Walmart’s solution to teaching workers kindness: virtual reality

The retail giant is using technology to help employees practice empathy, have difficult conversations during COVID-19.

By: Kathryn Mayer

It’s no secret that the past year has been a balancing act of emotions. COVID-19, a contentious election and civil unrest have made empathy and hard discussions imperative, often while emotions and polarization are running high. It also has been a difficult year for employees who work at brick-and-mortar locations like Walmart and interact with customers—whether those conversations are good or bad.

“With the pandemic, you think, how do workers engage with and interact with customers? You think about empathy; do all of our associates take time to think about how [the pandemic has] impacted our customers? How do they deal with difficult conversations that could occur?” Heather Durtschi, senior director of learning, content design and development at Walmart, said last week during an HRE webinar.

To help its workers have hard conversations, Walmart has relied on virtual reality training that enables employees to prepare for these incidents and practice kindness during stressful and challenging times.

The retail giant started using virtual reality to train its employees through a partnership with Strivr, a Palo Alto, California-based software company, in 2016. But its latest training called “Be Kind”—which trains workers on keeping calm, intently listening, navigating the situation and determining solutions—has proved extremely important for the company over the past year-plus when it comes to helping employees be prepared for difficult situations, Durtschi said.

Durtschi said she saw a piece on the news featuring an angry Walmart customer who was arguing with one of the retailer’s health ambassadors about having to wear a mask inside the store—but the Walmart employee handled the situation extremely well.

“It got pretty ugly, but that associate remained so calm,” she said. “Afterward, when she was interviewed and asked how she handled it so well, it came back to the training she received.”

The software is an engaging way to help train employees. It allows them to react to certain hypothetical situations, then go back and analyze their reactions. “It’s about having the experience of putting myself in [someone else’s] shoes before it even happens,” Durtschi said.

Walmart first partnered with Strivr and introduced its VR software for employee training and development at Walmart Academies nationwide (the training centers attached to larger Walmart stores). After that proved successful, the retail giant rolled out the technology to all of its U.S. locations, providing Strivr’s Oculus VR headsets to all U.S. stores to allow more than 1 million Walmart associates to take advantage of a series of VR training and development sessions. There are now about 17,000 VR headsets in Walmart stores for employees.

“Learning by doing is the best way to learn,” Derek Belch, founder and CEO of Strivr, said during the webinar. “Virtual reality allows for not only learning by doing at that specific task but certainly at scale in the workforce.”

Belch said company and HR leaders who use virtual reality training will not only better engage employees but will save employers significant time.

“[You can] do an eight-hour training and boil it down to 15 minutes in a headset with the learning result being almost identical,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer ROI.”

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