Preparing For The Future Of Work: Nathan Christensen of Mineral On The Top Five Trends To Watch In The Future Of Work
Finding new ways to measure employee contributions. Historically, employers have measured employee value through activities they could observe and verify first-hand, such as the number of “widgets” employees produced or hours they spent in the office. But in a world in which more work is being done virtually and asynchronously, and is more focused on creative or knowledge-based work that can’t be replicated through AI, employers will need to reimagine how they measure employee contribution. In most cases, this means defining the outcomes employees are responsible for producing, and finding ways to measure progress to those outcomes, rather than simply the activities or hours invested. Though it will be a challenge for many, it will ultimately better align employers’ and employees’ interests, and pave the way to more autonomy, creativity, and ownership for employees.
There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.
To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.
As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Nathan Christensen, CEO of Mineral, the HR and compliance leader for more than 800,000 small and mid-size businesses nationwide. Nathan has been named a “Game Changer” in the HR field by Workforce magazine and was selected by the Portland Business Journal as a member of the “Forty Under 40” class. Nathan has also served as an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and as a visiting lecturer at The Wharton School of Business. Based in Portland, Ore., Nathan holds degrees from Stanford University and The University of Chicago Law School.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?
The truth is I’m an “accidental CEO.” I started my career in management consulting with The Boston Consulting Group and then taught fourth grade through Teach for America. From there, I went on to law school and practiced at a law firm for several years.
Practicing law was going well, and I never expected to one day be CEO of Mineral. But in 2013, we had a family crisis. My mother-in-law had become very ill, and my father-in-law was caring for her full-time. This meant that the small, family-owned business my father-in-law had founded, called HRAnswerLink, was starting to stagnate. My father-in-law asked me if I would join the company so we could figure out what to do with it. I agreed to do so as employee #9, and told my law firm I expected to be back to practicing law in a year.
Needless to say, that’s not how it turned out. Within my first month, I realized this small company was doing something special. One night, I downloaded a report of all the comments we had received from our clients. I spent hours that night reading every comment.
Those comments were different from anything I had seen before in the customer surveys and focus groups I had led as a management consultant. I could see that HR was a source of severe anxiety and confusion for small and mid-size businesses, and that having a team of HR experts standing behind them was an empowering experience. It was also clear that HR and compliance were going to get harder, not easier, for these businesses, that technology could play an increasingly powerful role in solving the issue, and that our 9-person company had an opportunity to grow and to do a lot of good along the way.
But this wasn’t just a business school problem. I discovered that for me personally, building a company, building a team, and building a product that could make such a difference for these businesses and the people within them was what I wanted to do when I woke up every day.
So I told my law firm I wasn’t coming back, and we rebooted the company as Mammoth HR, rebuilt our software, recommitted ourselves to a mission of supporting small and midsize businesses, and grew the company organically over the next five years. Then in 2019, we brought together the two leading companies in the category — Mammoth and ThinkHR — to accelerate our combined growth and innovation.
Today, the combined company is called Mineral, and we have 250 employees and more than 800,000 employer clients. As CEO, I bring to work each day the unique experiences I had in each of my prior roles — as a consultant, a teacher, and a lawyer — to do the best I can for the company, my colleagues, and our customers.
What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?
It’s both a cliché and a fact that the pace of change is increasing, and the businesses that succeed will be the ones that are most agile and adaptable to change. Some of the potential disruptions that will likely affect employers are:
- Increasing role of technology at work: Whether it be automating workflows, connecting remote workers, monitoring and measuring employee and customer activities, or simply expanding the data available in decision-making, employers will need to continuously evaluate new ways of using technology in their business, adapt their strategies and cultures accordingly, and train their employees on how to leverage it.
- Employee mobility: Remote work and climate change will likely mean the places where talent is concentrated will change over the next 10–15 years. Employers will need to adapt to this change, whether by hiring more remote workers, finding new sources of talent, becoming more competitive as an employer of choice, or working with local governments to make their geography a desirable place to live.
