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Ensure a Positive Candidate Experience When Hiring Contingent Talent Remotely

As digitization, coupled with the global pandemic, propels contingent hiring online and with more individuals relying on employer reviewer sites to evaluate businesses, delivering a positive[...]

March 10, 2021

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How Virtual Reality Instills Empathy to Drive Workforce Diversity

As we prepare for the upcoming VMSA Live conference in Arizona this April, technology is on our minds. Our CEO Sunil Bagai will be hosting an interactive discussion on the topic at the GRI Technology Pavilion on Wednesday, April 5. The world and the workforce, we all recognize, are becoming more interconnected through digital platforms. The staffing industry has spent a lot of time figuring out how to incorporate these advances. In younger days, vendor management systems (VMS) and applicant tracking systems (ATS) were big breakthroughs. Now, we preoccupy ourselves with online recruitment platforms, talent analytics, mobile apps and even wearables. However, the staffing industry can sometimes be slow to adopt technologies that don’t seem related to talent acquisition and management. As Sunil wrote last week, transformations occurring with the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence are not merely the artifacts of other markets. These innovations are related, in ways we should be imagining and embracing. With that, I’d like to look at virtual reality (VR) and how it could reinvent diversity.

The Real Opportunities of Virtual Reality (VR)

When many people ponder VR, their thoughts often wander toward science fiction, video games, and the future of film and television. The real-world benefits and uses reach far beyond entertainment. Virtual reality is no novelty. By allowing scientists and doctors into the “minds” of others, for example, patients are realizing tremendous enhancements to their treatments. As NextAvenue explained in Forbes, “In 2016, one of the biggest trends in technology was the consumer realization of virtual reality (VR) — the ability to become immersed in another world. Soon, VR may not only create empathy for family caregivers and their loved ones but also a better health care system.”

There are 42 million Americans tending to relatives over the age of 50. These caregivers express feelings of loneliness, isolation and of being an overlooked segment of society. “Many believe that those who are not sick or have not provided care for an ailing or frail parent, spouse or other loved one, really cannot relate to the emotional roller coaster that has become their life,” NextAvenue wrote.

VR offers health and medical professionals a unique opportunity to understand the issues of an aging population and those who care for them. To demonstrate, Embodied Labs developed a VR app that simulates the experience of a 74-year-old African American man, dubbed “Alfred,” who suffers from high-frequency hearing loss and macular degeneration, which impairs vision.

“The power of being able to experience exactly what Alfred does is now made real for those who have only observed, studied or read about these conditions,” NextAvenue noted. “For instance, as a viewer wears the virtual reality goggles, his or her eyesight is blighted by a dark spot in the middle of the visual field simulating AMD. The visual impairment makes eye contact, communication and simple tasks difficult.”

The experiment is important on multiple levels. For health care professionals and medical students, the app provides a valuable source of training and education. It’s one thing to study vital signs, record observations and interview patients. However, none of that compares to experiencing the patient’s conditions for oneself. In the next 15 years, one in five Americans will be eligible for Medicare. The number of people over the age of 65 will double. The American Geriatrics Society estimates that 17,000 geriatricians will be needed to care for 12 million older Americans. Today, only 7,500 certified geriatricians exist. There are even fewer medical students studying geriatrics and related internal medicine. VR will become an essential tool for this industry.

Unlike watching a film or simulation, where the viewer experiences the story as a somewhat detached observer, VR draws the audience into the character’s sensations directly. “VR adds an element of medical education that is different,” said Carrie Shaw, the chief executive of Embodied Labs. “It’s not just learning about a disease. VR puts you in this world and that creates empathy, which has been shown to lead to better communication skills and professionalism for the health care workforce.”

Geriatrics is only one of several boons delivered by VR. Entrepreneur Magazine’s Rose Leadem published a list of other critical milestones that VR has achieved.

  • VR simulations of activities, such as playing soccer, have helped paraplegics regain some brain functions associated with motor movements. Of eight patients tested by Duke University, all regained some level of control. Four were upgraded from full to partial paraplegics.
  • Medical schools are using VR to train students in sensitive surgical procedures through a “hands-on” virtual experience.
  • “A 2011 study on military burn victims revealed that SnowWorld -- a VR game that allows users to throw snowballs at penguins while listening to Paul Simon -- has proven more effective than morphine in pain management,” Leadem explained.
  • VR is successfully treating people suffering from anxiety by placing them in serene, lifelike environments, which also guide them through calming breathing exercises.
  • Doctors treating autism are using VR to help patients develop social skills, recognize cues and respond appropriately.
  • For the 8 million Americans living with PTSD, VR has worked wonders in the field of exposure therapy, which pushes patients to recount their traumas, visualize them and explain to doctors or therapists the stressful scenarios taking place as events unfold. For military veterans returning from combat, this is vital for assimilating into civilian life.

