Virtually impossible?: VR in recruitment

With opinion divided over the extent to which virtual reality will be used for recruitment, it is best to keep an open mind

Quoting Maya Angelou in relation to HR tech might seem an odd juxtaposition. But the poet, memoirist and civil rights activist’s inspiring maxim – “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel” – is an apt one in discussions of virtual reality (VR) in HR, feels US tax talent acquisition leader at PwC Alexa Merschel.

Her firm is one of many that has, over the past year or so, begun to experiment with VR in the recruitment process. Its most obvious first HR application and that of its close cousin augmented reality (AR) was on the training side of things. Organisations for several years have been using the technology to equip people for scenarios difficult to safely train for in real life – to upskill surgeons, for example, or those working on oil rigs or in nuclear power stations.

But now this ever-evolving tech is expanding into new areas of HR. For PwC: capturing the imaginations of an ever-more demanding and in-demand generation of graduates.

Its US recruitment team has been taking VR headsets to career fairs and college campuses since 2016, using them to bring working at PwC to life. “We decided to remove giveaways at career fairs. So instead of giving people pens and pamphlets, we give them a ‘day in the life’ at our Boston office,” explains Merschel. “They can see what a meeting is like, the workspace, then it creates conversations from there.”

Immersive footage of office environments might not seem, to seasoned business professionals, like it would be that eye-opening or groundbreaking for grads. But with the rise of trendy, fun, ping-pong-table-filled offices, this is the perfect way for many firms – Intuit, General Mills and Walmart-owned, to name but a few beyond PwC – to show these off.

“We’re trying to create what we call ‘sticky experiences,’ where we’re differentiating ourselves by showcasing our culture,” says Merschel, adding: “It takes experiencing VR to realise it’s more of an emotional versus a traditional experience… and it shows we’re at the cutting edge as an employer.”

“We realise for many students and graduates this job could be the first time they’ve ever experienced an office or business environment,” adds Alex Bennett, graduate talent manager at L’Oréal, a brand that combines VR with more traditional activities at its student assessment centre days.

This logic becomes even more compelling perhaps where the work environment is particularly far removed from anything the prospective candidate will ever have experienced. Which was the driver behind an initiative launched at last year’s Skills London careers fair to showcase the hospitality industry to young people.

“There were about seven hotels that visitors could take a tour of,” explains Sam Coulstock, business relations director at Umbrella Training, who organised and oversaw the creation of a hospitality zone. “We had the lobby at The Ritz, the spa at The Landmark Hotel, afternoon tea at Egerton House Hotel, The Harlequin Suite at the Dorchester…”

He adds: “It was exploring the area but also each time you went into an area in the headset you could watch a short careers video or get a tip on how to become an apprentice, or read interesting facts about all the different job roles at a hotel. People loved it, they were queuing to get into the zone.”

VR at this stage of the process is, then, a winner from a social mobility point of view, says Coulstock. “When I ask ‘Have you considered a career in hospitality?’, I’m told so many times: ‘What’s hospitality?’,” agrees Jay Scott, L&D manager at participating chain Firmdale Hotels. “So if we’re going to bring young talent into our industry we need to allow them to find out about it. Because if you’re a 15- or 16-year-old, why would you ever have been to The Ritz?”

It’s a similar story at German mobility and logistics company Deutsche Bahn, now using VR to give people a flavour of what it’s like to be a train conductor or electrician, and to ensure that only those who like what they see progress to the next stage (saving time and money). Similarly the British Army uses VR to show people what it’s like to drive a tank, to parachute, or be part of a mountaineering mission.

But VR’s potential in recruitment isn’t confined to the attraction stage. L’Oréal is an example of a firm already using it to test certain attributes during assessment.

Currently the technology is being used to test cultural fit, reports Bennett. “The scenario we use presents our company values in the form of a chat with a colleague – they explain our core principles and ask candidates to think about and choose which one they relate to most,” she explains. “This gives assessors a glimpse into their engagement with what the company stands for and demonstrates how they may fit into the culture of the organisation.

“After that, they take part in a virtual meeting where they interact with colleagues and team members to make decisions based on the discussion they hear. From this, we can understand their aptitude for things like taking risks, business priorities and comprehension of a strategic business meeting.”

Bennett is quick to point out, however, that VR ‘testing’ of this kind doesn’t work in isolation. For now at least, it is crucial to combine it with “proven and more traditional means of testing candidates”.

