HR Tech Interview with Derek Belch, CEO at Strivr
A growing interest in immersive training and hiring experiences can impact how global companies rewrite their recruiting and upskilling strategies; Derek Belch, CEO at Strivr dives into more use cases and benefits while taking us through Strivr’s journey is this chat:
Tell us a little about yourself Derek…we’d love to hear Strivr’s inception and journey…
The story with Strivr really started in 2014 while I was pursuing my graduate degree and working as an assistant coach for the Stanford football team. While I was there, I “pitched” David Shaw (head coach) my thesis idea… using virtual reality (VR) to help football players get mental reps when they weren’t physically practicing. David felt it was a good idea that could potentially help the team – so I got started on the project. The project ended up being so successful that after my second season coaching David sat me down and told me – “If I were you, I’d get out of here… go start a company” I took his advice and started Strivr with the help of Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford Professor and founder of the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
We initially started with providing VR for athletic training and built up a healthy roster of NFL and NCAA teams. In the summer of 2016, Brock McKeel, Senior Director of Digital Operations at Walmart visited a football training facility at the University of Arkansas where he saw our product in action with the players and saw the potential for this technology to be used in training employees. He gave me a call, and just two months later we kicked off a pilot program within the Walmart Academies system. Within two years, we had put Strivr in every one of Walmart’s 4,500+ stores nationwide. As of today, we’ve touched over one million different associates at Walmart. Since that time, Strivr has expanded further into the enterprise with partners such as Verizon, FedEx, Sprouts, and more.
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Over the years in tech, how have you observed HR leaders reduce the need to rely on traditional degrees or qualifications when shortlisting talent?
We have seen this idea of removing college education qualifications from recruiting processes over the last several years, with companies like Apple, Google, and IBM making the jump as early as 2018. This year, Elon Musk also shared that a college degree is not necessary for a job at Tesla, further illustrating that this trend is growing. What seems to be a similar motivating factor for all of these companies is the ability to broaden hiring pools for talent that can be more diverse, driven, and versatile.
At Strivr, as it relates to the candidate experience, we’ve seen shifts in how businesses are rethinking their approach to assessing potential new hires. With the use of immersive technologies like Virtual Reality (VR), companies are able to access a unique set of insights to complement traditional hiring practices (e.g. resumes and interviews), removing some of the inherent biases from the process. In VR, candidates can go through an immersive assessment to show off their skills in realistic simulations that mimic what they would face on the job in the real world. Using realistic people, places, situations, and conversations from the real workplace, VR can help provide a good sense of real world behavior. Furthermore, this type of assessment can also provide a candidate with an exciting and memorable experience during the interview process, while also providing them a chance to determine for themselves whether they feel a role would be a good fit.
As roles across tech get more automated, what are some of the newer skills that today’s workforce should be equipped with as a basic standard?
If this year has taught us anything, it’s that the future can be wildly unpredictable. Seven months ago, none of us would have guessed that almost every office worker in the world would be working from home, or that grocery store employees would need to learn and enforce strict pandemic-related protocols. Consequently, certain skills and competencies have become even more critical during this time, with soft skills seemingly taking center stage. This holds true as we consider remote work environments for the unforeseeable future along with the ongoing digitization and automation of the workplace. Fostering skills that are uniquely human becomes even more essential to maintaining a company’s culture, and to ensuring teams remain collaborative and productive. A few examples of these important skills include navigating difficult conversations with empathy, promoting awareness and behaviors for more inclusive conversations, and coaching for positive relationships.
How are you seeing reskilling and upskilling programs in businesses change given the shift to identify talent more on basis of capability and less on formal qualifications?
Companies are refocusing on workplace training that is rooted in continuous employee education, or “lifelong learning”. This concept of lifelong learning affects how companies view the function of L&D, conduct hiring, provide career mobility, and utilize technology to deliver training at scale. While continuing employee education has been around for some time, the majority of programs have relied on specific content forms like seminars, literature, and eLearning.
The key difference now is the increasing use of technology-driven, on-the-job training. Innovative, technology-driven training enables companies to continuously teach new skills, measurably improve outcomes, and provide increased avenues for career advancement by unlocking hidden potential with data-driven decision making.
Let’s return to the example of immersive learning. A manager is given a VR headset loaded with a soft skills module that asks them to coach an employee through a difficult coworker relationship. As that manager practices her skills in the headset, behavioral data on her performance is being captured in real-time: verbal data like keyword and speech pattern analysis, as well as nonverbal data like eye contact and gesturing.
All of this behavioral data helps illustrate strengths, as well as surface key focus areas for improvement in a less biased way. This data can also be evaluated over time, enabling HR departments to help guide their employees on a path of continuous refinement and improvement. This opens up numerous avenues in workplace training that previous classroom or seminar training models simply cannot achieve.
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What are some best practices that you’d share with teams working on recreating or customizing their employee training and skilling programs?
The number one piece of advice I can give is to invest in your people. Beyond prioritizing L&D initiatives, ensure the programs you put in place are effective, exciting, and engaging.
