Bank robberies in VR: How BofA is training staff for stressful encounters

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

In October 2021, Bank of America introduced virtual reality training across its 4,300 financial centers, staffed by roughly 50,000 employees. The program initially prioritized trainings on client and colleague interactions, but proved to be so successful that the organization has since invested in building additional virtual scenarios as elaborate and challenging as bank robberies. 

“The safety of your employees is based on decisions managers make in split seconds, in some cases,” says John Jordan, head of Bank of America’s The Academy, which oversees all onboarding and skill development at the company. “We’ve found VR to be quite the business case, a way to provide better training and better client and employee experiences.”

Not all of Bank of America’s VR trainings are as terrifying as a robbery — though they are as effective, Jordan says. The Academy has long leaned on technology to enhance training and development programs. Its web-based trainings allow employees to engage in scenarios and conversations, both during the formal onboarding process and anytime after at the employee’s leisure; those trainings have been utilized nearly one million times by employees. The addition of virtual reality, he says, is just one more way to enhance learnings and make them stickier. 

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

A person tests hand tracking on a Meta virtual reality headset. Bank of America is using VR to train employees to prepare for situations that require split-second decisions.

Michael Short/Bloomberg

It’s proven to be a valuable way to build empathy. With the expertise of The Academy’s internal team, as well as input from Bank of America’s tech partners, the bank has created trainings on responding with empathy when someone is going through a divorce or experiencing a death in the family, as examples. 

“Especially for younger people who are earlier in their career, they may have never experienced those things, and as a result may not be as empathetic as you would want,” Jordan says. These trainings help bridge that gap, and in addition to giving employees an opportunity to practice and experience a live conversation, virtual interactions are also recorded, allowing the employee to review their performance.

“The trainings help you look for cues, ask better questions and literally put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Jordan says. “The people who provide the best client service are typically the people who have the most tenure. So how do you simulate tenure? It’s through practice.” 

Adopting the technology has involved fewer hurdles than expected at Bank of America. The biggest challenge, Jordan says, is simply helping folks overcome the fear of putting on the VR headset. (“People think they’re going to get dizzy.”) But once they’ve tried the technology, those fears are quieted. 

As the company continues building out its virtual reality trainings in the future, Jordan says there are plenty of additional opportunities to maximize the value of technology, particularly in the space 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 your race in a room — that’s where we’ll see value, and that’s where empathy will grow from,” he says. 

Through Bank of America’s Pathways program, the bank partners with nonprofit organizations and community colleges to provide career paths for people in low- and moderate-income communities, with a commitment to hire 20,000 people. Part of that partnership includes sharing some of Bank of America’s training programs, working to build job skills and career readiness among these communities. 

“We hit 10,000 hires and are working toward another 10,000, typically non-degree individuals, and it’s been wildly successful,” Jordan says. “We partner with organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, or the Community College of Rhode Island, and we’ve got such a wealth of content on everything from technology to client care and empathy, we’re working to complement what those organizations are already doing to upskill communities.” 

As The Academy’s tech-driven programs continue to expand, both within Bank of America and beyond, it will only create a stronger workforce, Jordan says, and better interactions among Bank of America’s team — and with their clients. 

“If you get 50,000 people to be better at something, times the millions of client interactions,” he says, “it matters.”

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