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Why This Restaurant Chain Has Started Using VR to Train Employees The trendy tech simulates hands-on learning without the risks and onboards new hires faster.

By Lydia Belanger

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Honeygrow and Klip Collective

In this series, The Fix, Entrepreneur Associate Editor Lydia Belanger shares her conversations with founders and executives whose solutions to inefficiencies can inspire others to find new ways to save themselves time, money or hassle.

Every new hire at Honeygrow, a fast-casual chain that specializes in stir-fry and salads, sits through a training session, as is standard in the foodservice industry. They hear about protocol for cleaning up messes, stocking the fridge and preparing menu items. But they don't learn these protocols by donning an apron and shadowing someone who knows the ropes. Nor do they pore over a thick handbook or passively sit through a safety video.

Instead, they put on a virtual reality headset, tour a Honeygrow location with a 360-degree view and hear about company values from founder and CEO Justin Rosenberg, who virtually stands before them. Everyone who starts at Honeygrow, across 17 (and counting) locations, has the same immersive and engaging training experience.

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"We like to do things a bit differently here," the pre-recorded virtual Rosenberg says after introducing himself. "So for example, we get to onboard you and train you through VR."

By the time new hires are ready for training, many of them (mainly managers for now) have already seen some of the VR training features during their interviews. Honeygrow also uses this experience, which it developed in collaboration with Philadelphia-based Klip Collective, as a recruiting tool.

Those who experience Honeygrow's VR training watch real-life employees in action, in addition to playing a game in which they virtually stock an animated walk-in refrigerator. The game is complete with background music, punctuated by animal sounds that play when users place a computer-animated cow, chicken, pig and fish on shelves using a remote control -- and falling confetti when they complete the game successfully.

Click and drag as you watch this 360-degree preview of the Honeygrow VR training experience.

"The truth is, retail, and especially fast-casual in restaurants, is so competitive for the same sample pool of people," Rosenberg says. " We want people to interview and have an amazing first impression and really to want to be part of this company."

Honeygrow is not the only retail company that's applied VR to employee onboarding. In early June, Walmart announced plans to incorporate the technology into its 200 training academies, from which more than 140,000 associates graduate annually, by the end of 2017. Walmart worked with VR research and development startup Strivr, which formed out of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, to develop the tech. Strivr "uses VR to improve performance of athletes, brands and organizations," according to its website. It has tested its VR experiences on athletes: NFL quarterbacks who trained with Strivr saw a 30 percent increase in their ability to recall topics.

Walmart does not release data regarding the results of its pilot program for VR training, but a company spokesperson told Entrepreneur in an email that "the results were significant enough to cause us to expand the program, and we're seeing better outcomes in both retention of the material and engagement with the content. Assessment scores in the pilot Academies have also generally improved."

Honeygrow rolled out VR training in early May. Even before adding VR, the five-year-old company had been tracking what percentage of its managers were certified on different categories within its training program, from cooking noodles to company culture. Within 30 days of implementing VR, the proportion of Honeygrow team members who were certified on culture jumped from 50 to 77 percent.

"Of the people who are getting certified, those certifications are happening faster, so they're learning quicker," Rosenberg says, noting that it's too early to know how effective it's been in reducing food safety breaches, but that "mistakes theoretically would be eradicated earlier" as people are trained faster and more efficiently.

Entrepreneur spoke with Rosenberg as well as Honeygrow Chief Brand Officer Jen Denis about how the idea for VR training came about and the possibilities it offers.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did this solution come about? What was your a-ha moment?
Rosenberg: The story for us using VR stems from me just collecting my New York Times one Sunday, opening it up and there was the Google Cardboard headset. I tried it and thought, "This is crazy." It was a 360-degree story in a 360-degree environment, and I thought, "That's insane."

Just doing some research on VR and where Facebook is going with it, and Google and all of these companies, I thought, "Well, cool, but how could we use it at our level?" Then I texted Jen [Denis] and I was like, "We need to figure something out, probably for training, right?"

