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Companies at TED conference aim to improve workplace, one digital tool at a time

At the TED conference in Vancouver this week, a handful of presenters and attendees are exploring how to use digital tools to make work a better place — or even just to find a job.

CEOs and founders at conference in Vancouver want to help people find jobs and enjoy work

Jess Kutch speaks during a Fellows Session at TED2019: Bigger Than Us in Vancouver. (Dian Lofton/TED)

The agony and the ecstasy of the modern workplace is a familiar topic for many, but it's one that takes on a particular significance at a conference focused on technology.

At the TED conference in Vancouver this week, a handful of presenters and attendees are exploring how to use digital tools to make work a better place — or even just to find a job.

For TED fellow Jess Kutch, 37, co-founder of coworker.org, digital tools are one of the ways she helps thousands of workers unite to fight for better work conditions.

"I think a lot about what the labour union of the 21st century economy should look like," Kutch said this week, after giving a talk Monday on the topic of conflict in the workplace.

Kutch's organization provides workers with a platform through which they can start online campaigns organized around tools like online petitions and social media.

For innovators like Kutch, the same online tools that have caused mass disruption and discomfort in the workplace can also provide help.

Need for experimentation

According to Kutch, more than 600,000 people have used coworker.org in the past three years since it was founded.

Some successful campaigns include Uber drivers lobbying to enable tips, and Starbucks baristas calling for the company to let employees show their tattoos.

For Kutch, digital platforms like hers are a natural extension of the labour movement, and can help people fight for better working conditions.

Jess Kutch believes that online tools like Coworker.org can help people create better workplaces. (Ryan Lash/TED)

People of all ages already gravitate to online spaces to organize activities and look for like-minded people, she says, so it only makes sense that they would gravitate towards those same tools to fight for their rights.

Kutch acknowledges that digital technology is also changing the nature of work on a massive scale — like enabling the gig economy. But she points out that the labour movement was born out of the massive upheaval of change that accompanied industrialization.

"I think the future of the labour movement can contain a lot more than it does now, and we need to go through a period of experimentation," she said.

Advocating for empathy

For TED attendee Jay Goldman, co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based Sensei Labs, digital tools like the ones his company offers can help people focus on meaningful interaction so they can enjoy work more.

"We really strongly advocate for more empathy in the workplace," Goldman said in between watching talks at TED.

Sensei Labs offers software that makes it easier for workers to collaborate online.

Sensei Labs co-founder and CEO Jay Goldman says online tools can help people communicate more meaningfully at work. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Instead of a long chain of emails sharing clunky Excel spreadsheets back and forth, for example, the software helps people track and measure projects in a shared online space.

For Goldman, his software helps people spend less time in meetings discussing mundane updates and more time solving problems and getting one-on-one feedback.

"For us, the purpose of digital tools is not to replace face-to-face communication, it's to automate as much of the manual labour that goes into work so that people can focus on higher value stuff," he said.

Assessing the past

For TED attendee Lydia Varmazis, vice president of product at San Francisco-based Checkr, online tools can help people with criminal record checks who are looking for work.

Checkr, founded in 2014 by Daniel Yanisse and Jonathon Perichon, provides background and criminal record checks for potential employees.

Nearly a third of all adults in the U.S. have a criminal record, Varmazis says. In most cases, these involve infractions as minor as driving offences or even fishing without a licence — yet they still show up on a person's record, and can keep them from getting a job.

"We don't believe that someone's past should be a prediction of their ability to work in the future," Varmazis said.

Lydia Varmazis, vice president of product at Checkr, says online tools can make background checks more fair for potential employees. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Checkr makes the background check process more fair, Varmazis says, by using technology to take bias out of the equation.

In many places in North America, she said, companies are limited as to how many years back a criminal record check will extend. But whereas a person conducting that check could still be influenced by older criminal records outside those parameters, her company's software filters them out automatically. They also reduce human error, she says.

The company conducts 1.5 million criminal record checks a month, Varmazis says, for companies that include Uber and Lyft. She says the gig economy has increased the need for background checks because workers don't directly work for a supervisor, or may just work occasionally.

The company also advocates for workers with a criminal record. Varmazis says that in 2019 Checkr help 200,000 of them find a job.

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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