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The pandemic has thrown a barrage of challenges at those of us in talent teams and as it nears its end, there are still so many variables at play. Today we are joined by Kevin Marasco, the chief marketing officer of Zenefits, a company known for streamlining onboarding, benefits, payroll, and PTO. Kevin is also the author of People Operations: Automate HR, Design a Great Employee Experience, and Unleash Your Workforce. Today Kevin sheds light on some of the many challenges that talent teams have faced as a result of the pandemic. While people are now trying to get “back to work” or find some sort of a normal or familiar operating rhythm, we have to accept that things will never go back to how they were and find ways to integrate new workflows, new operating rhythms, and new policies. We also discuss how these challenges are further impacted by the talent crisis and the Great Resignation, as well as the potential impacts of the gig economy. Kevin explains how at this present time, companies are re-evaluating their strategy when it comes to work in general with regard to who does the work, who can do the work, where they work, and when they work. Tune in to find out what the 80-20 rule is and how HR people can utilize technology to automate the essentials and optimize their roles to be the most impactful toward their companies.
[0:00:06.1] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent to Me. A podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the frontline’s modern recruitment.
[0:00:12.8] FEMALE: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life, we want to understand how they make decisions. Where are they willing to take risks and what it looks like when they fail?
[0:00:22.7] RS: No hold’s bard, completely off the cuff interviews with directors of recruitment, VPs of global talent, CHROs, and everyone in between.
[0:00:31.1] FEMALE: Once I went through the classes and the trainings got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.
[0:00:39.7] MALE: Talent acquisition, it’s a fantastic career, you are trusted by the organization, you get to work with the C-Suite and the security at the front desk and everybody in between and everybody knows you.
[0:00:53.0] RS: I’m your host Rob Stevenson and you’re about to hear the best in the biz Talk Talent to Me.
[0:01:00.4] RS: Joining me today on Talk Talent to Me is the CMO from a company you know well, Zenefits. Kevin Marasco is his name, Kevin, welcome to the podcast, how are you today?
[0:01:09.2] KM: Doing great, Rob, thanks for having me. Doing well and how are you doing?
[0:01:14.8] RS: Good, thanks for asking. I’m just podcasting my little heart out, surrounded by all my plants, you know? People don’t tend to ask how I’m doing so I do relish in telling them. Yeah, there’s lawnmowers going on outside, these are the things you only worry about if you’re a podcaster but we will soldier through, we will make my life harder in post-production and all that but it’s going to be good, I’m really glad to have you on and be recording today.
[0:01:36.4] KM: I like it, for the listeners, since they might not be able to see the visual, I got to just say, thank you for bringing a plant into my life today. It’s a nice – the little things in the world we live in today that you come to appreciate when someone has a little bit of sunshine or a plant and in your case, nice paintings too.
[0:01:56.6] RS: Yeah, absolutely. I had a teammate just tell me that she spent a few minutes gushing about someone’s plants on a video call and she learned that it was a virtual background.
[0:02:07.9] KM: I think I’ve done that too, “Oh, that looks amazing! Oh, it’s fake.”
[0:02:10.8] RS: “Wow, your office is awesome!” “Yeah, it’s from succession, I don’t actually work here.”
[0:02:16.1] KM: They took a video of themselves like walking behind the call and it looked like they are there walking around, it’s pretty amazing.
[0:02:24.6] RS: Of course, yeah. The things we do to latch on to any kind of sanity in this weird work from home times, right?
[0:02:30.9] KM: It’s the digital water cooler. We got to do what we got to do.
[0:02:34.7] RS: Make do somehow. Yeah, hopefully this work from home, for some of us, maybe coming to an end here and that’s kind of what I was hoping to talk to you a little about because Zenefits has a lot of insight into the realities of talent teams, right? All of your customers are working in people ops, the accidental HR person as I know you like to say. All the way up to of course, the DP and people in HR who you know, are very deliberate HR people.
What are you seeing out there, what is sort of going on for these folks on the market-wide level? What is the reality for these individuals who are trying to figure out how to get back to work, what does that look like?