Denis: You brought it in. We all played with it. And we thought, "How great would it be if you could put someone in a Honeygrow no matter where they are?" You could be training someone in a conference room in a hiring center, and they could be far, far away. And also, as our stores evolve, it will be great to show them the beginning and how we started.

Rosenberg: Any business has business challenges. One of them for us would be, "How do we engage our team when it comes to training and onboarding our employees?" So specifically, people at the store level, and probably ultimately people at the corporate level. When we're bringing people on at the store level, we have to sit with them, and there's the classic training book and they're reading the text. I'm watching the guys that come in. You can just tell they're not all there. And when they're not all there, they're missing points.

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I used to be GM of our stores. I know how hard it is to train our people. So, let's say I'm having a great day. In training and onboarding, my tone will be great, I'm covering all points, I'm not rushing it. Whereas if I'm having a bad day, I might be curtailing that message and not giving you the right tone or the right message. So a group of people training in Chicago will not be getting the same consistent authentic connection to who we are relative to people in Philadelphia or DC.

With VR, right from the beginning, you're getting a consistent message on things that, for us, are critical: hospitality, food accuracy, safety, cleanliness. All of those key points, we're telling you, from the absolute beginning, with a super positive and consistent message. Plus being super authentic.

I'm on there, I'm communicating with these guys, so they get to see who I am. They realize that we're not just some corporate chain just out to make dough. We spend time, and my goal would be to connect with all of our team. That's impossible, obviously, as we grow, but this is also a cool way to do that and really engage those employees.

What was the process of building it like?
Denis: Klip was getting into the VR space, so they were really excited to do something with us, and also to do something useful and not just fluff. There are tons of games out there, so they were excited that we were really going to apply this and use it. It was very collaborative, and the directors there worked with us to help us figure out which of our locations would be the best ones suited. Then we closed one of our stores for an entire day in order to do this. We gave out discounts and things to people who showed up outside just to not make them upset, and we gave them lots of fair notice. But it was great to take over the space, and we got to feature everybody in the piece -- they all work for the company. Store-level employees got to star in the show.

What was the process of implementing this like?
Rosenberg: We had to educate our district managers. They're kind of the keepers of this -- when to use it, how to use it, how to store it, when to charge the phones -- there definitely was a training aspect of that as well. It was easy -- it wasn't too complex. It wasn't anything too different than managing your own iPhone or whatever.

What do you weigh when you decide to implement new technologies in your company?
Rosenberg: It's not like, "Oh, let's use VR, because it's trendy and cool." Like, who gives a shit?

This space is getting so fierce for people and for real estate and for impressions that if, if this is something that can help us stand out, we'll do it, and we'll make sure that it's thoughtfully designed.

A lot of people are like, "Hey, is it worth the investment?" And my answer in my head was always like, "Well, people don't know what they want until you give it to them."

What are the common misconceptions about this program?
Rosenberg: I don't think people realize the amount of time and thought that we put into this, and then, when they take the headset off, they're like, "Wow, that's awesome." I haven't heard anything about anyone saying "that wasn't cool" or not looking really excited when they took the headset off.

What work is left to be done or how will this solution evolve over time?
Rosenberg: We're talking about doing a 2.0 version of this. With it being so experiential and entertaining and a little bit comical, people are just that much more engaged to learn and you keep their attention longer. We want to study a bit more what impact it has, and we want to capture some data if possible. We're always thinking about, "What else could we be doing to engage our team in different ways?"

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What applications of this technology can you envision?
Rosenberg: Our space, fast-casual, or even retail in general, is so competitive for real estate, and so competitive for people. We plan to use the VR headset to show landlords in different cities who we are and what we do, and it's a great first impression. You're like, wait, these guys are really thinking different, and they've invested in technology to impress me or to get this piece of real estate or to engage the right management team.

It's our chance to be totally different than the hordes of fast-casual out there. You gotta stay ahead of the curve. That's something I'm super proud of, and that's certainly, in this case, what we're using technology for.

Lydia Belanger is a former associate editor at Entrepreneur. Follow her on Twitter: @LydiaBelanger.

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