Johanna Herman is the founder of Workerbird, which allows workers to collect their own data, on their own terms and for their own benefit. She is part of a cohort of changemakers who are working together through the Economic Security Impact Accelerator – a pilot programme in partnership with Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth – to have a greater impact on the economic security of UK workers.
At the heart of Workerbird’s mission is giving workers insights into their working day, using this knowledge to improve their experience of work and their lives as a whole.
However, tracking and data is a double-edged sword that can be used against workers. The RSA’s report on the Four Futures of Work suggests that there are a number of future trends to be aware of. One example scenario is the ‘Precision Economy’ where “jobs are increasingly subject to algorithmic management and workplace monitoring [...] wearables are used to track staff activity including time spent inactive and sales conversions. Manager-analysts review metrics following shift completion and ratings are assigned based on a combination of hard data and subjective appraisals.”
Given the situation where tech is increasingly used against workers as a surveillance tool, how can tech be designed to support workers?
At Workerbird we are focusing on the following four principles to ensure that we stay true to our mission and are not just an additional tracking or surveillance tool:
1. Reflective tracking with purpose
With Workerbird, workers choose to track and reflect on their working day for a set period of time. They receive daily, weekly and monthly insights into their data and this helps them understand their working patterns, pay and feelings about work. Rather than following the model of a wearable device that people turn on and forget about, we want users to remember that they are tracking and interact with the platform consciously in order for them to consider their experience of work.
Workerbird was set up to try to solve the problem of ensuring the legal minimum wage was being paid to low-waged, hourly workers (our original name was Wagecheck!). As we developed our platform, we realised through our user research that everyone can benefit from tracking and understanding their day. In early testing with both hourly and salaried workers, all our testers learnt something from tracking their day, through both quantitive and qualitive measures. Most were looking at their working patterns as a whole for the first time and were surprised by their insights; some identified changes they would subsequently make to their day.
2. Worker-centred design
We are focused on worker-centred design. This means that we are designing from the perspective of how to help workers, as opposed to the usual tracking and monitoring that only wants to take data from workers. We understand that there are many different jobs and types of working day. In practice, one of our first design problems has been to make sure to have enough flexibility in the application beyond the 9-5 pattern of commute-work-home. We need to include people who work from home some days, do a lot of travelling for work, or have multiple jobs. With people’s days so busy and stressful, we are designing the experience to be supportive and as non-intrusive as possible, with minimal notifications and a focus on accessibility and user experience.
3. Clear data privacy
In order for workers to trust our platform and use it in a way that helps them, they need to know that their data is just that – theirs. We are trialling different ways of fully explaining how data is collected and stored so people understand what they are giving permission for. Additionally, users will have the opportunity to agree to share their data anonymously in order to benefit the community as a whole. Over time, building this body of data will enable users to see how their true hourly pay compares to others doing similar jobs, or compare their commute time to others in the same area, or days of holiday taken, breaks etc.
4. Building community consciousness
Work is at once an individual experience and a collective one. Although Workerbird’s functionality begins with individual tracking, we want this experience of personal reflection to build outwards into emerging communities of reflection and action.
At a small scale, as well as the ability to share data anonymously with other users, this may include communities of workers sharing notes on their personal experiences, making connections and finding ways to mobilise in groups. At a broader scale, this will be augmented by more formal collaborations with other organisations – building our network within the Economic Security Impact Accelerator through the RSA and Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth is a big step towards this.
We are currently organising trials with organisations across a broad spectrum of types of work and would like to connect with other interested potential partners. We are also keen to hear from employers who care about the work/life balance and wellbeing of their employees and want to try Workerbird in innovative trials.
Towards a future of good work
The Economic Security Impact Accelerator has created an open and collaborative space for participants to think about the future of work and how we, as a cohort of 12 organisations, can support a systemic move towards good work. I feel very fortunate to have participated, prompting a deeper reflection about the role of Workerbird as part of this movement.
We see Workerbird as one intervention among many to facilitate a shift away from a precarious future for workers towards our cohort’s vision of a preferable future of good work. Part of our learning together on the accelerator has been to understand systems thinking and how change is achieved at different levels.
Operating within the context of a broader commercial landscape that prioritises efficiency and innovation, the interests and experiences of the individual worker are a key priority for Workerbird. We hope our users become newly aware of their working patterns and are able to act on this data in a way that will vary from individual to individual – where some may make direct changes to personal working practices, others may seek to open up new conversations with fellow workers and sympathetic employers.
We welcome all these different kinds of change and see them as part of a continuum that will realise a future where each worker is valued, protected and able to fulfil their potential.
We'll be sharing learnings from the Economic Security Impact Accelerator at our event, How to be an impact entrepreur, on 12 September.