This is why Immersive Learning is quickly becoming an ideal training choice across many industries. Using VR, employees can be fully immersed in real-world scenarios where they can practice both hard and soft skills in a safe environment, without risk or consequence. In VR, mistakes are free. Employees can practice for potentially high-stress situations and with scenarios that will quickly become familiar in their new role. They can also get a sense for company culture right off the bat by leveraging VR as a way to deliver culture-driven training consistently and at scale to help acclimate more quickly and seamlessly. Immersive Learning programs also offer unique insights for skill assessment and role fit to complement existing hiring and promotional practices.
As HR leaders respond to the business needs of the new normal; what are some of the top thoughts you’d share?
I think it’s important for companies to plan for the future as if remote work and virtual environments will continue to be a large part of how we operate. Many companies know how to handle recruiting, onboarding, and L&D programs while in person – but do they know how to execute these virtually, in compelling ways?
In the L&D world, I see this translating into on-demand learning. This means employees can learn and practice skills without needing to be in a specific location, or physically near anyone else. Not only does this decrease the need for employees or trainers to travel, but it also saves companies the strain of shutting down necessary business assets/operations in order to train. This is actually one of the major benefits that Strivr has seen in this “new normal”… the ability of employees to effectively train from anywhere can be a game changer.
What are some of the top tech trends and in-demand skills you feel will dominate HR / HR Tech in the near-future?
Soft skills will be in high demand at every job level. Soft skills have been discussed a lot, especially as it pertains to frontline workers and customer service. However, as remote work and other major shifts continue, the need for leaders (and their teams) to sharpen key soft skills will be at an all-time high. Times of crisis have always required leaders to be the backbone of the company, but how this translates to specific skills will soon change. In the near-future, strategic initiatives such as restructuring and vision-painting will certainly be important, but the critical piece will be how leaders diversify their skillset arsenal with empathy, inclusivity, and high EQ.
There will be a spike in pandemic-related career switches, leading to reskilling at scale. Unfortunately, many workers in location-dependent industries like hospitality and travel have been laid off. Given that the effects of COVID-19 will continue long after all health and safety orders are lifted, many of those workers are now considering career switches to entirely new sectors. Companies looking to tap into this new talent market will need to quickly develop robust training and reskilling programs at scale. To do this, CHROs and people-oriented leaders will look to innovative emerging technologies to provide scalable solutions that are effective, engaging, and data-driven.
Companies will utilize technology to offer creative office perks. While remote work is highly desirable for some employees, it also means losing out on traditional in-office benefits like team lunches, collaborative spaces, and unlimited cold brew. More importantly, it may make employees feel they are missing out on moments that are essential to building culture, connection, and shared experiences. Soon, companies will get creative and figure out how to create these moments through different channels. New remote-conducive perks might include anything from more days off and exercise stipends to unprecedented flexibility (companies hiring outside of normal geos), to innovative hiring and training practices (like virtually experiencing a job before you’ve even signed an offer letter).
CHROs will secure a bigger seat at the table…… and they’ll bring data. CHROs have already proven that they are critical to a company’s morale, positioning and ability to effectively pivot. In the near-future, data will become a crucial piece of how CHROs operate. CHROs will have increased access to workforce performance data through Learning & Development initiatives, enabling them to more objectively analyze and understand employee skills. This will influence strategy at the highest level – informing culture, measuring risks, enabling restructuring, propelling everyday roles forward, and more.
Before we wrap up, we’d love to hear a little about the employee culture and experience at Strivr…!
Strivr’s culture is centered around a few core values: grit, passion, transparency, teamwork and impact. I believe it’s important for every employee to know the story behind how we came to our specific core values, why believe in them, and how we envision them impacting the way we work.
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In order to tell this story and forge an individual connection with each employee, I make sure to dedicate 45 minutes to every onboarding cycle. Within every new hire’s first 1-2 weeks, I use that time to walk them through our core values and the cultural expectations at Strivr, and answer any questions they may have. I truly believe that the CEO sets the tone for the culture of the organization, and as leaders it’s our duty to be the steward and (positive) example of that culture through our everyday actions and words.
In terms of the employee experience outside of the onboarding process, we strive to put our employees first, make sure they feel heard and supported, and provide benefits that make them feel connected and valued. Of course, the pandemic and social distancing protocols have made it difficult over the last seven months. We knew it was important for us to figure out other (non face-to-face) ways to maintain our sense of community and comradery. To do this we have maintained our weekly (albeit now virtual) town halls, and continued to celebrate birthdays, ‘workaversaries’, and weekly MVPs. We also decided to fund a portion of our employees’ lunches, just as we would have in the office, and celebrated everyone’s hard work and commitment with Fridays off for a month in the summer. Maintaining this sense of connection and ensuring employees feel valued are extremely important to our ongoing success here at Strivr.
Derek Belch is the founder and CEO of Strivr; Derek developed his vision for Strivr while getting his Masters in Virtual Reality and serving as an assistant football coach at Stanford University. With a passion for sports and expertise in immersive technology, Derek set out to reinvent and shape the future of how people learn. From the athlete to the enterprise, Strivr is now partnering with leading Fortune 1000 companies to elevate performance through immersive experience.
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