It's Time to Reshape How We Support and Empower People at Work
By: Jaime-Alexis Fowler, Founder and Executive Director of Empower Work
It’s a critical moment. With new headlines every day on harassment, bullying, and myriad daily disrespects and aggressions, people are asking important questions about their own experiences and power dynamics in workplaces across the country.
We need to change how we support and empower employees.
The problem — and the opportunity — is huge. It’s going to need big ideas and new approaches rooted in understanding what’s worked and what hasn’t.
At Empower Work, we’ve been in semi-stealth mode testing a new model — free, immediate, anonymous support via text or web chat.
It started with a key question: what do people need?
Through quantitative surveys with more than 140+ responses; market research; and more than 100 qualitative interviews with career coaches, workforce trainers, HR professionals, executive coaches, diversity and inclusion specialists, labor and employment attorneys, managers, labor organizers and most importantly, people who have faced tough work situations, we saw a huge gap.
What our research revealed
Challenging work situations are universal, but resources to navigate them are not. Nearly 95% of those surveyed have had at least one significant work challenge (usually more than one). Nearly 80% rated the situation “extremely difficult.” Half, left their job as a result.
Those with less social capital are most impacted. Women, people of color, LGBTQ, first generation in their family to go to college or join an industry faced the most negative impacts. When they didn’t have someone to talk to, they often took steps back in their careers, pay cuts, or left without a next job.
There’s a significant gap in what employees need to address work challenges. Employee-provided resources are distrusted. Nearly 80% of those we surveyed had never used a service provided by their employer.And individual networks, while helpful for venting, may not have the needed knowledge or perspective. Neither offer the immediacy people desire in an urgent, high-pressure moment.
Perhaps the most important learning: anonymity, immediacy, and accessibility are critical. People want to connect with a trusted resource in a way that they naturally communicate every day.
So this summer we launched a pilot version of the first free, anonymous, immediate support that puts the employee first. Anyone in the U.S. can talk with a trained peer counselor about a sticky work question or problematic situation via text or web chat.
While we’re still in early stages, we have had incredibly encouraging results. The overwhelming feedback: this is amazing. Many have said: I wish I had access to this sooner.
Now we’re ready to share more widely.
Empower Work’s focus is truly on people. As a mission-driven nonprofit, we’re not trying to sell to your company’s HR or make a profit. Any revenue goes back to ensuring we remain free and accessible.
Because of the scale of the problem, our approach focuses on both sides of the conversation.
Our text line provides support for users and at the same time improves the skills of volunteers who utilize their training not just on the line, but in workplaces across the U.S., whether they’re seasoned executive coaches and managers or early career professionals.
Research shows that most people first turn to a co-worker for support. Our goal is that as peer counselors hone their interpersonal, communications, and management skills, they also improve their workplace interactions and have more opportunities to grow in their careers. They’ll also have a network of support among other volunteers.
Perhaps most importantly, we plan to make the anonymized, aggregate data available to help inform new workplace approaches, organizing, tools, and policy.
We’re already seeing early trends and as our data grows, we’re exploring research partnerships to evaluate the short and long-term impact. We know that people feel better immediately after — now we want to understand how that translates into future work decisions, career growth, and economic opportunity.
We need something different, and we needed it yesterday
Workplace challenges are nothing new. Nor unfortunately are the complexities of human behavior, power dynamics, socio-economic, race and gender, among many factors that come together in workplaces.
Others long before us have seen this — from unions to newer tech inspired organizing tools like coworker.org. And many well-resourced and thoughtful companies have made incredible investments in their employees. It’s a positive step to see emerging enterprise options like Bravely and AllVoicesoffering businesses new tools.
But we’re at a critical inflection point and it’s going to take a lot more. Inequality in America is staggering. Power dynamics are fueling not only toxic work environments, but bad business decisions and outcomes. Workplace demands are greater and more stressful than ever before.
How can we make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to be supported and valued at work?
At Empower Work, we envision a world where every person, regardless of where they work or their access to resources, can have an accessible advocate to support their professional journey and equip them with the skills to successfully handle complex work challenges.
We’re learning, open, and hope others will join us. Now is the time.
We’re incredibly grateful to the hundreds of people who have been part of getting Empower Work off the ground, particularly our volunteers, Advisors and Board members. Many have put in countless hours providing input and feedback on everything from our training to user experience. Thank you. We’re excited for what’s ahead.