It Started With a Question and 60 Fliers

What We've Learned Launching the First Confidential Text Line for Work Challenges

By: Jaime-Alexis Fowler, Founder and Executive Director of Empower Work

One year ago, I sent a file to print — 60 fliers I’d thrown together to test an idea. When I picked up the order, an employee at Office Depot gestured to the paper and asked, “so, what does this number do?”

“Good question,” I replied. “People can text to talk through a challenging work situation. Is that something you’d ever use?”

“Uh, yes. I can’t believe something like this doesn’t exist.”

“Me too. That’s why I printed these. To see who might use it.”

Testing a Theory

The idea had been sparked by a question: why wasn’t there an easily accessible resource for people facing work challenges?

A few months earlier, I’d been on a call with someone connected to me through my larger network. She and I were talking through an extraordinarily tough work moment. She felt powerless. With no internal support at her employer and struggling to pay student loans and live in a high-cost city on an hourly wage, she was tapping into everyone she could who might be able help. At the end of the conversation, she asked if there were any resources that I knew of that could have helped her sooner. I knew none.

Leaving the conversation I was struck by how stuck she was. Why wasn’t there a resource I could refer her to?

I followed that question through market research, wide-ranging surveys, and in-depth interviews with more than 200 people ranging from labor organizers to executive coaches, career counselors to those who had recently faced a pivotal work challenge.

Now it was time to test if what that research showed might work.

With fliers in hand, I walked the streets of San Francisco, taping them to poles near busy bus stops. As I put one up, a person asked me if they could take a picture. They thought it looked cool.

I thought the fliers looked simple. Functional. They were designed to explore two questions:

  1. Would people actually use an immediate, anonymous resource as our early user research suggested?

  2. If so, which channel was most helpful: text, phone, or web chat?

 The first flier posted!

The first flier posted!

The fliers included just a phone number and URL — and didn’t specify how people should connect. The language was also intentionally open. One question: “Tough work situation?” One action: “Chat with a peer counselor.”

This approach was based on our initial research, where nearly 95% of people indicated they had experienced a challenging situation at work. Over 80% said it was extraordinarily difficult. Half left their jobs as a result.

Not surprisingly, those most negatively impacted already felt less supported in workplaces: women, people of color, first generation to join an industry or go to college, those with differing abilities, and more.

What was tough for people varied widely — microaggressions, ethical decisions or questions, run-ins with managers, gaslighting, bullying, sexual innuendo, difficulties managing up, being sidelined or worked around, job transitions, harassment, discrimination…the list went on.

Often, they were mixed together. One person wrote:

Where to start? Microaggressions and being dressed down in a meeting of my peers and skip level for an idea. When I asked a white, male colleague at a more junior level to present that same idea, it was then well-received. Being blocked by my manager for doing my job. For being me.

What was nearly universal? People wanted someone experienced and knowledgeable to talk to — and for many reasons didn’t trust or didn’t have that in their office, their personal network, or through other resources.

Meeting a Need

The pilot was simple. Though the user need seemed clear, I only wanted to build something more substantial after we better understood how to meet that need. I strapped together a three-page website and leveraged free trials of a few products. Most importantly, I pulled in the expertise of a range of advisors to build out our coaching and counseling approach.

Would people use a text line for a work challenge? Would they chat with someone they didn’t know? In a few weeks we had the answer: an overwhelming yes.

An Overwhelming Yes

What started with scrappy fliers evolved into donated transit shelter ads, emergent word of mouth sharing in private Facebook groups and Slack channels, surprise tweets from industry and professional groups.

Within six weeks, we had people texting and starting web chats from 10 different states (almost no one called). None of the outreach included an ask for volunteers, yet people started signing up to be peer counselors. Within a few months, we had a growing community of volunteers, partners, advisors, and champions.

Most importantly, we immediately had — and are having — an impact. Over 89% of texters report feeling better after a conversation.

One person wrote, I felt “more assured and confident,” while another said that talking to a peer counselor helped them feel “like I had some level of control over my situation.” Confidence, clarity, and having options for next steps are the most common themes of feedback from texters.

Also notable, people organically comment about how important it is that our line is not cost-prohibitive. One texter shared, “I’m the second in my family to go to college. I’m facing different things than what my family knows. I wasn’t sure where to turn.” And another wrote, “[the service] is incredibly valuable. If I were financially in a better position to donate I would. But in the lower rungs, if you charged, I would’ve likely just wallowed with my problem and not told anyone.”

