In light of a new survey indicating that half of British employees will likely be working more remotely and flexibly after the COVID-19 lockdown ends, S&C Founding Editor Tom Sykes talks to Marc Cook about new tech innovations to help workers and job-seekers during and after the lockdown. Marc is a Digital Research Associate on PONToon (Partnership Opportunities using New Technologies fostering sOcial and ecOnomic inclusioN), an Interreg 5A project based at the University of Portsmouth and co-financed by the European Development Fund, which serves more than 1,000 beneficiaries in the UK and France.
Tom Sykes: For several years now the PONToon team have been upskilling women for various digital professions. Could you tell us about the apps you’ve developed to support this training?
Marc Cook: Our Community Map is a mobile app that lets organisations create virtual maps to inform users about locations relevant to their needs. For example, Aspex Gallery here in Portsmouth have said they’d like to use the app to assist refugees they’ve worked with. A series of pins could be added to this map that represent healthcare resources, community centres, landmarks and places of interest. Aspex could then invite its whole audience via email to log in to the map and learn about these important locations. This sharing of information with users is all about building a sense of community.
How could an app like this serve Portsmouth people during the lockdown?
Maps could be put together to guide the public to all sorts of resources that are needed at this difficult time. For example, there could be a map of local food stores that have social distancing precautions in place, so if someone goes to one of these places they know they’ll be safe.
What other apps have you developed on PONToon?
The Job Map is a sort of all-in-one system allowing people to search for jobs in their locality. Its core principle is a map that lets users know exactly where vacancies are and provides information about transport to these places. Various categories and keywords can be invoked to search for vacancies. People can then upload their CVs through the app and apply directly for suitable jobs.
Obviously, one of the obstacles for jobseekers right now is reduced public transport and fears around whether this mode of travel is safe. But the Job Map can let you know if it’s possible to walk or drive to locations. It can also tell you about where the jobs are, what they’re like and how you can plan your day around getting to and from a potential workplace.
Could the Job Map also have an important function after the lockdown?
We know that, sadly, as a result of the COVID crisis, many companies have already gone under and a lot of employees have been let go. So there’ll be plenty of people looking for new positions and the app is here to help with that.
Do you think the lockdown will permanently change the labour market? Will there be much more remote and online working in the future?
I think so. We’re already seeing the signs with big companies like Twitter saying that their employees can and should work from home, not just during the lockdown but after. Other companies will catch on to that approach. We’re also seeing universities going online for the 2021/22 academic year. The next six months will be crucial to organisations in terms of moving into a more online way of working. For a lot of jobs, going virtual won’t be appropriate, but many workers will have to digitally upskill. They’ll have to get better at using technology and communicating online. Others may be looking to start their own virtual businesses. PONToon’s learning tools can definitely make those activities easier.
Our VR Train Station is a virtual reality app that simulates walking into a railway station, buying a ticket and boarding a train. This was originally intended for our beneficiaries in France because many of them live in isolated rural areas and aren’t used to travelling by rail. The aim was to build people’s confidence in a safe environment before they go out in the world. But during the lockdown, when there hasn’t been as much travel going on in Britain or France, other people who haven’t been on public transport for a while and are anxious about using it again, might benefit from the app too.
What sort of feedback have you had from users of your apps?
The feedback from our beneficiaries, stakeholders and partners is that not every app is relevant to every audience – that’s to be expected. But every app has some sort of audience. For example, the Career Guide is a work-in-progress that people have said would be a great tool especially for school kids. When we’ve shown the Job Map at the Pontoon Festival and at other events, members of the public have told us, ‘I can see how close the jobs are to me and, if I were to use this, I wouldn’t need to worry about how to get to a job. I can see where the bus stops are and I can see where the train station is. I can visualise my way into work before I even know if I’ve got the job!’
In France, Devon and Eastleigh our partners loved how we set up the VR equipment in their training centre. People were enthusiastic about trying the VR Train Station and enjoyed the gamification aspect to it. Like a computer game, there are different levels of difficulty so you can start easy and graduate to more complex missions. Users love to see how they progress from the beginning to the end.
Can you see the tech you’ve developed on PONToon being applied to other demographics in this new world of work?
While PONToon’s target group is young women, we’ve never excluded other people and they’ve been involved in our testing processes and training workshops. What I like about these tools is that they have a potentially universal application. For instance, anyone – whatever their age, gender or background – could potentially start a business after attending our workshops. Equally, anyone could have an issue with going on public transport and so may be attracted to the VR Train Station.
Certainly, what we’ve been doing could be rolled out to different regions in the future, let’s say to the north of England or Scotland or Wales. With our apps there’s something for everyone.
Images courtesy of the PONToon.