Others are more sceptical still of the current merits of VR for assessment. John Fecci, commercial director at eLearning Studios, works with a wide range of organisations on developing VR training. Use of the technology for testing is still at a very nascent stage, he explains.

In future, VR could be an ideal way of role-playing certain customer-service scenarios, for example, he concedes, reporting discussions with several retailers on this very application. But more research is needed on how people typically interact with the technology, with the average person needing to become much more familiar with it before it is fair to test them in this way.

“The danger is it becomes more of an assessment of how good you are at VR,” he says. “People get very immersed and try and reach out to touch something in front of them rather than the button on the headset. We would interpret that as a delay, but actually it would be because you were immersed in the VR.”

Fecci adds that the main barrier currently is actually the maturity of cognitive learning and AI. He cites the example of one client who uses VR for sales meetings and interview skills practice. “The complexity is in the answers, not the avatars. At the moment these interviews can’t be very long, otherwise you’re getting into AI; at the moment it’s just hard coding,” he says.

“But the aim in future is – because a lot of law firms, for example, record their meetings and have thousands of hours of these – to build an algorithm around the most common responses, and basically build a chatbot.”

Barbara Sutherland, senior talent acquisition manager at Jaguar Land Rover, agrees that at the moment VR, and gamification more generally, is better suited to testing technical rather than more complex, softer skills. Her company used a form of VR, branded in line with a wider Gorillaz campaign, last year to attract and test coders (who without the buzz of this technology might not think of working for the business, says Sutherland).

Those who ‘broke the code’ in the game were fast-tracked through the recruitment process, with 500,000 in total downloading the app. “We did look at this for assessing behaviours. But it’s like everything; it’s still developing and I’m not convinced on the behavioural side of things at the moment,” says Sutherland. “But I’ve no doubt that in future it’ll be more commonplace.”

A key factor in the more widespread and sophisticated adoption of VR in recruitment is, predictably, cost. But this is ever less of a barrier to entry, explains Robert Stone, director of the Human Interface Technologies Team at the University of Birmingham .

“Headsets are gradually coming down. It’s only £300-400 now for a reasonable one that’s not too clunky. And the great thing now is that we have some fabulous online assets. You can buy an office environment template, for instance, for around $100.”

The Jaguar Land Rover case study provides a good example of the potential for VR to be a lot more lo-fi headset-wise than you might assume. Coders didn’t have to come into an assessment centre or own a headset. They simply used their mobile phones to explore the test’s virtual Gorillaz garage.

“We’ve been working with Devonport Naval Heritage to create a submarine you can explore. You can view that on your smartphone either holding it in front of your face and rotating on your chair, or putting it into something like a Google cardboard viewer,” adds Stone. Coulstock, meanwhile, reports that: “At Skills London, each person took away a VR cardboard headset they could build then scan a QR code on to view the hotel VR experience in their own time.”

Creating 360-degree video VR experiences is now very straightforward, adds Fecci. “You pretty much just stick a GoPro on someone’s head, make sure the lighting’s decent, and they walk around the office,” he reports, adding that this form of VR is increasingly popular for inductions – so new starters can find out where people sit and where meeting rooms are.

What still costs is creating bespoke, non-video material, and – as flagged by Fecci – introducing complex, interactive AI functionality. “For us the ROI is much stronger on the training side of things currently,” reports Firmdale’s Scott.

And the aspect of recruitment the jury is still very much out on VR-wise is the interview stage. The idea of interviewing a candidate by both donning headsets – mooted by some as a potential solution to interviewing over distance – seems far from taking off. Stone, for example, is sceptical that VR will ever really add anything to what Skype already offers. Haptic technology, including the use of digitally connected gloves, would need to get much more sophisticated and widespread first, he says.

“I think [VR for remote interviewing] is a bit far-fetched,” agrees Scott, adding though: “But then 10 years ago we didn’t think we’d be interviewing people over Skype.”

PwC’s Merschel agrees on the importance of keeping an open mind. “Could we advance so that you put your VR glasses on and feel like you’re shaking someone’s hand and having an in-person interaction? I think that is in the future at some point,” she says.

“This technology is advancing on a regular basis. I certainly think it’ll come into play for testing and interviewing in the future,” she adds. “I do think the sky is the limit.”

This piece featured in our recent Futureproofing versus present practicalities technology supplement. Read the full supplement here