Forward Momentum

Forward momentum is a key part of our approach. We want texters to feel heard and supported — and equipped to take an action that’s right for them. Each situation is personal and unique. What’s comfortable for one person at one company may not apply to another.

Take for example, an early career employee* who recently reached out about moving from a contract position to a full-time role. They were thrilled to be offered the opportunity to contribute in a bigger way to the team. They were uncertain their hourly pay reflected their experience and role, and unsure about the benefits. While they felt valued, they said they were also one of “the only” on their team (there wasn’t anyone who shared similar identity or background). They were nervous about any rocking the boat that might result in the offer being rescinded; they had family depending on their income. Should they risk asking for an increase or more benefits at the expense of losing the offer? It was a deeply personal question impacted by experience, education, and identity.

The texter left with a plan of action to get the information they needed to prepare for that ask. At the end of the conversation, they enthusiastically texted, “Thank you thank you! 😭💓 I appreciate you guys so much!! [hugging face emoji]”

In aggregate, a few weeks after a conversation over 91% of texters report still feeling confident and taking an action that resulted in an outcome they wanted.

An Accessible Advocate for Work

What if everyone had an accessible advocate to talk with about their biggest challenge, their most vulnerable moment at work? To equip them with new tools for their professional journey as they face ethical dilemmas, bad managers, confusing offers, bullying, severance negotiations, surprise performance improvement plans? We’re testing ways to get there — as well as beginning to measure the longer term impact on an individual’s career and economic opportunity.

Our approach is based on researched-backed best practices in coaching and counseling. Our peer counselors go through a robust application, screening, and training where they learn to hold space to discuss what people are facing and ask succinct, informed questions that help people go from feeling backed into a corner with no options, to multiple pathways ahead of them. If needed, we connect people to additional resources ranging from legal information to meditation apps. All of our resources are vetted in line with our mission — free, accessible, inclusive.

Our approach supports positive change both for those who reach out and our volunteers, who use their skills in workplaces across the country. Over 95% of our volunteers report learning new tools in our training — even seasoned HR professionals and executive coaches.

One volunteer shared:

“Now, when friends come to me with work issues, I guide rather than advise. Instead of spending time venting, I validate their feelings and ask more solutions-driven questions. I’m learning how to make the biggest impact when it matters most.”

Gratitude

The past year we’ve been focused on the needs of our texters and volunteers. Evaluating what makes the best experience for volunteers and facilitates the best outcomes for people who initiate conversations. Who we can best serve? How we can best partner?

We’ve learned a lot.

What started as a few fliers posted to test an idea (on the side of my full-time job) has become a company serving texters all over the country who now feel more empowered, with talented volunteers in every time zone, an incredible team of staff, advisors and board members, and engaged partners from community groups to company CSR programs.

We could not have achieved this without the support, contributions, guidance, feedback, and counsel of hundreds of people who have chimed in to help. Who understand that while work challenges may be universal, resources to navigate them are not. Who know their communities and what they need. And who are inspired and driven to address inequity, improve workplaces, and shift working culture.

It’s been a collaborative, community, how-can-we-all-make-this-work endeavor. The flood of responses and offers of support over the past year have been humbling and inspiring. From “Pine,” a philanthropist who responded to a simple email and gave our largest unrestricted individual gift to date (and first Bitcoin donation!), to Shannon Lubetich, an engineer who stood up for her values and spoke out against the toxic environment of a major tech company, to a coach who read about us in TechCrunch and shared us across 10 different private Facebook groups driving an influx of texters and volunteers, it’s been amazing.

I wish I could give a shout for every generous, pay-it-forward action that has helped Empower Work evolve into what it is today.

To everyone who has reached out to our team, provided ideas and feedback, responded to an inquiry, donated, volunteered, given pro-bono services, shared us, and the list goes on: thank you.

We’re on to something big, and we’re on this journey together.

Looking Ahead

Workplace challenges are nothing new. Nor are solutions to support employees, or organize, or develop policies and new approaches. But the last year has shown we are filling a critical need — addressing a significant gap in what individuals have to navigate complex, personal, vulnerable, frustrating, and potentially career-ending or job-altering situations.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. Exciting, challenging, boundary-pushing kind of work. The stakes are high and we believe the payoff will be transformative: changing the way we support people in workplaces around the U.S.

As we look ahead, we’re excited to collaborate and partner with groups coming at this challenge in a range of ways, to engage even more volunteers, to continue building our technology to facilitate connection and scale, and to serve even more people.

We’re learning, we’re open, we’re listening.

*Every conversation is confidential. We share anonymized texter stories with minimal detail.