Creating accessible support tools for workplace challenges

Empower Work is a nonprofit that provides free, anonymous text chatline support for people experiencing challenges in the workplace. We asked founder and executive director Jaime-Alexis Fowler how they created the tool.

Q: What was the problem you tried to solve by creating Empower Work?

Last year, I was coaching someone facing a tough work challenge. We’d been connected by a mutual contact. During our conversation, I realized she needed more than what I could provide, and I had no idea who I could refer her to. There weren’t resources within her company; she couldn’t afford to pay for individual support as she was struggling to pay off student debt and was worried about losing her job.

I left the conversation with a major question: Why were there not any third-party, accessible tools for work situations? That question led me into in-depth market research, qualitative and quantitative research, and more over the course of the spring.

What I discovered across more than 140+ survey responses and over 200 in-depth interviews is that challenging work situations are universal, but access to resources to navigate them are not. And that exacerbates inequality.

The people I surveyed who were more socially isolated at work—for example, the first in their family to join an industry or go to college, or were a woman of color—faced dramatically worse outcomes after those challenges. Without support, half of those who faced challenges left their jobs. And often took lower paying next jobs, left an industry, or moved on with no next job lined up.

What was also clear: People wanted an accessible support that was not overheard at work, simple to initiate when time mattered, and met them where they were—on their phones.

Q: How does it work?

Anyone in the US can start a chat with a trained peer counselor by texting 510-674-1414 or initiating a conversation on our website. Once you reach out, you receive an autoresponse to review our terms of service. And after you agree, you’re connected to a counselor. Our counselors start by asking a few questions to understand the work situation you’re dealing with. Questions like: What’s going on at work? What prompted your outreach today? Has this happened before? They’re there to be an advocate––to listen, support, and guide texters every step of the way.

Q: Why did you choose texting and web chat as your main client-facing channels?

In our early user research, people overwhelmingly expressed need and interest in something that wouldn’t be overheard in their workplace. We heard from person after person stories like, “I went to a bathroom stall and texted my best friend, but she didn’t know how to handle that kind of bullying by a boss either.”

To test that theory, in our pilot phase, we listed just a number without saying whether to call or text. Over 90% of people texted.

The written format best supports our texters’ needs right now—and has also proven to be helpful for volunteers. Our peer counselors can write and reflect before hitting send. They can ask for internal review for feedback. It provides a better feedback loop for volunteers to improve their professional skills as well.

Q: Were there challenges you found scoping, setting up and iterating the technology?

We are regularly adjusting to what we see can best meet the needs of our volunteers and texters. We started very simply, just a Twilio number connected with a free trial of backend system. We didn’t see a reason to built something out, or even buy something, until we better understood: Was this something people would use? What would be most helpful for both texters and volunteers? Over the last year, we’ve increasingly built out more aspects of what we need. But at the heart, it’s still pretty simple.

Q: What lessons have you learned, or things you would do differently if you had your time again?

The biggest challenge for me personally has been how best to harness the expertise and enthusiasm of the hundreds of people who have passionately expressed interest in what we’re doing. That’s a great problem to have. But looking back, I would have set up a lightweight task tracking system like Trello or a simple CMS like ProsperWorks earlier to better manage opportunities.

So many people recognize that we’re at a critical juncture in workplace dynamics. Empower Work is one resource focused on how to best support individuals. Shifting how we support and empower people at work is going to take approaches from all sides working together—from policy and structural changes to cultural overhauls.

Q: What’s next for your nonprofit?

We’ve been focused on two north star metrics for quality: Do texters not only feel better after a conversation, but take an action they determine towards their goal? And do volunteers use new skills they learn not just in supporting texters, but in their workplaces? Both have been extraordinarily high. A few weeks after a conversation, about 91% of texters say they’ve taken an action that resulted in the outcome they wanted. Sometimes that’s taking a walk around the block before a performance review meeting. Sometimes that’s figuring out a way to leave a job with the financial considerations you need covered.

In terms of what’s next: more support for more people. We’re expanding significantly, building up our volunteer base, reaching more texters across the US, and building new partnerships with affinity, professional, and industry groups.

Jaime-Alexis Fowler
Jaime-Alexis Fowler is the founder and executive director of Empower Work, a nonprofit that provides immediate, anonymous support for difficult work situations. She's a seasoned leader with a track record of building agile, high-performing, healthy teams. She’s led marketing at a $100M international NGO, run a national nonprofit that provides non-judgmental post-abortion counseling, overseen marketing at Code for America, and most recently before Empower Work, launched a nonprofit investigative newsroom. Jaime-Alexis has developed a reputation for being a go-to resource for people management. She frequently speaks and writes about building collaborative, healthy teams, career pathways and pivots, social entrepreneurship, and communications for social change.