- Increased flexibility: During the pandemic, employees who work in industries where work-from-home is an option have gotten used to a more flexible lifestyle. Over the next 10–15 years, employers should expect to see more demands for flexible working arrangements, whether that be on where, when, or how work is done. Employers will need to be creative and collaborative with their employees in figuring out how to balance both employee and business needs.
- Employee experience to life experience: Over time, the employer’s responsibility to its employees has expanded from managing their “work” to their “employee experience.” As Brian Kropp at Gartner has pointed out, we’re likely to see this trend accelerate, as employers shift again from managing the “employee experience” to supporting their employees’ “life experience,” including enabling social connection, civic conversation and engagement, personal growth, or overall wellness.
The underlying theme that connects all four of these trends is that employers are likely to need to become more “employee-centric.” That means listening, understanding, and supporting employees’ unique needs, experiences, and goals going forward. The employers that understand their employees best will be leading their categories in 10–15 years.
The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?
We fall in love with the dropout-turned-billionaire stories, but the reason we find them so fascinating is because they are so rare. There’s often an element of privilege or luck to them, and for every person who achieves fame and fortune, there are many more who don’t.
On the other hand, with all the changes occurring in the workplace and workforce today, it would be surprising if the paths to get there didn’t also change. I expect we’ll see new models emerge for how people acquire the skills, experience, relationships, and knowledge to be highly productive.
If a person discovers a passion early in life that doesn’t require going to or graduating college, and they have the ability to do it, I’d encourage them to pursue it. But for most people, college is still a great way to explore your interests, build skills, create a network, and establish credibility as a professional. It also signals to future employers that you have a certain work ethic, discipline, and knowledge base. The key is to be purposeful about it. Before you make a decision about college, understand what you want to get out of it and what you want to put into it, even if it changes later. Then make the decision that gives you the best chance to fulfill that purpose with the effort, time, or investment you want to put into it.
Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?
With the rise of remote work, job seekers will need to learn how to find and evaluate opportunities beyond the companies they may know from their local communities. Beyond that, job seekers will need to drill down on purpose and culture. The most fulfilled, successful people I know found employment that allowed them to work towards a mission they cared deeply about within a culture that enabled them to thrive professionally. But mission and culture can be much more challenging for job seekers to understand and evaluate than more traditional aspects of employment, like responsibilities and pay. So job seekers will need to develop techniques for learning an employer’s true purpose and culture, whether through interview questions, job boards, or other means.
The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?
There’s no doubt that automation is changing the nature of work as we know it. But we have to stop thinking about AI only in the paradigm of replacing today’s jobs, and instead think about it in the paradigm of the new jobs that will come out of it. The future is a hybrid world, which combines human intelligence with artificial intelligence. In that world, AI has the potential to shift people’s work from repetitive, transactional tasks to more creative, rewarding work, and actually improve employee engagement and morale.
PwC studied this issue in the UK in 2018, and found that AI is likely to create more jobs than it eliminates. In the U.S., jobs in software engineering, edge computing, cloud security, learning and development, IT, data management, user experience design, and AI ethics are all likely to grow as AI proliferates. That being said, we need to be cognizant of the disproportionate impact AI will have on jobs. At Mineral, we talk about focusing our people on “human work,” and letting the systems do the “computer work.” As people consider their future careers, it’s worth thinking about how much “human work” is involved in a specific career path. The less repeatable the work, and the more human judgment, creativity, and intuition is required, the less likely it is to be performed by technology in the future.
Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?
Yes, I see this trend continuing. Once the pandemic is over, the pendulum may swing back a bit towards in-person, office work, but I believe we’ve made a permanent shift. For those companies that can, having a hybrid workforce is the baseline now. If companies don’t provide a work-from-home option for their employees, another employer will, and technology is going to enable those companies to produce the same or better results.
I say this as a person who sees tremendous value in in-person collaboration. But what I’ve learned is that the value of in-person collaboration is more targeted than I thought. When it comes to very complex or creative work, to gathering information outside the standard workstreams, and to building relationships, I still believe in-person interaction is hard to beat. But for most other things, remote work works.
