It’s a Monday morning; your team is discussing who will be a speaker at the next conference. One of your ambitious male colleagues is confidently asking for the top spot, while one of your female colleagues who is more qualified to speak is sitting quietly in her chair. Will you help or will you sit back and hope she’ll find the courage to speak up at the boardroom table?
A WhatsApp message flashes up on your phone. It’s from Human Resources. What’s your move?
The scene playing out in front of you might look like one you’ve experienced before. The boardroom looks familiar and the mutterings from staff realistic, but you’re not in your own office, you’re immersed in a virtual reality scenario created by the Californian start-up Vantage Point. Created by former digital marketeer Morgan Mercer, 27, the aim of Vantage Point is to help you question your beliefs and share the experiences of others.
The virtual reality role plays tackle racism, gender equality, cultural relations and ageism. The entrepreneur is now running the program in Fortune 500 companies in the US and Europe, and she is now about to launch Vantage Point in Asia.
Mercer’s idea for the start-up came from having her own beliefs challenged when she went to university in Italy. The young woman from North Carolina, who is the daughter of a white Trump supporter and an African-American democrat, was asked to explain her views on immigration by a friend whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia to Sweden. “I came face to face with my own bias. Opinions that I realized weren’t actually my own,” Mercer said.
Mercer, who had faced prejudice as a biracial woman, thought about how she could create a product that would put you in someone else’s shoes. A fan of the digital world, she thought about virtual reality. As virtual reality was being used to create compelling gaming experiences and to teach fighter pilots, Mercer wondered whether the tool could also be used to create shared experiences.
While she had a digital background, she wasn’t an expert in VR so she reached out to people who were. “I contacted product designers, business owners, directors and producers and asked them what they thought about during product creation and how their choice of VR impacted their strategy,” says Mercer. “People gave me their time, because they were interested in the philosophy behind the product.”
Mercer resigned from her position as head of digital marketing for a fashion company and concentrated on creating Vantage Point – a virtual reality training experience that would highlight discrimination in the workplace. “I didn’t have a product when I started pitching Vantage Point,” says Mercer. “I didn’t have a VR headset, just a presentation that I had made using Adobe photoshop.”
Vantage Point started as a training program that would challenge people’s views of sexism. “Before #MeToo people didn’t understand it. After #MeToo everyone understood it,” she says. Mercer was accepted on to an accelerator programme. The accelerator scheme also matched her with Californian virtual hardware company Oculus, and she was given VR headsets, upon which to create the training scenarios. The scenarios were created with the help of anthropologists and sociologists.
But in June 2020, Mercer decided that Vantage Point to evolve and include an antiracism training program as well. A survey by Glassdoor revealed that nearly half of Black and Hispanic employees have quit a job after seeing or experiencing racism at work.
Mercer tested the prototype at start-ups in Los Angeles and San Francisco and they had to go back and rewrite the script. “We learnt that we couldn’t be assumptive about what people know. Some people in the US don’t understand Black Lives Matter. We needed to meet people where they are,” said Mercer.
Mercer said that companies were also surprised to see that while they seemed to have a homogenous company culture, there were vastly different sets of perspectives and levels of awareness among employees. “Every person’s life experiences are completely different,” says Mercer.
Participants experience each scenario, then they are coached through their answers so they can see how they might have been able to tackle the situation differently.
The idea is to make the participant stop and think. “We are never pushing them to the brink where they take off the headset and are crying because they feel horrible. That’s not what we want,” says Mercer. “We think a lot about psychological safety. If people feel psychologically unsafe, they will feel defensive. The training program is not going to be effective.”
Cornell Verdeja-Woodson, founder of Brave Trainings in San Francisco, trialled the program when he was working with Google-owned company. He told CNN: “We can sit in training and talk about it. But it’s not until they are in the experience that they go ‘Whoa, this makes more sense to me now.’”
Mercer signed her second lot of seed funding (USD$4.25 million in total), just before the pandemic, which has helped her offer Vantage Point to her clients in the remote world. Clients are now given a glamorous unboxing experience, as the Vantage Point headset is delivered to the client’s front door.
In 2021, Mercer will be expanding the Vantage Point program once more to incorporate cultural relation courses and age diversity. But working remotely has also created new scenarios for the Vantage Point scriptwriters. Mercer’s team is now focusing helping people navigate the business world online. “Companies are asking us to include scenarios that stop people from falling into harmful or derogatory gender stereotypes while chatting on virtual conference calls, such as telling everyone that your wife is cooking dinner,” says Mercer.
Award-winning work psychologist Marie-Helene Pelletier says that VR is unlikely to be a solution on its own, but it may prove to be an effective tool in helping people change how they think, feel and behave. “VR can modify an individual’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors both in individual interactions and in roles in shaping law, policies and setting social norms,” she says. The workplace mental health expert questions how long the effects last for: “More studies are needed in this area.”
Sam Isaacson, author of How To Thrive as a Coach in a Digital World, finds that VR training offers a distraction-free environment. “With a VR headset on, you won’t see someone walking past you out of the corner of your eye, and you don’t even have the option to open up your email, which is a rare break from the relentlessness of technology,” he says. When he’s not offering one-on-one coaching in alternative landscapes, he also offers coaching in a real-life environment, he sees the pros and cons of both methods. “By its nature of course, VR training does take you away from reality, and so there’s a risk that the lessons learned within the VR environment will remain there at an unconscious level,” Isaacson adds.
Mercer’s team is now working with clients looking at different ways you can track and measure diversity in the workplace. They are looking at staff’s levels of happiness in the company and attrition. Mercer says that the courses are not just aimed at the decision makers, but everyone. “If you don’t feel seen you are not going to stay,” she explains.