging experiences such as filling the shoes of an HR manager who has the task of firing a fellow employee.  

VR also has the ability to engage users in interactive experiences and provide real-time, quantitative feedback.   This means performance can be effectively analysed and serve as a baseline for future development. Systems like STRIVR can track your reactions, where you look, how you move and record your conversation, allowing performance to be played back to provide a truly reflective experience.  Having a more accurate understanding of an organisation’s learning and development needs not only helps to understand current skills gaps, but provides the flexibility for employees to learn and develop at their own pace. This is in stark contrast to other traditional training methods that typically follow a ‘one size fits all’ approach and depend upon subjective self-assessment (surveys) to indicate awareness and capability. In fact, research has shown that such immersive training experiences can improve information retention and performance by between 30-70% compared to classroom based or e-learning.   

Success Story: Wal-Mart

In 2018, Wal-Mart invested in 17,000 Oculus Go headsets to train employees in three key areas: new technology, compliance and soft skills, including empathy and customer service. VR learning developers STRIVR established a ‘Black Friday’ simulation to prepare Wal-Mart employees for one of the busiest days of the year. Learners were immersed in the store; seeing and hearing customers and feeling all the pressure of a store employee while the system coaches them what to do.

The result? A practical and scalable way to upskill employees using a method that allows employees to learn faster, retain information better, boost their confidence and increase test results by 10-15%.


Where we see VR making a real impact

Great leadership walks the talk and demonstrates the appropriate behaviours and values for their team to be successful. However, the moral courage to call out and challenge where things are awry does not come easily to all. VR can provide opportunities to practice identifying and reacting to scenarios and behaviours and providing the appropriate action or response. Currently, research in this area is working with those with high functioning autism.   Borne from the extensive research into medical communication with patients, these elements can carry over into the workforce management space.  Pre-scripted training scenarios for managers to practice in can be reviewed and coached by the HR business partner, enabling the line manager to confidently assume a management role rather than depending on or deferring to HR support.

Bullying Simulation
Bullying Simulation

How do you see VR supporting or enhancing your learning and development objectives?


The Skills to Pay the Bills: Returns to On-the-job Soft Skills Training –

Preparing tomorrow’s workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For business: A framework for action; Global Business Coalition for Education; p16-17 –

Josh Bersin on the Importance of Talent Management in the Modern Workplace –

Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2019 –

Deloitte Access Economics: Soft skills for business success

VR Enters Corporate Learning with a Vengeance: And the Results are Amazing –

Enterprise Virtual Reality Training Services to Generate US $6.3 billion in 2022 –

Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience –

Talespin launches ‘virtual human’ VR training environment to teach soft skills –

Using Virtual Reality to Enhance Your Training Programs –

Does VR actually work for training and improvement? Our data suggests the answer is Yes –

VR Enters Corporate Learning with a Vengeance: And the Results are Amazing –

Virtual collaborative gaming as social skills training for high-functioning autistic children –

Virtual humans help aspiring doctors learn empathy –

Meet our authors

Stacey Edmonds

Stacey Edmonds

Partner, Human Capital, Consulting

Stacey is a Senior Organisation Development Executive with over 20 years’ experience in a diverse range of industries and cultures. A professional with a passion to re-invent the workplace experience ensuring all people are included, engaged and motivated. She specialises in creating autonomous learning cultures, implementing personalised, adaptive and gamified learning environments and producing short sharp story driven learning content in all facilitated and digital formats. Stacey is highly recognised for her thought leadership in Digital Learning Stacey is a go to person for film and digital judging for the New York Film Festivals and the International Stevies Business Awards. Her articles include Gamification and Engagement, CIO Magazine, Transmedia Learning, The Gamification of Learning and Loving a Digital Learning Life, AITD Magazine

Lauren Parker

Lauren Parker

Consultant, Human Capital

Lauren is a Consultant in Deloitte’s Human Capital Consulting practice with a passion for assisting organisations to enable their business strategy through workforce empowerment. Her background in Human Resources and Business Law equips her with the ability to apply person-centric methodologies to solve complex problems experienced in dynamic environments. She combines her strong interpersonal and communication skills with a logical, structured approach to problem solving to consistently deliver tailored, high quality solutions to her client’s people problems. Lauren's consulting experience focuses predominately in change management across all industries.