Jake loves watermelons!

A photo posted by fatstraws (@fatstraws) on


Terry Pham employs a couple dozen people at Fat Straws, his small chain of bubble tea shops in Dallas. And he has lots of ways of managing them.

He uses a behavioral assessment to screen job applicants, in an attempt to ensure his new hires will be good fits for his operation. A sophisticated video surveillance system catches employees who might steal or give out freebies. A “mystery shopper” service checks in to see whether workers are on their toes when the bosses aren’t overseeing. Although Pham believes all the oversight helps him reward people who are doing a good job, it’s primarily there for those who aren’t.

But there’s one tool in his tech toolbox that gives employees a chance to manage Pham: A polling system that asks what’s on their mind. It’s called TINYpulse, and it allows workers to give totally anonymous feedback. Even with an open-door policy, Pham has found employees are sometimes uncomfortable voicing dissatisfaction, or just suggesting improvements — like anti-fatigue mats for long hours behind the counter, which Pham bought after hearing from a worker that they would be helpful.

“For whatever reason, they didn’t feel confident enough to reach out and say that,” Pham says, of the person who anonymously spoke up. “To this day, almost annoyingly, I don’t know who said that.”

For decades, the tech world has focused on figuring out how to monitor and maximize worker productivity, or sort through talent and pick out the best prospects — like Terry Pham’s video cameras and behavioral scans.

Lately, however, a new generation of Internet-enabled applications aim to help workers navigate the modern employment landscape. These new tools seek to eliminate the inherent bias in hiring or help workers smooth out irregular income streams from part-time or piecemeal jobs.

In the long-fraught relationship between labor and technology — in which advancements can eliminate jobs as well as ease those that remain — workers are regaining a measure of control.

---

Unlike many markets — taxicabs, for example, or home grocery delivery — it’s hard to put a dollar value on the size of the worker happiness space. There are just so many forms that a solution could take.

But however large it might be, this new world of ideas breaks down into two basic categories: those applications that help workers cope with the realities of today’s job market, and those that help them act collectively to improve it.

Let’s take the first category. Today’s workers face a number of challenges, some of which have been around for a long time, and others that are more recent. Lately, technological solutions have popped up to alleviate what Silicon Valley calls “pain points.”

For example, there’s the problem of accessing your income when you need it, especially if your paychecks are small and volatile. The rise of “just-in-time” scheduling, as well as temp and freelance jobs, make it hard to know how much you’ll make in a given week — increasing the likelihood that you might miscalculate and come up short.

For that, there’s an app called Even, which estimates a user's average income and essentially does very short-term lending to smooth out the peaks and valleys. Or if someone has a steady paycheck and just need access to it between pay periods, there’s ActiveHours, which grants a small cash advance — like a payday loan, but currently with no interest, just a voluntary pay-what-you-want fee.

Then there’s the problem of getting hired for a job in the first place, especially for those with nontraditional backgrounds, or people who have been out of the workforce for a long time. Employers now have sophisticated software for managing thousands of applications, and it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.

Entrepreneurs are trying to solve that too. Unitive, for example, is a hiring methodology that helps managers combat unconscious bias against women and people of color, especially in tech fields where such groups are drastically underrepresented. Even small things help, like Jobscan, a simple app that tells job-hunters whether their resumes contain the keywords that a particular applicant tracking system is searching for. Sometimes, the service helps them use more of the sought-after keywords — like knowledge of an in-demand programming language — and sometimes it just saves them the trouble of applying at all.

“Finally, someone’s giving a tiny bit of advantage to the job seeker,” says Tobi Lytle, a career coach who has long helped people fight their way past employer algorithms — especially those who've been on the market longer than they'd like. “Jobscan all of a sudden educates people, so there’s less search fatigue."

“Jobscan all of a sudden educates people, so there’s less search fatigue."

— Tobi Lytle

Those are just a few of the ideas that have surfaced recently to help workers deal with a challenging work environment — but by and large, they’re not oriented toward changing it. The next category of approaches is trying to do just that.

----

Meet the Workers Lab, a small fund seeded by the Service Employees International Union’s local in the Pacific Northwest to incubate promising start-ups and nonprofits that might help labor. When it put out a call for applications, the Lab got back more than 200 ideas in various stages of implementation.

Carmen Rojas, whom SEIU brought on to lead the Workers Lab, had to weed out a bunch. To be viable, the Lab’s founders decided, ideas had to have three main attributes that had allowed the labor movement to prosper: financial sustainability, the ability to replicate, and a focus on building worker power.

“How do we take those core features and seed them within organizations that are in the forefront?” Rojas asked herself. During the process, that meant discarding proposals to do financial education that didn’t do anything to change the fundamentals of people's incomes. Also in the “no” pile: Contratados.org, a nonprofit-run platform that helps migrants rate their employers and the recruiters that bring them over borders to work.

“We passed on that because we weren’t clear on the revenue generating potential,” Rojas says, a little sadly.

Ultimately, they settled on a collection of groups that includes Coworker.org, which allows employees to start petitions to their management. It’s already racked up some victories, from pushing Wal-Mart to improve its scheduling practices to asking Starbucks to change its policy against visible tattoos. There’s also WorkAmerica, which helps connect employers with crops of students coming through community college training programs — a function which, ironically, unions have fulfilled for a long time for a more limited set of industries.

The Workers Lab isn’t the only labor-oriented body trying to find solutions. The Restaurant Opportunities Center, a foundation-funded advocacy group, is devising a mobile gaming platform to complement its training program for people going into fine dining (which the Workers Lab decided to back). The Century Foundation recently put out a paper calling for an app to help workers form unions. And through Fair Care Labs, the National Domestic Workers Alliance is working on an app called NeatStreak, which helps house cleaners work out clear arrangements with employers on tasks that need doing.

“We are trying to develop a suite of tech tools that can be helpful to workers in negotiating and asserting their rights — and ultimately in doing their jobs better.”

— National Domestic Workers Alliance Director Ai-Jen Poo

“We are trying to develop a suite of tech tools that can be helpful to workers in negotiating and asserting their rights — and ultimately in doing their jobs better,” says Ai-Jen Poo, director of the Alliance.

As they move forward, the Workers Lab is also thinking about ownership — how to help workers themselves invest in the tools that amplify their reach. Imagine an Uber, for example, owned by its drivers (or at least a union that represents them).

“I don’t think [independent contractor] work is going away, and we need to think about ways to connect those workers together so they have more control,” Rojas says.

---

There are many ways, however, to build worker power. Back to TINYpulse for a second: Although it’s controlled by the employer, when companies commitment to broadcast the results of employee surveys, that potentially creates pressure for change.

Sometimes, that change can be substantial. For example, feedback from TINYpulse was part of what persuaded the chief executive of Gravity Payments to boost his employees’ minimum pay to $70,000 per year, generating headlines around the country. For CEOs, it almost becomes a game — how high can they boost their employee happiness scores this month?

And it’s especially important when the company is growing. Terry Pham, for example, valued the chance to take his employees’ temperature as he starts to hire enough people that he can’t personally be in touch with them all the time.

But sometimes, even if dramatic change doesn’t follow immediately, just feeling like you’ve been heard is what’s important, says TINYpulse’s head of employee engagement Kevin Nakao — especially in the absence of more formal representation, like a staff association or a union.

“Historically, we have only looked at compensation as the main driver of employee happiness, and it takes much more than that,” Nakao says. “It’s important for employees to be heard, for them to have a voice.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the Restaurant Opportunities Center was backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. There is no funding relationship.