Experts agree that one of the best ways to understand someone else's experience is to talk to them about it. But anyone who has ever had to explain racial trauma to a co-worker who has never experienced it knows how re-traumatizing this can be.
Workplace software company ServiceNow is experimenting with virtual and augmented reality to see if those technologies can improve inclusion and increase empathy among its employees. The goal is to better equip managers and employees with the tools needed to show up for each other without burdening folks from marginalized groups.
ServiceNow began piloting VR technology in its workplace back in 2019, and augmented reality in 2020 for managers, "given their outsized influences on people's experiences," ServiceNow director of global diversity, inclusion and belonging Megan Kollar Dwyer told Protocol. This month, the company launched another VR pilot focused on empathy and perspective-taking, which is more widely available to all employees.
The company turned to VR to enable employees and managers to gain a better perspective on a variety of experiences people may face in the workplace as well as improve empathy and show them how to take action, Kollar Dwyer said.
"We know it's not just enough to raise awareness about something, or even just to get a sense of an experience that's either very familiar to you and aligns with your lived experience or is very unfamiliar to you and hasn't been aligned with your lived experience," she said. "You've got to know what to do."
Through Praxis Labs, a DEI VR provider, ServiceNow has taken managers through a number of different scenarios that tackle topics such as promotions, racism, microaggressions and bias. One AR scenario, for example, helps managers talk to their teams about racism in light of a hypothetical event that "happened over the weekend that has affected a community," Kollar Dwyer said.
A VR scenario, for example, puts someone in the roles of experiencing bias, perpetrating bias and watching bias happen to another person. As a bystander in that scenario, people are able to practice the skill of speaking up and being an ally, she said. After the scenario, the tool shares with learners what they could do to foster more equity and inclusion in the workplace.
Praxis Labs CEO Elise Smith believes being proximate to people who are different from you is the best way to understand different perspectives, she told Protocol. She noted how segregation in America is increasing and how the workplace can be an opportunity to interact with folks from a variety of backgrounds.
"But the ability to understand the perspective of this more diverse environment that we typically find ourselves in is limited unless we require folks from marginalized backgrounds to share their trauma for the education of us all," Smith said. "That burden is one that is on top of folks who are already trying to overcome systems of oppression in workplaces."
That's why Praxis Labs sees VR and mixed reality as an opportunity to protect marginalized groups of people from taking on that burden while also providing an experience for others to learn and build empathy, she said.
Trainees can also "practice building muscles of how to respond, how to intervene and how to make decisions that produce more inclusion, that produce more equity, so that when they in real life have the chance to perhaps intervene, they will have practice," Smith said.
ServiceNow measures impact through surveys as well as relying on Praxis Labs to show anonymized patterns and trends. Praxis Labs tracks and measures efficacy across the duration of the program. For example, Praxis measures each participant's personal growth by tracking how well they identify factors that contribute to inequity, as well as whether the decisions they make contribute to equitable outcomes.
Using virtual reality to improve empathy is not a novel idea. In 2018, Stanford University researchers found that those who participated in a virtual reality experience detailing what it's like to be homeless made them more likely to support affordable housing than other participants in the study. A 2020 study found that virtual reality (e.g., being with someone carrying a bunch of water over a long distance) is about as effective at eliciting empathy as an embodied experience (carrying a bunch of water in real life). However, VR was not better than the real experience.
The study concluded: "While more research needs to be done, the mixed results of this study and previous studies indicates the proposition that VR is the ultimate empathy machine seems to be more of an article of faith than a proven fact."
Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab and co-author of the above Stanford study, told Protocol that VR "is not a magic solution that is going to solve bias issues."
Many people wonder if VR is the ultimate empathy machine, but Bailenson cautioned that "no single media experience will perfectly erase decades of how we become who we are."
Instead, he said, VR provides an experience that people might not otherwise be able to have.
"It gives you an emotional, arousing experience which then can be used to drive the conversation," he said. "Where I've settled in my thinking about the role of VR as it relates to diversity training is realizing that a training curriculum is vast and VR gets you one small portion."
ServiceNow is not the only company to try to improve inclusion through virtual reality. Praxis Labs also counts companies such as Google, Amazon and Uber as customers.
"The feedback we've gotten and why we are able to partner with huge companies when we are an early stage startup is because these are visceral experiences that are pushing people and making them think differently," Smith said. "They're learning about concepts they might not realize exists in workplaces and they're being able to see them and expose them in their workplace. It's not just building empathy, it's not just identifying barriers to equity but taking action to produce more just, equitable and inclusive workplaces."
Virtual reality is part of ServiceNow's broader diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. On the more structural side, ServiceNow has also implemented what it calls "bias busting nudges" to identify common biases that come up in performance review processes. The automated nudges are designed to remind managers about confirmation bias, similarity bias, proximity bias and other biases as they input information about employees during a performance review.
ServiceNow's diversity numbers are generally on par with representation statistics from other tech companies. The company is 70.8% male globally. In the U.S.,the company is 55.8% white while just 2.7% Black, 6.2% Latinx and 32.2% Asian, according to its 2020 diversity report. Meanwhile, its leadership team is 72.4% male globally and 68.6% white.
ServiceNow has set goals to increase the representation of Black and Latinx people, as well as women in leadership roles, but declined to share those goals.
"Obviously," Kollar Dwyer said, "the goal is to get to balanced and diverse teams across the organization."