Not so long ago, the thought of implementing virtual reality [VR] as part of everyday life seemed more like the stuff of dreams than something that might actually be possible in the near future.
Today, however, this technology is no longer a mere fantasy – it is establishing itself as an important aspect of 21st century life, with seemingly boundless potential for encouraging innovation and providing fresh perspectives. Additionally, augmented reality [AR], a set of technologies that superimposes digital data and images on the physical world, is also reshaping how we interact with our surroundings and enhancing our day-today experiences.
According to a recent report by Goldman Sachs, the virtual reality and augmented reality market is set to be worth more than $80 billion by 2025, and when considering how extensively both technologies have already been integrated into high-value industries like retail, healthcare, education and entertainment, this level of growth is hardly surprising.
With AR/VR having already made such significant strides in a range of sectors, it is time for business owners to start considering the potential benefits that the technology could bring to their organisation.
As more and more companies spend an increasing amount of time working online and interacting with digital technologies both inside and outside of the office, the potential for virtual reality to add value to workplaces and the world of business in general continues to grow.
For example, VR could be the catalyst that firms have been looking for to improve collaboration in a post-COVID landscape. The pandemic has disrupted the day-to-day operations of thousands of businesses across the UK, and has meant that colleagues have become cut off from one another, with remote working becoming the new normal.
Using VR, individuals could be miles away from co-workers or clients but still physically feel that they are in the same meeting room or office space.
Simply by strapping on a headset and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, professionals can enter a virtual environment that offers a much more immersive experience than is possible with other types of conferencing tools, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
Furthermore, sensors in VR headsets have the potential to pick up on and translate body language and other forms of non-verbal communication that you would likely miss when using traditional tele-conferencing tools, while the ability to translate in real time means language barriers are effectively removed.
At a time when so many interactions are occurring online, people feel increasingly isolated without regular personal contact, and the continuous isolation that comes with remote offices makes the task of keeping employees focused much harder, leading to a less productive and cohesive team.
Having the opportunity to feel connected to each other without having to be in the same building – or even the same country – means VR truly has the capacity to strengthen inter-organisational collaboration.
Virtual training with real-world applications
AR/VR has already had an impact on the ways that employees are trained and that their skills are developed.
Several Fortune 500 companies, such as Boeing, UPS and Walmart, have folded them into their worker-education programmes on a wide scale, with some having reported how pleased they are with the results.
Laura Collings, training manager at UPS, for example, said that drivers using HTC Vive VR headsets to help them spot potential hazards when ‘driving’ down a virtual road were ‘learning the verbiage much faster, and it’s the same verbiage they have to use when out on the road.”
In this sense, virtual reality can provide a safer environment for employees to learn the ropes in, at the same time as presenting an experience that is genuinely educational and that feels authentic.
There are other areas in which AR/VR training could prove invaluable, such as in customer service.
This involves teaching employees how to impact, retain and understand customer satisfaction, as well as the use of greetings, body language, appropriate tone of voice and the best ways to deal with customer complaints.
These skills can be challenging to hone if employees are learning in purely hypothetical scenarios. With AR/VR, employers can simulate and improve how real-life experiences such as handling a consumer complaint or turning an unhappy customer into a happy one, are dealt with.
The risks associated with delivering traditional, on-the-job training can sometimes be significant – whether the risks relate to the employee’s safety or the reputational damage that could occur from giving poor customer service to genuine customers while training – so being able to virtually recreate scenarios in which employees might legitimately find themselves while working really can offer the perfect solution.
Greater flexibility and autonomy
According to the Institute of Leadership and Management, millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – now account for more than 50% of the UK workforce, though many companies struggle to attract and retain these individuals.
The difficulty that firms face in bringing millennials on board can largely be attributed to the expectation that younger workers have for greater flexibility in their jobs compared with previous generations – which is supported by a study conducted by FlexJobs that found over 80% of millennials seriously consider how a position will affect their work-life balance before applying.
AR/VR has the potential to bolster HR departments in a variety of ways. Firstly, virtual reality applications can allow employees to get as much mobility and flexibility as they desire by having the choice to access the office space virtually.
This means that VR technology could give millennial workers the autonomy that they desire when it comes to deciding how, where and when they work.
Further to this, virtual reality could help potential candidates to make more informed decisions before accepting a role by providing an insight into a typical day in the life of an employee at the organisation, or giving them a tour of the company offices.
Simply by showing a willingness to allow existing and prospective employees greater control over how and where they choose to work can go a long way in helping HR departments to increase retention rates and decrease employee turnover.
Harnessing the future
Though the potential for wider implementation of AR/VR in business is evidently vast, the adoption of such technology is expected to remain slow as the UK’s digital skills gap continues to widen, with the Confederation of British Industry [CIB] reporting that nine in 10 employees will require some form of digital reskilling by 2020.
However, as workplaces grow increasingly virtual in structure, with remote working becoming the norm for many, business leaders would do well to consider the merits of harnessing burgeoning technologies like AR and VR which could help them to gain a vital edge on competitors who are slow to embrace digital transformation.
The age of virtual reality is now upon us, and the potential benefits it could bring to firms with the vision to consider new ways of working could be the game changer that they have been waiting for.