Employers are beginning to integrate virtual reality into their recruiting efforts, and experts predict the technology will someday prove useful in other HR-specific areas such as onboarding and training.
By Mark McGraw
"What are you?"
Fran Maun guesses that he's heard that question more than any other in his five years on the recruiting trail for Pilot Flying J.
It's important to point out that the question is never directed at him personally, says Maun. (For the record, Maun is manager of recruiting at the Knoxville, Tenn.-based truck stop and convenience store operator.) Rather, he says, would-be job candidates are curious about what Pilot Flying J actually does.
Maun estimates that he spends roughly 18 to 20 weeks attending career fairs and visiting college campuses in a given year, and has been approached by countless students and job seekers who are unclear about Pilot Flying J's mission, but eager to learn more.
He's always glad when someone shows an interest in the company. But Maun and his recruitment team of about 30 have long sought a way to demonstrate to these prospective employees that Pilot Flying J is much more than "just a truck stop."
"We've got 27,000 employees spread out across the country, from drivers delivering fuel to restaurants to retail operations," says Maun, whose recruitment team interacts with more than 600,000 people over the course of a year, working to fill as many as 5,000 open positions.
And the company is expanding.
"We're opening up 250 new shops, which will offer commercial-truck-repair services, and we're launching about 150 mobile truck-repair-service stations as well," says Maun, who estimates this growth will necessitate hiring anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 new employees in the next two years.
To find top talent for such roles, "we need something that makes us stand out. For example, when we go to colleges -- whether it's Duke or Yale or the local community college -- we're up against major corporations who have tremendous presence, both socially and in the market."
However, since making a Pilot Flying J virtual reality tour part of their recruiting efforts in 2016, Maun and his team now have a way to show candidates everything that the organization does, and what makes its employee experience unique.
In less than two years, Pilot Flying J has used YouVisit's virtual reality platform to enable job candidates to experience a day, or at least a few minutes, in the life of PFJ employees.
PFJ turned to YouVisit, a New York-based provider of virtual reality marketing content, after a conversation at one of the many job fairs that Maun attends with his recruiting team.
"YouVisit saw us at a college fair and we started talking about recruiting," he says. "And, after seeing and hearing about what they do, we thought, 'What a great way to visualize what and who we are.' "
Within three months, YouVisit had created a virtual-reality experience that shows a 360-degree view of Pilot Flying J through the eyes of a PFJ employee on his first day on the job, meeting a coffee host at one of PFJ's convenience stores (who offers a hot cup of virtual coffee), for example.
Applicants putting on the VR headsets also hear from PFJ employees who share why they work for the organization -- like a grandmother who was drawn to flexible-schedule options that would allow her to spend more time with her grandkids, for instance.
"[Candidates] visit a store, they're also visited by a manager, they're introduced to a cashier, a deli manager and so on," says Maun. "And, as they go through this experience, we're showing off all these different components of our organization, who we are and what we do."
Pilot Flying J is just one example of what experts say will be a growing number of employers to turn to virtual reality as a way to immerse job candidates in their organizations' employee experience, with those same experts saying the technology could prove useful in areas such as onboarding and training as well.
Painting the Picture
Providing applicants with a realistic, accurate depiction of the organization can be a challenge, and companies apparently feel they're paying a price for failing to do so, in the form of falling retention rates.
A 2016 Glassdoor survey, for example, found 67 percent of employers saying that retention rates would be higher if candidates were given a clearer picture of the organization and what their role within it would be before they even started the job.
From a recruiting perspective, VR technology certainly has the capability to give job applicants a much better view of the company -- as well as the duties of the particular job they would be taking, says Ernie Paskey, a Washington-based partner and assessment leader at Aon Hewitt.
"We are in an age of massive disruption on the hiring front," says Paskey. "All sorts of technologies -- digital interviewing, predictive analytics, gamification, for example -- have emerged or are emerging" to change the way companies recruit and hire.
Paskey notes that "virtual reality is definitely one of these technologies that is very enticing. With VR, we can easily put job candidates in a very specific working environment."
Trying to effectively explain a position's duties "can be very difficult," continues Paskey. "Virtual reality can help explain what the work is really about."
In addition, virtual reality can provide those responsible for hiring with insights into an applicant "that they might not be able to glean otherwise, frankly," he says. "Maybe it's a candidate's attention to detail, for example. By allowing them to try the job beforehand, you can really see if they have the skills -- some that aren't necessarily as tangible -- that the job entails."
Amanda Hippe and the talent- acquisition team at Intuit Inc. used to wrestle with how to give applicants a true taste of what life was like at the Mountain View, Calif.-based accounting and tax preparation software developer.
Beyond touting the chance to be on the cutting edge of technology in highly competitive Silicon Valley, "demonstrating that we have a culture where engineers, designers and product managers can thrive is a huge selling point when competing for top talent among the tech greats," says Hippe, a recruiter at Intuit.
Putting its culture on display was part of the reason why the talent-acquisition team first created its own virtual-reality experience to draw attendees of a career fair at the University of Washington this year.
