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Walmart has added virtual reality to its assessment of an employee’s potential

The Oculus Go virtual-reality headset. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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For Walmart employees, seeking a promotion within the company has typically meant undergoing a comprehensive vetting process that included a detailed “paper-based assessment.”

Combined with in-person interviews, the written component has traditionally helped managers judge how effectively someone might function in a new role with more responsibility.

But for the past few months, Walmart — the nation’s largest employer — has begun replacing paper-based assessments with an experimental tool: virtual reality.

Using a $250 Oculus Go virtual-reality headset, employees have their wits and instincts tested inside a simulated environment, allowing managers to see how well they know the store’s departments and how they react in everyday scenarios, according to the company. Those scenarios can range from motivating an underperforming employee to resolving a conflict with a difficult customer. Inside the simulated environment, candidates might find themselves standing in a busy aisle facing multiple problems, such as spills, misplaced items and trash, and being given 30 seconds to figure out which to resolve first.

When combined with conventional interviews and replicated across thousands of employees, the virtual assessment helps eliminate bias from the internal hiring process, according to Michelle Malashock, Walmart’s director of media relations. Malashock said the VR assessment tool was rolled out in April and has already been used in considering about 10,000 employees for new jobs across the country.

“The assessment can reveal leadership, but it also might show that someone is actually a better fit in another job,” Malashock said. “That might not be immediately obvious until that person actually steps inside the role using VR.”

“It’s a great way to reduce inherent bias in the hiring process and allows us to use technology and data to try and level the playing field as much as possible,” she added.

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Walmart’s VR assessments are designed by STRIVR, a company based in Menlo Park, Calif. Walmart has used VR since 2017 to train employees at 200 Walmart Academies and has sent thousands of VR headsets to stores across the country for employees to use, according to the company.

The company claims that VR training improves employee confidence and has boosted test scores 10 to 15 percent — even for trainees who simply watched others experience the training. Virtual scenarios include managing a produce section or preparing for the chaos of Black Friday by watching actual footage from the annual shopping spree.

“There is also empathy training, which involves scenarios where you’re both a cashier and later in the body of a customer who is receiving text messages from a partner at home who is telling you your baby is sick,” Malashock said. “The juxtaposition helps employees see interactions from every side.”

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Sinan Aral, a professor of information technology and marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said VR makes training more realistic than reading a packet or completing a work sheet.

“Training used to involve flying tens of thousands of people to some conference in Texas somewhere for a week, and now it can just be done locally on the employees’ time,” he said. “That’s incredibly valuable for a company and likely to expand far beyond a company like Walmart."

Param Vir Singh, a professor of business technologies at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, agreed, pointing out that VR gives companies the ability to standardize how employees are evaluated. By removing a large degree of subjectivity from a manager’s evaluation process, companies get a clearer picture of an employee’s potential as well as a trove of valuable data that can be used to refine how employees are trained and evaluated.

“They’re not only looking at whether an employee has accomplished a particular task in a virtual setting, but how they accomplished that task,” Singh said. “That information is very useful to a company because it gives them new ways to improve how they operate.”

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Singh and Aral predicted that VR as a training and assessment tool will be adopted rapidly in the coming years, with many more major companies following Walmart’s lead.

Aral said Amazon’s recent announcement that it plans to spend $700 million to retrain 100,000 workers offers a great opportunity to utilize VR on a mass scale. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“That’s a lot of employees that are going to need to be reskilled for higher jobs, and VR can make that process much more cost effective,” he said. “Amazon’s announcement is not going to be the last and — as automation progresses — there will be this uptick in demand for cost-effective, scalable training and retraining services.”

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