Any kind of, I guess en masse mindfulness or self-care platforms really understands what they're getting and how it might or might not help people because, you know, in terms of workforce mental health, saying that the solution to all of your, you know, workforce wellbeing or stress problems is just giving them an app and telling them to use it once a week or once a day is pretty naive in terms of return on investment.
Welcome to that Wellbeing @ Work Show I'm Chris Taylor your show host. This week I wanted to look at how organizations instill soft skills behavior change that actually sticks. Traditional methods of learning such as classroom based learning we know has really limited long-term impact on the way that people behave. Dr. Alex Young is a former trauma and orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Virti. Virti is a cutting edge technology learning business that uses tech like augmented reality to greatly improve employee engagement and EQ by focusing on human skills, such as empathy. Skills such as empathy we know are so important in creating a well-being culture. Dr. Alex begins the interview by explaining his journey. Alex, welcome to the show, your a trained trauma and orthopedic surgeon who built and sold your first business whilst at medical school. Can you give me your backstory a little bit?
Yeah, sure. Great to be speaking with you, Chris, and thanks having me on the podcast. Yeah, my, my journey has been quite a strange one. So as you mentioned, my original undergrad degree was medicine. So I trained to be a doctor in the UK, and I also did a degree in education alongside that when I graduated. I've always been very, very passionate about helping people in any kind of workforce, particularly in the NHS, we, we saw during COVID the length that doctors or nurses and anyone really involved in health care will go to, to, you know, put themselves at risk on the frontline to help others, but often how they look after themselves possibly isn't the best. And we saw doctors and nurses burning out. We saw people leaving the profession. We've seen, you know, news stories about bullying being rampant in healthcare because of the high pressure situations. And so my focus has always been, how can we help get the best out of our people, not just in healthcare, but, but in fact, in any industry, and how can we do that by providing them with the tools and the educational systems to help them to develop and, really deal with anything that's put their way to both help themselves and the organizations they work for. So, that's sort of me, in a nutshell, my previous businesses, I scaled up with some self-taught coding skills, cause I'm also a tech nerd and now with, with Virti, we're doing a little bit of work in, in what I term deeper technology. So things like AI, virtual augmented reality, really looking at how those can impact engagement and behavioral change in people, in any industry.
Okay. Cause you, created Virti didn't you to help improve mental health support for students and professionals as they learn. Was that, the motivation behind it?
Yeah. So for me, certainly when I was training as a surgeon, when I saw people really get into trouble and burn out or get stressed or, you know, have errors that that occurred in work either in an operation, or have a complaint against them. It wasn't because they weren't well-trained technically. So for someone doing an operation, everyone who goes into that operation, knows the steps of the procedure, has been observed with more senior surgeons, and has a team around them. But it was often that team component and what I call soft skills or power skills where those problems arose. And that might be because people hadn't been trained to be leaders well enough. It might be that their communication skills under pressure, were left wanting, it might just be that their decision-making under pressure was very sort of, you know, difficult for them to, to master because they were earlier in their career than someone with say, 10,000 hours of operating and so the concept of Virti is how can we put some of these, what I call experiential work experiences into a technology platform that's on demand. They can capture data and that lets them practice things like soft skills in a safe but repeatable environment so that they can improve. And, we look at things like developing resilience, like how to have difficult conversations with your team in work.
Really so that when they happen in real life, a little bit like exposure therapy they're not quite so bad, they're not quite so emotive and what that does is it then allows people to perform better when it matters.
But I mean, employee wellbeing and mental health is a major sort of on trend topic for organizations right now. And there's been a real explosion I think an example for wellbeing apps. Isn't there a temptation for organizations just to buy something off the shelf and hope that it works without really understanding what they've bought and whether it actually works or not. And I was thinking that, you know, with your with your medical background. I mean, you know, you, I imagine that, you know, anything that's evidence-based is really important to you. And I was just wondering, you know, a lot of these apps, do they have any evidence behind them? That they work?
It's a great point. And I think if you, you know, if you look at meditation or mindfulness apps or anything like that, that tries to combat stress on the app store, you know, there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands, if not millions now, knowing, knowing where to start, it's just absolutely crazy. I think if you look at, direct to consumer apps like Calm or Headspace, which did very, very well. at sort of being relatively kind of early first movers in, in that sort of corporate mindfulness space, those have got huge audiences and they do, you know, help people to a degree.