At the height of the pandemic, we surveyed our employees at Mineral, and the vast majority said they were more productive as a result of the new work-from-home model. To their credit, our company’s results backed up our employees’ sentiment. Part of this is focus, and part of it is that remote work has created a more egalitarian culture. Information is shared in more accessible and deliberate ways, and we all have glimpses into each other’s lives. There is no hierarchy on the Zoom screen.
The other obvious benefit from a hybrid workforce is the ability to access a broader talent pool, which is especially valuable in tight labor markets like the one we’re experiencing now. In the U.S., we’re fortunate to live in the most talented labor market in the world. As a CEO, I want to take advantage of that by building our team with the best people for the roles, not just the ones that are within commuting distance from the office.
What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?
As we covered earlier, there’s a fundamental shift in the skills people will need to succeed in the workplace of the future. The two biggest needs I see are digital skills and people skills. Digital skills enable people to develop, collaborate with, and leverage technology. People skills enable people to develop, collaborate with, and leverage each other. As a dad to three school-age children, I can see that fully developing these skills may require some changes to our curriculum and way of teaching.
More generally, there’s an opportunity for us to better understand the role and power of empathy in organizations. Over the last 18 months, society generally and business leaders specifically have had a renewed focus on the role of empathy. In the face of the pandemic, wildfires and smoke congestion, political strife, and racial inequity, business leaders have invested in better understanding their employees’ experiences and responding with programs to better support them. For example, at Mineral, we hosted listening sessions with employees, expanded our wellness programs, created a stimulus program for employees and local businesses, and implemented more frequent and more personal venues for communication.
Now, business leaders are talking about “getting back to normal,” and for many, this means putting the empathy-inspired programs they and their teams developed on the shelf until the next crisis comes our way. But I believe this is a mistake. Over the last 18 months, we’ve learned not just how to weather crises, but how to apply empathy to build better companies, teams, and products. As long as it’s kept in balance, empathy can be a powerful catalyst for innovation, customer sales and support, and employee engagement.
At Mineral, we’ve translated some of the practices we developed over the last year into long-term practices designed to heighten our organizational empathy. For instance, we now start every new product spotlight with a deeper understanding of the customer persona we’re trying to influence, we provide coaching on how to make one-to-ones more meaningful and we’re designing products to provide a more personal and predictive experience tailored to each customer’s specific needs.
Given the lessons of the last year-and-a-half, it’s surprising to me that empathy is still not well-understood and in some venues even considered antithetical to leadership. I think there’s an opportunity for us to better understand what empathy is and why it can be such a powerful tool to bring people, ideas, and teams together.
What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?
Today there are three big forces for change for employers: technology, employees, and regulations. Employers that refuse to recognize and adapt to these changes are likely to struggle. Employers that anticipate and adapt to them will have a strategic advantage.
There are a couple key areas that could be particularly challenging for employers:
- Finding new ways to measure employee contributions. Historically, employers have measured employee value through activities they could observe and verify first-hand, such as the number of “widgets” employees produced or hours they spent in the office. But in a world in which more work is being done virtually and asynchronously, and is more focused on creative or knowledge-based work that can’t be replicated through AI, employers will need to reimagine how they measure employee contribution. In most cases, this means defining the outcomes employees are responsible for producing, and finding ways to measure progress to those outcomes, rather than simply the activities or hours invested. Though it will be a challenge for many, it will ultimately better align employers’ and employees’ interests, and pave the way to more autonomy, creativity, and ownership for employees.
- Accepting that employees have more agency than ever. If today’s hiring challenges have taught us anything, it’s that employees are taking a much more intentional and purposeful approach to finding work. When I joined the workforce 20 years ago, employers dictated most of the terms of the employee-employer relationship, from the wage to the hours to where and how the work was performed. But today, employees feel a much stronger sense of agency in negotiating and establishing the what, where, when, how, and why around their work. And if they don’t like what they see, they’re happy to go find a new employer, knowing that even if it takes some time they can find some gig work to fill the gap. This change in the leverage between employers and employees can be a tough pill to swallow, but businesses that adapt to the more employee-centric world we’re entering will find opportunities, too, in a workforce that brings more ownership and intention to its work.