"When you hear about tech companies using VR, it's most often for a game or product experience for customers," says Hippe. "Our talent-acquisition team thought this technology [could be used to] better depict company culture -- something that's historically been hard to share with prospective candidates."
In a 10-day span leading up to the aforementioned career fair, a team of four Intuit employees and one outside vendor shot and produced "Life at Intuit," a virtual tour that showcases Intuit's newest building at its Mountain View headquarters, in addition to showing students the type of technology Intuit works on.
"The experience was received very well by the students at the U of W career fair," says Hippe. "It drove a net promoter score that started at -60 [and grew it] to +30, [in terms of] how students saw Intuit as an innovative company to work for."
Since implementing Shaker's Virtual Job Tryout technology in 2012, CSAA Insurance Group has gotten similar kudos from job candidates, says Bobbi Herrington, director of talent acquisition at the Walnut Creek, Calif.-based insurer.
At CSAA, "the bulk of hiring happens within the claims and service roles," says Herrington. Before choosing Shaker, a Cleveland-based provider of talent-acquisition solutions, "we conducted an analysis and discovered that the assessment tool we were using did not differentiate the talent pool, thus adding little to the screening process."
Designed for specific job types, the Shaker platform allows candidates to "test drive" jobs that are comparable to the positions they're applying for, demonstrating their abilities in call-center roles such as sales and service, as well as retail banking positions such as tellers and customer-relationship managers.
Virtual Job Tryout also generates candidate-score reports designed to provide recruiters with data-based predictors of new-hire success. CSAA has primarily used the platform to assess candidates' chances for future success in claims and customer-service roles, as well as providing applicants "with a realistic preview of the job, company and culture," says Herrington.
The feedback from those who have experienced the Virtual Job Tryout confirms that it both helps them understand the nature of the job and accurately reflects what to expect once they've started working at the company, says Herrington, adding that CSAA has seen a nearly 40 percent drop in early terminations since implementing Shaker's platform.
Finding Other Uses
Ravin Jesuthasan, a Chicago-based managing director at Willis Towers Watson's talent-management practice, isn't surprised by the results companies such as Pilot Flying J, Intuit and CSAA have seen.
"It's early on, but the big advantage I see to using virtual reality [for recruiting purposes] lies in the value that the company's employment brand accrues," says Jesuthasan. "That's the big hook. Using this kind of technology really gives a company's brand a real sheen, in terms of being a forward-thinking company." (See sidebar.)
The opportunity to give the Pilot Flying J employment brand a boost was a key factor in its decision to implement virtual reality, says Maun.
"We're constantly talking to prospective employees about how the company works. And the nuts and bolts of, say, a retail restaurant are essentially the same anywhere," he says, adding that a link to the virtual-reality tour -- minus the VR headset, of course -- is also available on the company's career site.
"But how do we really get them excited about us? Technology. For example, we have new technology that allows drivers to reserve parking spaces at our truck stops," says Maun.
"Technology is driving our success," he says. "So what better way to show that we're tech-savvy than by offering this kind of high-tech experience [to applicants]?" he continues, noting that the virtual-reality tour is currently netting 70 to 80 weekly views on the PFJ career site, despite little promotion.
Virtual reality could also soon find a role in other parts of the HR function at Pilot Flying J, too.
"We've got our training department looking at the YouVisit platform. We could definitely look at this as a training tool used to present information about the company in a classroom-type environment," says Maun, adding that PFJ is also considering using the virtual-reality video for new-employee orientation as well.
Virtual reality could indeed have applications in HR-centric areas such as training and onboarding, says Anthony Boyce, a Washington-based consultant at Aon Hewitt.
"In the military, for example, they've been using very high-fidelity virtual reality job simulations," says Boyce. "Take training -- especially when safety is a big concern. You don't want a new nuclear technician, for example, in a reactor learning on the job."
Virtual reality could be "huge, from a training standpoint," he continues. "You can put someone in a high-fidelity job simulation, but the cost of a mistake is basically eliminated."
Jesuthasan sees similar promise for VR in onboarding, but cautions that its use for orienting new employees to the organization carries different challenges.
"Virtual reality gets even more interesting when you talk about it as part of the onboarding process," he says. "In the recruiting process, you've showed the candidate what a day on the job would be like, generally speaking. But, for onboarding, you have to create specific onboarding experiences for someone coming into HR, into operations, into finance and so on."
That said, "you could still find and focus on elements that are common to every job within the organization: What does every employee have to do or know? That's what you could include in a virtual-reality experience as part of onboarding new employees."
As is often the case, cost is certainly one factor that's slowing down virtual reality's integration into the workplace. (A decent headset will typically sell in the $500-to-$1,000 range.)
"Until [virtual-reality headsets] become more cost-effective, VR is still more or less a 'gamer's game,' " Maun says.
"How big this technology ultimately becomes with employers will be dictated in large part by how big it becomes with the general population first," he says. "But I think there are some real applications here for not just recruiting, but also for training and onboarding."