It’s hard to understand an experience you’ve never had.
Still, in an era marked by heightened social awareness on race, expressing empathy and realizing what other people go through can be a powerful catalyst for change. This is especially true in the workplace, where we often interact with people from different backgrounds.
Companies have traditionally responded to this with unconscious bias training, which typically involves PowerPoint presentations or click-through courses for employees to check off. Maybe that’s coupled with a Zoom session with experts on diversity and inclusion.
But it’s often easy to get through those tasks without paying full attention, and the impact of those efforts is tough to measure.
With that gap in mind, the curriculum development startup Praxis Labs launched Pivotal Experiences, a VR-based tool meant to take diversity and inclusion training to the next level. The platform lets employees experience what it’s like to face bias and discrimination in the workplace and teaches them how best to respond.
Users are asked to speak aloud to other avatars and reflect on what happened for a more impactful experience.
“By providing perspective-taking and immersive experiences that build empathy, we’re helping to build understanding,” said Elise Smith, co-founder and chief executive of Praxis Labs. “By providing opportunities to practice interventions, we’re helping to change how people actually act in the workplace.”
Last month, the New York City-based firm raised $3.2 million in seed funding from backers, including SoftBank’s SB Opportunity Fund. Uber, eBay, Amazon and Google were among the company’s early test partners. It’s now hiring to expand the platform to other partners.
The platform is launching at a critical time for companies in the United States as the pandemic spotlights disparities across the nation’s labor force.
“If the last 12 months have shown us anything, it has brought to light what has been around for a very long time,” said Kavitha Mariappan, an executive who leads diversity efforts for Zscaler, a cloud security platform. “There’s a certain level of corporate urgency around having to act on diversity and inclusion rather than just being aware.”
The software works on smartphones and computers, but the magic seems to happen in virtual reality, where each month, employees are assigned an avatar facing a specific issue at work.
The digital scenarios reflect insights gathered from employees with a wide range of backgrounds. For instance, it could be someone facing implicit bias, ageism or other forms of discrimination at work. The avatar might also be a bystander witnessing someone who’s a target of unfair treatment, so it gives workers a chance to practice being an ally.
The startup designed the avatars to be representative of a global workforce.
If you look into a mirror in the virtual space, you’ll see someone else’s image reflected back at you. They could be of a different race, gender or body size. They may be an executive or a lower-ranking employee.
Users are required to respond out loud as if they are that person “to get as close as you can to experiencing the perspective of someone else,” Smith said. It’s a subscription-based service. Companies are signing up for six-month to yearlong commitments.
While no amount of training can change everyone, data suggests that virtual reality experiences can leave a lasting impression and alter perceptions.
Researchers from the University of Barcelona found that men who committed domestic violence showed more signs of emotional empathy after virtually putting themselves in the victim’s shoes. Other studies have shown that VR scenarios are just as likely to increase empathy as “embodied” experiences, in which people physically re-create someone else’s lived experience.
“By putting people on the scene, at a real situation, these invisible situations suddenly become visible,” said Nonny de la Peña, a pioneer in empathy VR and founder of Emblematic Group.
Praxis Labs’ strategy is to create a feedback loop.
The software asks the employee how they might react to certain situations in real life and then offers approaches for best dealing with the scenario. Aggregated insights are shared with the user’s employer, while individualized data is shared with the trainee, who can continue to learn over time.
“Even if we can see someone is experiencing bias or discrimination or there’s something truly inequitable happening, it’s really hard to speak up. And the only way to change that is by building that muscle,” Smith said.
Empathy training in VR doesn’t solve everything. Lack of inclusivity is a deep, complex problem that starts from the top down. But it does give organizations a new tool that might have a wider impact, according to Jennifer Mackin, chief executive of the Leadership Pipeline Institute, a workplace consulting firm.
Diversity and inclusion experts champion the idea, saying it would probably be appealing to Generation Z, whose members, studies show, are more likely to stay with organizations they perceive as having a diverse and inclusive workforce.
“The generation entering the workforce today is going to be so much more comfortable with this form of learning than something static or prerecorded,” Mariappan said.