Creating a culture that scales

By Jeremy Bailenson, Founding Director,
Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Jeremy Bailenson sitting on bench

Learning a company’s culture happens slowly, as you gather information through lots of little experiences. It’s a gradual learning process that happens over time. Yet, for culture-driven companies, this learning is critical to success.

In today’s environment, with more remote work and less opportunity for in-person teaching, culture training has become a challenge for many companies. In the history of Virtual Reality research, the notion of training on culture is largely without academic precedent. But in 2020, that changed.

Sprouts Farmers Market, the supermarket chain, relies on culture to distinguish their brand, focusing on core values such as “Respect and Serve One Another” and “Embrace Healthy Living.” As Sprouts continued to open new stores and hire across the country, they needed to onboard new team members. They turned to Immersive Learning to do this, which was rather revolutionary.

To assimilate new members into the unique culture of Sprouts, the VR experiences were designed using an Exemplar Model, where a number of very salient examples are highlighted and work in tandem to shed light on an abstract theme. This canon of VR experiences helped exemplify the Sprouts core values and bring out the special culture the company had developed. For example, a team member might teach an anxious mother who just discovered her son is allergic to gluten about how to shop for the new diet, or a team member may decide to deliver a watermelon to an elderly sick customer who can’t drive to pick up his favorite food.

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For deeper insights on cultural training and the Exemplar Model, check out the interview with Jeremy.

Sprouts essentially fast-forwarded the process of experiencing its culture in action by giving new hires lots of immersive experiences so they build up this understanding of what the place is like and how to exemplify it. This was the first I’d heard of anyone trying this, either in academia or in the business world. And it was a very special project, especially when you consider the outcomes from a significant data set.

A subset of about 300 employees were tested on their conceptual understanding of the core values, half of whom did VR and half of whom used PowerPoint training. Forty-eight percent of the trainees who did VR learned all six concepts perfectly, compared to only 3% who used traditional methods. We believe this is due to the experiential nature of the training; since team members felt like they had “lived” the values through simulation in VR, their knowledge of the values became more ingrained for the long term.

Culture is more than a set of values. With a new way to scale their culture, Sprouts and many other companies can continue to put the customer at the center of everything they do, while creating a sense of belonging and community for engaged, happy, and thriving employees.

Sprouts grocery worker

I’m so grateful we launched this before COVID-19. I can’t imagine hiring thousands of people — which we’ve done over the last few months — and trying to give them a great onboarding experience during a pandemic.

Cindy Chikahisa,
VP of Store Operations for Sprouts