Preparing For The Future Of Work: Thanh Nguyen of OpenComp On The Top Five Trends To Watch In The Future Of Work
An Interview with Phil La Duke
Skills-based employment and training will gain value. The idea of fixed roles is changing. If you can better understand your current talent and their potential, you can assign employees to new jobs as needed or upskill employees to fit a new need. This helps best utilize your current workforce and keep employees engaged more deeply over time, while also hiring to fill those gaps you can’t bridge on your own.
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 Thanh Nguyen, CEO and co-founder of OpenComp, a compensation intelligence company that helps leading employers and employees make the best business and career decisions. Thanh is a leading expert in his field with more than two decades of experience in compensation and HR strategies. He has worked with thousands of technology companies, including Airbnb, a16z, Chan Zuckerburg Initiative, Figma, LiveNation, Lyft, Uber and many others. Prior to OpenComp, Thanh was most recently a partner of Connery Consulting, overseeing operations, a team of management and delivery consultants, and business development. Thanh also worked as the first member of Salesforce.com’s Rewards team where he remained for nearly a decade, spanning various domestic and international HR leadership roles.
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?
I’m a first generation Vietnamese refugee who grew up in Springfield, MO. My family ended up there after leaving Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. We resettled in a refugee camp in Hong Kong before being sponsored by a warm and generous family in Springfield.
I moved to San Francisco shortly after college — just in time for the dotcom boom craziness. As a recent graduate, you couldn’t picture a better place to be: seemingly endless job opportunities, the beginning of startup culture, sponsored events, excitement. The boom, as we know, barely lasted, but I had fallen for the optimism and possibility that so many people in the Bay Area share.
I didn’t have a specific career direction when I started working in the “real world,” but I knew I wanted to get a specific skill that was in need and based in analytics. One part of business that has historically been an opaque operation is human resources. I decided to focus on compensation within this function: I saw a great need for business leaders to get data, insights and frameworks to figure out how to pay their employees fairly — regardless of previous salary history, ethnicity or gender.
And while the technology sector drives so much innovation in our country, it has lagged greatly at times to drive real change around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). DEI is personal to me; I’ve lived it and breathed it and know how hard it can be to break through. I was incredibly lucky that my path post-college led me to good people and meaningful work and that I was able to assimilate, but that’s not the case for so many Americans with just as much to offer.
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?
Workplace disruptions we have been talking about for years have come to a head, forced by the pandemic and some as a more natural evolution. In either case, the major disruptions to work that have occurred over the past 18 months+ have encouraged a creativity that I think will help move progress along.
Employers who re-envision their talent needs against technology innovations have an advantage. This means understanding what specific skills are required to achieve current business needs — versus hiring for a fixed role that has a short shelf life. Another critical piece of this talent assessment is how to expand your workforce to ensure you’re getting representation that includes a broad set of perspectives to meet the needs of a diverse world.
Artificial intelligence can drive organizational understanding of these workforce needs today and can help employers plan for the future. In many cases, there are many tasks that can be automated today — and if organizations are strategic, they can shift employee time to focus on other company goals. This is where employers must focus energy to adapt: identify the next technological gaps after you’ve been able to maximize automation in your organization. Figure out how you can upskill to leverage the best of your current talent and where to hire to fill other gaps.
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?
Go to college. Billionaires make up about .08 percent of the population, so their rules are not necessarily a good indicator for success for the majority. For most people, the value of college is not just about formal education that is learned, but also mastering the process of learning. American colleges and universities teach critical thinking, communication and softer skills (from living and working with people that come from a different perspective than your own) that are relevant to solving problems and creating a successful career.
While the education system isn’t changing as fast as the world around it, over time, it should get more progressive and costs standardized so that it’s an even better, accessible experience.
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?
I’m of the mindset that the number of jobs won’t change along with automation, but rather, the types of jobs will change — and for the better. With automation, for example, many of the mundane jobs are eliminated, but it’s opening up a vast set of jobs and skills needed in the management of automation. The new jobs should provide people with better opportunities both from a pay and knowledge base perspective.
Generally, job seekers need to be intentful and, in this job market, can be selective and seek out the jobs that will develop their skills for future, desired roles. They also need to be self-aware to understand their own skill sets and gaps; well informed about how the world is evolving to see the next opportunities; and proactively build their networks to find pathways to desired jobs. Career development is ultimately the ability to understand what’s out there in the landscape of what you’re pursuing. On the other hand, employers have to provide more opportunities for development and compensate appropriately as their employees gain new skills.
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?
People are fearful about AI and automation because they understand there’s a seismic shift ahead and don’t know where they fit within it.
This is where employees can start thinking differently to be successful. Instead of thinking that their job is going to be eliminated, it’s time to think about what skills they need to have when certain parts of their job are automated. What needs to happen at the next level above their current responsibilities when they become automated in the near future? Most likely, there will be a large need for people who can manage the process and systems. How can you evolve your skills to meet these new needs?
While there’s tangible anxiety from employees about this shift, it’s about looking for the openings. If something is replaced, another opportunity will crop up. You’ve got to look for it and also need a system that supports you.
Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?
The pandemic has shown us that many types of jobs can work outside of an office. It’s given us the opportunity to think through who needs to be in the office, who can work remotely, and how much of the time. This fluidity and flexibility is an important aspect of the future of work.
The work environment will most likely be hybrid in the near term. In this super competitive job market, employees have a lot of power in determining how and when they go back to the office. Companies, like my own startup, are also benefiting by being able to source talent in new markets. Nevertheless, remote work is complex and takes a dedicated effort to get it right, especially as a way to operate permanently.