- Staying current with fast-changing laws and regulations. The often divisive, gridlocked politics we observe at the national level mean more laws and regulations are surfacing at the state and local level. In addition, the employer relationship has been an increasing focal point for policymakers looking to further their goals on a range of issues, from health care to the wealth gap. These dynamics create tremendous complexity for employers, particularly small and midsize businesses that don’t have the internal expertise or resources that larger companies have. I don’t see this trend slowing down, and employers will need to find new ways to monitor and adapt to a constantly-changing regulatory environment. This is exactly the reason we created Mineral.
Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
The COVID pandemic threatened the livelihood, health, and safety of people across the country. As a company that provides HR and compliance support to more than 800,000 small and midsize businesses, we saw the impact first-hand. But we also saw something else — example after example of people coming together to support their employees, coworkers, and customers, in ways we had never seen before.
For example, one of our clients, a pizza parlor in Atlanta, was forced to close its restaurant and convert to take-out only. Along with that decision, they furloughed nearly all of their employees. They simply didn’t have the work or working capital to keep their employees on board.
But then the team did something unusual for a business that was winding down: They started placing new orders with their suppliers. More bread, more pasta, and more sauce. And then they gave it away. The restaurant staff set up weekly “care package” deliveries to their furloughed employees, making sure they had food to get through the stay-at-home order and furlough period.
As challenging and divisive as the pandemic has been for our country, within the businesses we work with, it’s brought people together in new ways, and caused them to see each other as more than just managers, employees, customers, and coworkers. They became confidants, a support system, and even friends.
There‘s no doubt we have lots of challenges to work through, but seeing how people rose to the occasion to support each other in the face of crisis makes me hopeful that the future of work is bright.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader. A great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”
In my first few years as CEO, I was a directive leader. My team brought me their questions and issues, and I saw my role as figuring out the answer or making the decision. I assumed that the way our team, company, and I would succeed is if I got enough of the answers right and our team trusted me enough to carry them out.
Over time, I realized my directive approach wasn’t growing our team and company to reach their full potential. One day I ran across this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, and I asked myself: what if my ideas and abilities, and people’s confidence in them, set the floor rather than the ceiling for our company? How much could we accomplish if that were the case?
I came to believe changing my approach to leadership in this way would be transformational for our company, and for me personally. So I hired an executive coach and worked to reverse my mode of leading. Now, rather than focus on answers, I try to focus on questions. Rather than focus on telling, I try to focus on asking. And rather than focus on building the team’s confidence in me, I try to focus on building the team’s confidence in themselves and each other. The decisions I make are targeted — and rare.
I’m still on this journey with a lot left to learn. Eleanor’s quote on great leadership is my North Star.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
When I joined The Boston Consulting Group as a freshly-minted associate, there was talk within the office about another associate who had just left BCG. The reason this associate’s departure had become a topic of conversation is that he hadn’t left for the usual destinations — an elite business school, or a senior-level strategy job. He had left for something entirely different: to pursue a career as a musician.
BCG provides a sought-after and lucrative career track, and the idea that someone would leave to pursue something as uncertain as a music career was a bit of a head-scratcher for the firm. But I thought it was quite inspiring, and so I always remembered that associate’s name. And sure enough, a few years later, I started to see it show up in lights. His name was John Legend.
A few years later, I made my own decision to leave BCG. I didn’t pursue a music career, but my path was also quite unusual — I left BCG to teach fourth grade through Teach for America. And John’s example of taking a personal risk to pursue his passion was on my mind as I made my own decision.
I love John’s music and the way he uses his platform to bring people together and lead with his values. I’d love to have lunch with him to hear more about his journey and how, now as a famous singer, songwriter, and producer, he continues to take risks to pursue the things that mean the most to him.
Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.
This article was originally published by Authority Magazine on October 17, 2021.