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New reality: how VR training is the future of hazardous and frontline professions

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a shift in how we work, but for frontline workers and other hazardous and essential professions, remote work is simply not an option. In the new professional landscape, Virtual Reality is the key to training and preparation, writes Pat O’Connor Managing Director at VRAI

While the adage “never waste a good crisis” is often mis-attributed to Winston Churchill, it is more likely derived from the work of the American political theorist Saul Alinksy, in his book “Rules for Radicals”. Alinksky was writing about community activism and the opportunity that crisis can offer to break the status quo and affect change.

In the midst of a financial crisis, the instinct of many is to rush towards safety or to become conservative; for many others it’s simply about survival. For investors, that instinct can be very different. They rush towards the opportunity that the crisis can offer them. Following the financial crash and subsequent recession of 2008 – 2010, some very successful companies were founded and funded, including Whatsapp, Uber, Airbnb, Instagram and Dropbox.

On the face of it there isn’t a lot that these brands have in common, other than being broadly digital companies. I would suggest that the common thread between these companies is that they were all tapped into the zeitgeist during the last recession. They saw the paradigm shift that was moving concepts from the fringes to the core i.e. giving people the choice to have what they wanted, when they wanted it.

So then, what is likely to be the paradigm shift resulting from the COVID-19 crisis?

For one, there is the rapid shift towards Remote Work solutions since governments around the world directed us to isolate to stop the spread of COVID-19. The continued expansion of the digital workplace and the tools needed to enable trading, production and manufacture at a distance now seems inevitable. Up until now, planning for remote work could be seen as a low priority for many businesses, dismissed as a perk for the millennial workforce. After COVID-19, however, businesses without a robust company-wide remote work plan, one that can be actioned on short notice, will be considered reckless and may not survive the approaching economic challenges we face.

Video conferencing has allowed business to continue functioning and people to continue interacting, but it has limitations, and isn’t the panacea for all remote working needs.

For people who work in risky or remote operational environments, such as front line medical staff, offshore wind technicians, or even workers in manufacturing settings, there is a need to train, prepare for and mitigate risk. Traditional e-learning tools cannot prepare someone to climb a high voltage electricity pylon in a storm, or fix a blade on a 110m tall wind turbine 100km off the North coast of Scotland.

Where can business leaders look to for guidance on how to prepare their employees in this unpredictable world? I believe the answer is the military. For decades, armed forces in many countries have been using simulation training as a way to replicate risky, remote and difficult to replicate scenarios.

Until recently, military simulation training was often reserved for high value roles like fighter pilots, or ships’ captains, who trained in “sim centres”. These sim centres had traditional simulators with complicated hydraulics and expensive replicas of the real world equipment.

What we are seeing now is a shift whereby this type of training is being provided as a virtual simulation at the point of need. The training is contained in a VR headset that a soldier can use while in a hangar waiting for rotation flight, or a winchman can use during a “weather day”, or a ship’s engineer can use while hundreds of kilometres away from the naval college.

The added value of VR simulation is that its inherent data capture capability can be used to provide deep insight into how individuals learn and perform. The addition of physiological sensors can allow you to know not just what people do, but also how they feel when they do it. These data-driven insights can transform our ability to reduce risk for workers and ensure they are confident in performing hazardous tasks that they will face in reality.

The shift towards simulation training was happening in the military prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has since begun to accelerate, as it is not an option for a military to be unprepared. Military commanders consider that they have a “duty of care” to train and prepare their troops appropriately; anything else would be a dereliction of duty.

This duty of care must now also extend towards business executives, to ensure their employees are prepared remotely in authentic, memorable and measurable simulated environments. The technology is now there to enable it, and the situation we now face demands it.

Pat O’Connor is co-founder and managing director of VRAI. To learn more, visit vrai.ie.