Bank of America is betting on virtual reality to upskill staff

What’s the best way to help employees prepare for the worst-case scenario? For Bank of America, the answer is rehearsals.

In October 2021, Bank of America rolled out virtual reality training across its 4,300 financial centers employing approximately 50,000 people. The program initially prioritized customer and colleague interaction training, but proved so successful that the organization has since invested in building additional virtual scenarios as lavish and challenging as bank robberies.

“The safety of your employees is based on decisions that managers sometimes make in a split second,” said John Jordan, director of The Academy at Bank of America, which oversees all onboarding and skill development at the company. “We found that VR has a real business case, a way to deliver better training and better customer and employee experiences.”

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Not all Bank of America VR workouts are as terrifying as a heist — though they are so effective, Jordan says. The Academy has long relied on it technology to improve training and development programs. The web-based training allows employees to engage in scenarios and conversations, both during the formal onboarding process and at any time at the employee’s convenience; This training has been used almost a million times by employees. The addition of virtual reality, he says, is just another way to enhance learning and make it more tangible.

“When we started piloting this technology, we quickly saw situations where someone had been trained in something and felt confident in their skills, but when we used virtual reality they realized that maybe they didn’t know the subject that well , as they thought,” says Jordan. “So not only has the VR experience created a more memorable way for them to learn, but it’s also given us a better way to certify a skill.”

It has proven to be a valuable way to build empathy. For example, with the expertise of The Academy’s in-house team and input from Bank of America’s technology partners, the bank has developed training on how to empathize with someone going through a divorce or a bereavement in the family.

“Especially younger people who are early in their careers may not have experienced these things, so they may not be as empathetic as you would like,” says Jordan. These training sessions help bridge this gap and not only give employees the opportunity to practice and experience a live conversation, but virtual interactions are recorded so that the employee can review their performance.

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“The trainings help you look for clues, ask better questions, and literally put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” says Jordan. “The people who provide the best customer service tend to be the people with the longest tenure. So how do you simulate seniority? It comes through practice.”

Adopting the technology faced fewer hurdles than expected Bank of America. The biggest challenge, says Jordan, is simply helping people overcome the fear of putting on the VR headset. (“People think they’ll get dizzy.”) But once they try the technology, those fears are allayed.

As the company continues to expand its virtual reality training in the future, Jordan says there are many additional ways to maximize the value of the technology, particularly in the realm of Diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

“To be able to show someone what it might be like to have a physical disability, or to be the only person of their race in a room — we see value in that, and empathy will grow from that,” he says.

Through Bank of America’s Pathways program, the bank works with nonprofits and community colleges to provide career paths to people in low- and middle-income communities, with a commitment to hire 10,000 associates. Part of this partnership includes sharing some of Bank of America’s training programs and working to build professional skills and career readiness in these communities.

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“We’ve reached 5,000 new hires and are working on another 5,000, mostly undergraduates, and it’s been extremely successful,” says Jordan. “We work with organizations like the Boys and Girls Club or the Community College of Rhode Island, and we have such a wealth of content on everything from technology to customer care and empathy that we’re working to add to what these organizations are already doing to improve the communities.”

As the Academy’s technology-focused programs continue to expand both within Bank of America and beyond, it will only result in a stronger workforce, says Jordan, and better interactions between the Bank of America team — and with their customers.

“When you get 50,000 people to do something better multiplied by the millions of customer interactions,” he says, “it matters.”