But everyone is different and no off the shelf solution is going to cater to every single individual or every single workplace. And it's really, really important that, you know, anyone who sort of purchasing any kind of, I guess en masse mindfulness or self care platforms really understands what they're getting and how it might or might not help people because, you know, in terms of workforce mental health, saying that the solution to all of your, you know, workforce wellbeing or stress problems is just giving them an app and telling them to use it once a week or once a day is pretty naive in terms of return on investment.
There's lots of people who are at sort of different stages of you know, their own self care and their own stress levels so someone might actually need one-to-one direct therapy delivered through a certified practitioner. Someone might need time off. Someone might need a little bit of sort of perspective on what's happening and some coaching from their manager or their team and so I would always advocate that actually, rather than just delivering off the shelf, mindfulness apps and things like this to people that managers, leaders, people in HR really have a robust system to understand their people on a very sort of personal level and then recommend personalized solutions, which get to the heart of the problem more than just offering something off the shelf. I think you know what I've seen, that kind of coaching culture, understanding people and then directing people to the correct medically proven specialist intervention is, is always going to trump just chucking people towards an app, which, which may or may not help. And you know, certainly in my experience, if you've got people who are really, really struggling with something and need more directed, personalized CBT, or, you know, meditative experiences or even, you know, medical intervention and help, that they must, you know, get that help that they need.
Okay. Do you think that wellbeing in a way, well, the corporate wellbeing market needs some sort of regulation?
I think it's a great, great point. The you know, the corporate market at the moment is very much you know, it's completely open to anyone to kind of enter that and, and become a provider to, to corporate across many, many different sectors.
I think there's gotta be some type of regulation across all healthcare apps that are going out to consumers or to corporates. I think it's difficult at the moment to initiate that because there isn't really any specific governing body around mindfulness and that would probably fall under your local or regional country health care guidelines. So for example, the NHS have got their own recommended app store where they rate health care apps. There is a rating there for mindfulness apps where they go through a review system, which is led by clinicians and physicians. And I would always recommend that any corporate, you know, regardless of which country you're operating in, you look at your, you know, country specific health care guidelines, and any rating systems that are there.
So these things do exist, but they're often not that well-known, and there's nothing specifically, you know, for corporates where they can kind of go to to look at everything within their sector, for example. But I think it's an excellent suggestion.
Okay. And what I think really comes across with what you're saying is it's actually, it's the relationship, isn't it between worker or employee and their line manager, which is kind of essential in all of this, isn't it?
Absolutely. And I think, you know, we we've seen that intensify more say during the pandemic period where people's stresses are no longer just related to work when they're discussing things with their their line managers or their HR leads. You know, leaders at every level of an organization now need to take even more interest in people's home lives to ask them how they're doing, to start meetings a little bit more thoughtfully than they might've done pre pandemic.
You know I always tell our team to make sure that they start meetings by just building rapport, asking people how they're doing, having very, sort of open, transparent one-to-one conversations around that because you know, now for anyone working from home remotely, your home life is your work life so if you can't get any peace and quiet, if you are stressed out about something, that is, you know, much more of a work problem even than it was before. So I think you're absolutely right that personalized one-to-one, relationship is absolutely critical. And, and I'd say it sort of extends, you know, beyond managers as well. If you are working with someone, who's a colleague, if you are having an honest conversation with them, you've got to know how to recognize that they are struggling with something and where to direct them for them to get the help they need.
And your business really specializes in and sort of AI and virtual reality. And I was wondering how do those, how do those, that technology support employee wellbeing, or how do you deploy it?
So for us, I think one of the, you know, the key things that we set out to do with Virti was really to put people at, you know, the heart of any organization and give them the tools they need to perform at their best. And we were pretty, you know, reluctant to sort of adopt newer technologies like virtual reality because certainly when we started this journey back in 2018, it was a little bit unproven and, and just, you know, getting back to what you just said Chris about proving things out. We spent quite a lot of time doing some independent studies into how virtual reality can actually impact learner behavior and especially things like actually just retaining knowledge and improving sort of anxiety and confidence scores. So we did that sort of independently with some people in the healthcare setting. And, you know, just to give you a bit of an idea on that we did one randomized control trial, where we looked at putting some learners into high pressure simulated environments. And we compared that with traditional methods of teaching, which is normally sort of in-person role plays or lecture-based teaching. And we ran that sort of over a period of about three or four weeks. Learners going through the simulator scenarios. And then we looked at the, the comparative data and basically the cohort of learners who'd been randomized to the virtual reality intervention group, where it was, you know, very, very realistic and recreating that stress and emotion of, of being in work and dealing with some difficult situations felt much more confident than the group who went through traditional simulated teaching, to then go and perform when it matters in those environments and their stress levels are reduced on kind of clinical stress scores and their actual learning retention, which were sort of assessed on a post intervention test was much, much higher, nearly sort of 200% compared to the the control group.