VR in Staffing

While many of the success stories stemming from VR seem focused on education and medicine, the virtual world promises a wealth of opportunities for the staffing industry. VR can replicate physical conferences, interviews, classroom instruction for skills development, onboarding experiences and orientation. It can even showcase a client’s employment culture to prospective candidates, who get to feel the working environment for themselves.

All of these potentially VR-enabled processes would optimize operational efficiencies and recruiting. However, as we in staffing understand, there’s a more pressing challenge to overcome: the ongoing struggle for true diversity and inclusion. This is precisely where I believe VR can shine.

Virtual Diversity

Ironically, the tech space remains one of the foremost sore-spots for diversity. In fact, some of the companies pioneering advances in VR continue to fall short of inclusion goals. On February 28, investors plan to present Apple with a mandate to create an “’accelerated recruitment policy,’ with the aim of increasing diversity in its senior leadership and on its board of directors,” as Quartz reported.

Despite slow and somewhat steady improvements, Apple still has a fairly poor diversity record even though it tops others in its space. Based on current Google figures, one percent of tech workers there are African America, three percent are Hispanic and 19 percent are women. Facebook’s numbers are practically the same, except that women make up only 17 percent of its tech roles.

Companies that lack diversity cite a variety of excuses for the shortcomings, many of which end up being debunked by actual statistics. The “pipeline excuse” is one of the most common. The gist is that the pipeline of qualified applicants does not represent society as a whole. Organizations in this position rationalize their lopsided figures by saying that too few qualified diversity candidates are applying for positions.

The rationale fails to explain away noticeable gaps between highly skilled diversity applicants and the volume of those individuals who are actually hired. According to Department of Education data, close to 10 percent of graduates from the top 25 computer science programs belong to underrepresented diversity categories.

Moving Beyond Sympathy to Empathy

According to sociologists, educators and psychologists, the real culprit is empathy. Many people can sympathize with another’s plight, yet they can’t feel the weight of those struggles without the same shared experience. In terms of employment culture, empathy is crucial. What if managers could see the world from the eyes of their talent? What If they had direct insight into their pressures, challenges, successes? What if workers got to experience a day in the life of their managers? Perhaps they would walk away with a different opinion of how difficult those roles may be. Creating empathy, which is what VR does best, could improve every aspect of work. And it’s already happening.

Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab is using VR as a tool to help police departments and the National Football League (NFL) combat discrimination and bias. As Jeremy Bailenson, the lab’s director, explained to USA Today, replacing real world scenarios with interactive VR scenes brings the brain closer to “believing what it is seeing. The effect of such realism could be lasting behavioral change.”

“Feeling prejudice by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is what VR was made to do,” he added.

Virtual Reality, Measurable Success

Through VR, staffing professionals could support their clients’ inclusion strategies with unparalleled results. Think about it. We all feel for soldiers returning home from battle. However, we can never fully feel what they endured without having been in the thick of combat ourselves. According to Nancy Adams, branch chief at the U.S. Army Warrior Transition Command, the inability to empathize may lead to negative stereotypes, which hinder companies from hiring veterans.

“There’s stigma attached to PTSD and traumatic brain injury and other hidden disabilities that people may assume soldiers have when they're leaving the military,” Adams said. “They may always have that at the back of their mind.”

A VR experience not only helps individuals with PTSD, it can assist employers in understanding those with it. The same applies for people of other races who have faced discrimination – or women fighting for equal pay to take care of their families, or transgender people who are told which bathrooms they may use.

Imagine the benefits of seeing your office from the eyes of a disabled person. If we could experience their challenges, we may gain a much stronger idea of what accommodations we really need in order to create a workspace that increases productivity and comfort for every worker.

New technologies are changing the world, and they bring limitless possibilities to our industry. We’re just scratching the surface. Using VR to enhance diversity is one aspect. If we’re receptive, creative and attentive, we in the staffing industry can find amazing uses for all the exponential technologies emerging. It’s a topic we’re going to be discussing more this year, and we’d love to share your thoughts and ideas in person at VMSA Live this April.

Casey Enstrom
Casey Enstrom
Casey is one of the staffing industry’s household names, specializing in sales and operations leadership. He brings extensive knowledge of business development and sales strategies, predictive analytics, leadership, and human capital solutions. Prior to Crowdstaffing, Casey served as the Vice President of Technical Sales, North America, for a Fortune 1000 staffing firm.
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