I personally think that we will get back to a work environment where most are in the office, the majority of the time, but it will take several years for that transition to happen. Ultimately, people are social beings and collaborate at speeds much faster when they can connect in-person. As my business grows, there’s nothing like meeting with my colleagues at the office to really think through problems and solve them quickly. But, that’s my personal style (and bias).
The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?
The pandemic has heightened structural problems we have as a society. Salaries, for example, have been stagnant for decades in the U.S., especially for blue-collar professionals. There are a tremendous number of marginalized, low-skilled Americans who struggle and continue to struggle even with pandemic-related assistance.
The reality is very different for workers in the tech industry, a very skilled labor force with a great amount of control in terms of compensation and terms. This group’s fortune has only increased over the past several years.
At the same time, industries with a predominantly blue-collar workforce are now transforming to become technology-driven companies. Take automobile manufacturing and technology. The car continues to develop into a computer on wheels. Whereas you once could be on an assembly line, you now need to be highly skilled and technical to have a role in this industry. But currently, there is no ubiquitous secondary training in the U.S. culture for upskilling. How can we reform our job training infrastructure to train for the new skills that are so needed in disrupted industries?
The only way I see to address this change is through a broad-based effort where the government and private sectors alike push for workforce training and reskilling. It’s the way forward to remain competitive on a global scale while improving opportunity and wealth for workers at home.
What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?
Similar to environmental, social and governance (ESG) requirements, DEI is on a similar trajectory — moving from a high-level discussion and the beginning of developing best practices quickly to board mandates and regulatory compliance (pay transparency laws in place or coming soon to many markets).
The companies who want to build trust with their employees, be fiscally responsible and win talent will lead in this area now. For broad change, however, it often takes a top-down approach from governing bodies.
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?
Bias is a fundamental part of being human and it’s up to us to recognize it and be curious about how it affects us as employees and employers.
For example, for a hybrid or distributed work model to function well, employers have to be mindful of the potential bias towards rewarding people that they see more regularly in person. On a psychological level, we generally trust what we see (in this, seeing people do actual work in an office alongside us). We have to take this bias into account when conducting performance appraisals, reviewing for promotions and raises, etc.
To create inclusive workplaces, employees also need to examine bias and how they support colleagues from different representations.
Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
My greatest source of optimism is people. Humans are the greatest equalizer in the progression of technology and innovation. If you believe that humans are driven toward good like I do, companies and tech are going to be driven toward progress (even as we see many examples of the misuse of technology today). If you focus on the progress possible, you’re supporting communities and fostering livelihoods that give people high levels of value and satisfaction.
Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?
By understanding technological advances and their impact within and across industries, we can better plan for the future and predict what talent needs will be required. Organizational design and skilling (including reskilling and upskilling) has to become an area of broad investment to get ahead of major industry disruptions.
Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Modern employers and employees will rely on compensation intelligence to confidently make business and career decisions. Pre-IPO employers and employees generally use unreliable compensation data that compares their salaries and equity with that from public companies. The only reliable compensation data and benchmarks must specifically represent pre-IPO employers in all industries and funding stages.
- Distributed work models will redistribute wealth. One of the next debates is how wealth is distributed when work is distributed. The first is whether remote worker compensation should be based on a local, national, or company headquarters rate. There’s also a major question about if wealth will remain concentrated in Silicon Valley or reach other corners of our country.
- Modern employees and employers will demand enhanced accountability and governance for DEI. In the next three to four years, competitive companies will evolve to have their own scorecards to measure specific DEI targets, including representation. That score will deeply impact organizations’ ability to compete for and retain talent, as well as improve profitability, efficiency and grow the business. At some point in the near term, there will also be mandates attached to DEI.
- Definitions for pay equity and transparency will transform. As seen at the likes of Google and Apple, there’s growing employee concern about being paid fairly. Pay transparency laws are in place or coming soon in eight states. Having compensation clarity — to demonstrate pay equity statistics and how pay and equity bands progress over time — will move up on modern employer and employees’ priorities lists.
- Skills-based employment and training will gain value. The idea of fixed roles is changing. If you can better understand your current talent and their potential, you can assign employees to new jobs as needed or upskill employees to fit a new need. This helps best utilize your current workforce and keep employees engaged more deeply over time, while also hiring to fill those gaps you can’t bridge on your own.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?
“It doesn’t matter who you’re speaking to or what situation you’re in, tell it how it is and lay out the problems as you see them. Don’t sugarcoat it, be direct and solutions-oriented.” This quote was from a great leader, Brett Queener at Salesforce over 10 years ago.
This was in response to my complaints about people within the organization influencing decisions related to my line of work that I felt that I didn’t know much about. I decided to take his advice in this particular instance and try to incorporate it into how I work every day. It’s so much easier to go along with the opinion of the day in any organization, but if you have a dissenting opinion, whether it’s good or bad politically, ultimately, I’ve found a lot of reward in being honest about problems.
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.
I admire people who have had a rough road, experiencing deep, thought provoking challenges, and have managed to come out on the other side — whether or not they fit our typical definition of success.
Football legend Alex Smith faced the unimaginable when faced with a potentially life threatening injury that nearly required his leg to be amputated. He was also passed over and demoted on three separate occasions during his career, only to rise up each time to show people he belonged in the role that he long set out to master. The ESPN special about his journey is required viewing for my kids.
Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?
I use LinkedIn as my main channel for discussing issues around the future of work and the intersection with compensation. Two recent articles include:
- Pay equity hiring practices: 5 ways to crack the compensation code on Equal Pay Day
- Pay in hybrid work models: 4 common mistakes startups make when setting pay for hybrid workers
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.
Thank you for the opportunity! I wish the same for you.