So you know as I said, we're, we're kind of learning nerds around their stats and we you know, we, we really try and, try and make sure that when we use immersive technologies, it's actually doing something beneficial that, that traditional training methods can't.
Okay. Cause I mean, you know, as you say that the retention of learning is, is really important because I think investment in training is often compared to advertising in that half the money spent on training is wasted. The trouble is you don't know which half of it is being wasted. Do you think that the solutions that you've come up with addresses that because I think you are very, very data-driven aren't you in terms of actually producing results, that show organizations, how, how this training has been used and how it's, you know, how immersive it is that right?
Absolutely. I mean, I think that the conversation I always have with any customer who comes on to our platform is, you know, really centered around how do you do your training at the moment? And people often say, you know, we use e-learning. We use webinars, we use lectures, we use role plays and things like that. And then, you know, my easy one two follow up question is how do you know that that is actually working? And often people will cite things like engagement so we can see people using an e-learning platform or you know, people write on feedback forms that they enjoyed the training or something like that. So, you know, a lot of the time, the existing methods aren't that data-driven. And then when you sort of extrapolate further, if you talk specifically around things like soft skills or power skills, like having difficult conversations, like developing resilience or identifying bullying or you know, any kind of bias in interviews and things like that, which is all, simulator scenarios we can run through the platform with virtual reality we can actually pull off data like were people are looking, who they're making eye contact with. We can use AI to look at the conversation decision points they're making, how they're talking to people in these simulated environments. And suddenly we can start setting a gold standard for what good training looks like, around people, performance and wellbeing and that then allows learners to really sort of strive to, to understand where they're deficient and then get better, very, very quickly by practicing these repeated scenarios. And you know, that's much more engaging, much more data-driven than, than some of the traditional methods.
And why, why do you think that we have such an issue with soft skills then in this country, in terms of you know, or emotional intelligence? What is it? What, what, why do people come into the workforce do you think so under or woefully under prepared?
Yeah well, unfortunately I don't think it is just this country. I think it's absolutely everywhere. I think, one of the big problems in the education system is that work we're very good at teaching processes or you know, facts and things like that. You know, that's, that's really, if you think back to your time at school, that's what you're learning and, you know, you're tested on exams. These are written tests based on facts or working out problems. And often, you know, your communication or your soft skills is probably learned in the playground or, you know, out and about depending on, on, you know, your social circumstances.
And so, you know, some people genetically will be predisposed to being kind of extroverts or introverts. Some people will grow up in households where, you know, their parents and their peers and siblings are very good communicators. Others won't have that opportunity and will come from. very different backgrounds, some disadvantaged where you know, they're put under a lot of pressure; there's a lot of stress when they're growing up and that, that influences their whole communication style. However, the great thing is that, you know, regardless of where you're starting on that sort of communication skills or power skills or soft skills journey, you can learn how to improve your soft skills. And I think it's one of those tropes where a little bit like, you know, the kind of growth mindset where people think, oh, you know, I can't possibly improve, or I can't possibly be you know, an elite athlete or something like that, because I'm, you know, I don't have that in my genetics. It's similar to communication skills. Some people naturally think, oh, I'm not a good communicator. I don't like public speaking and so forth. And therefore it's this sort of self fulfilling prophecy that they don't get better. Whereas in actuality, maybe people sort of start on slightly different levels because of their genetics or their upbringing, but anyone can get better. And, and I'd also advocate that someone who might be very good in school, who never sees soft skills or power skills as a vital component of their career development and growth that they might never go on a, you know, a soft skills education course or practice their soft skills where as someone who is perhaps a little bit more introverted, knows the importance of, of things like leadership, decision-making, communication with peers and actually puts in the effort to go and educate themselves to practice, to challenge themselves. They can get really, really good and become just fantastic managers, fantastic peers. And, and I think one of the great things I've seen in my own soft skills and leadership skills, as I've sort of progressed through my medical training, where I used to be, you know, very introverted when I was kind of a first year medical student, very geeky some of these companies, yeah. A hundred percent. You know, I was, I was playing video games and I was kind of, you know, 17, 18 all the time. I played sports a lot. So I did have some good you know, sort of social, interactions growing up. But certainly when it came to med school, I was always introverted. I didn't want to you know, put my hand up in class. I didn't want to sort of communicate and sort of role plays and things like that. And just sort of be having gone through the experiences of being a doctor, having that responsibility, leading surgical teams, and then building a company, you know, with Virti where we've got a huge amount of staff and managers, my own soft skills and communication skills have got a heck of a lot better. And I still get a little bit nervous when I'm, you know, speaking on big stages and things like that, but I've got a process. I've got a mindset and I, I know how to kind of engage people. So anyone can do it. And I think it's, it's so important for people's careers and their whole lifestyle.
Okay. And what's the difference between a soft skill and a power skill?
So I think, I mean, I'm very cynical about all this stuff. It's a little bit BS in terms of, you know, you're kind of PR thing. And this is from someone where you know, I've got a virtual reality company and, you know, Facebook's just rebranded to Meta and it's now called a metaverse and all this nonsense. So I I'm very sort of straight shooting surgeon, so I don't really like all this PR based nomenclature. I think the, you know, soft skills, communication skills, power skills, whatever you call them, as long as it engages people and people understand the importance of them, they're all basically the same thing. And I think whether it is dealing with resilience and mindfulness, whether it is leadership, whether it is teamwork and communication skills, whether it's bias, diversity, inclusivity that all in this bracket of things, which are not necessarily directly technical, where where something like learning to code is, or, you know, some kind of, sort of HR practice, might be like your CIPD qualification. This is all about, you know, your internal workings, how you approach conversations, how you identify things, how you develop emotional intelligence and EQ and I think empathy is the big one, because I think in any situation, regardless of whether you're a leader, if you're observing something, if you're a team player, you, if you have empathy, you are going to get to the bottom of that situation and deal with it yourself in a much more structured and less emotive way, and often get to resolutions much quicker. And I think whenever anyone sort of starts practicing their soft skills or power skills, whatever you wanna call it, if they've got empathy and really sort of put themselves in other people's shoes as I learnt to do being a doctor, it will solve a lot of problems, not every problem, but that certainly will help with the love.
Well, I think, I think actually you've hit the nail on the head. I think empathetic is critical right now because it's to say it's not sympathizing with people. It's actually just understanding where they are. And I think for someone who's on the end of someone who gives empathetic means actually you've actually listened to me. You may not be able to fix the problem. But at least I know that you cared enough to listen and you understood what my problem or my situation is.
A hundred percent. And I think, my, you know, my kind of advice to anyone in leadership positions, it also works the other way round as well. I think, you know, we've seen during the pandemic and going through periods of great uncertainty for many businesses and departments and people within their jobs. That you know, leaders need to be transparent. They also need to be vulnerable. They need to be happy and confident to say to their people that, Hey! You know, we don't necessarily always have all of the answers. But we're going to do our best to work it out with, you know, all of, all of you. And I think having that level of confidence in yourself to be vulnerable with the people that you are managing and looking after, is definitely a positive thing. Whereas I think in the past the whole concept of being, you know, an executive or you know, a leader it's very kind of militaristic in that, you know, you can't show any emotion. People have got to do what they're told, very kind of paternalistic. I think that's now fading away, quite rightly with the future of work and really sort of helping people get the best out of themselves.
So I guess that the culture within Virti and obviously people that are hiring employees and workers that come and work for the business, I guess that you really use that sort of approach now is that when you're employing new people or finding new talent?
A hundred percent. I mean, I think one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was you know, when you're hiring people hire to culture, as well as, you know, looking at kind of key skills and characteristics of the role that you're employing to. For us at Virti we have a very kind of thoughtful approach, to our company culture. So our company culture is be bold, be fast and be amazing. Obviously we're a startup, so you've got to be fast or you will basically die. But, you know, we, we, we want people to be innovative. We want them to be owners of whatever they're doing and we want them to learn and to be amazing going above and beyond what our customers might expect, a company of our size would do. And that's proved, you know, very, very fruitful for us and I think again we sort of use our own product internally, which has been great at highlighting any key use cases and, and getting data back very early on. So we use our platform for onboarding where we've got our sort of employee ramp down time down to be pretty much three weeks across all departments, actually, including sales, which is amazing. And we also put people through wellbeing and soft skills and power skills training, on you know, an educational curriculum, as they sort of go through the company. And, I think for me as, as the founder and CEO the proudest I am ever in work is when I see someone who's improved over a period of time, and even people who will come to the end of their journey with your company. I think if they can leave a better person than when they joined, you've done something right at your company, so yeah, we've always wanted to build Virti to be one of the best places to come and learn and train and perform just like our product does for other organisations.
Dr Alex Young, it's been an absolute pleasure, thank you very much indeed.
Thanks so much Chris.