[0:03:08.6] KM: First, I have to give a shoutout to the people, leaders out there, the pandemic over the past couple of years now, which is hard to believe, has just up ended, for sure, the job market and has put pressures on everybody, you know, businesses and consumers alike and so many impacts but at a job level, I don’t think it as hit or put more pressure on any functional leader than the people teams and people leaders.
Think about having to scramble so many issues and fire drills, health and safety of the workplace, tracking the employees, their wellbeing, statuses, overnight transition of the workplace, all the related policies, all the regulation changes over the past 12 months, PPP loans, the CARES Act, HR 601, scrambling to setup emergency. We work with hundreds of companies to setup emergency enrollment period so they could get employees coverage at a critical time. I could go on and on, it’s just, I just have to give a shoutout because there’s so much work.
I think now, what we’re seeing is of course, everyone wants to get back to some sort of an operating rhythm that they can be familiar, instead of just so many changes. I think we’re seeing people try to get “back to work” and never really stop but trying to figure out what the next normal looks like and taking things that will never go back and integrating those into new workflows, new operating rhythms, new policies and really trying to rethink what work looks like going forward.
It’s pretty exciting because it does bring about new changes to take the positive things and are working better and integrate those and then try to move on from things that perhaps in the past did not work so well. We’re still seeing change but I’m also seeing progress.
[0:05:01.3] RS: All those things you rattled off, I never really stopped to consider just the – what the impact looks like in terms of all of those things, to say nothing of like, “How much hand sanitizer should we order for the office?” And these more nuanced policies like, “What do we do if someone’s just like, flat out not comfortable coming back to work?” and even if you had this policy, “Hey guys, we’re going to be back in the office starting this date” at the same time, we spent a year and change thinking that you could die from an Amazon box or that you have to scrub your zucchini in the kitchen sink to survive.
I wouldn’t blame anyone who is not coming back and the people ops folks are the ones who are having to make these nuanced decisions about what you can and can’t ask people to do. I mean, I’m glad it’s not my problem.
[0:05:45.6] KM: Yeah, it’s incredible. I mean, being based out of the Bay Area is like one of the benefits because you have to have fresh avocados in the breakroom and it’s like, “Okay, well now, we got to – what’s the policy on these and the cleanliness?” Yeah, I joke but it is really amazing all the things that have kind of fallen on the plate of people leaders as they’ve gotten closer to facilities or play safety just closer to marketing in terms of impacted to how this impacts employment managers and so many things.
Now, on the heels of that, coming out of all that, now we’re dealing with this talent crisis that’s on our hands. You know, just the new demand, job data came out in the past 24 hours and record high, all time high over 10 million job openings. We know that’s way understated because of the Gig economy and so many people not even really looking for full-time jobs anymore.
Then this great resignation that’s upon us. Now, as if they weren’t enough challenges to deal with, now there’s even greater one from a talent perspectives. Yeah, a lot of work to do, a lot of flux, a lot of change going on out there right now.
[0:06:53.0] RS: Yeah, absolutely. There’s that saying that the Chinese character for crisis is the same as opportunity. I don’t speak or write Cantonese or Mandarin so I can neither confirm nor deny that but it does strike me as this is an unprecedented opportunity for folks, particularly with the ability to, once you work from home, you start thinking about, “Okay, well, if I’m not even going into an office, what is my allegiance for this one company and is that a good deal for me?”
When we start to see the gig economy pointing itself at more traditionally like salary positions, like recruiting for example or like HR, what do you think that means for talent folks, what is the opportunity for these individuals to perhaps unbundled themselves from work?
[0:07:34.8] KM: It’s a big opportunity, on multiple fronts, right? Individual level but then systemically, for your organization. I think every company has to re-evaluate their strategy when it comes to work in general, right? That’s, who does the work, who can do the work, because I think that’s shifted and is continued to evolve, where they work, and when they work? You can question every one of those in a way I think that companies are coming out of this going, “Hey, I think we can reconsider all of this.” It doesn’t necessarily need to be a fulltime employee and they can be wherever. Less about the job and more about the opportunity, the project, the gig, the task or micro-task, even when. Then, of course that changes everything. There’s so many downstream impacts of that but it starts with who can do the work, when, and where? That’s for themselves.
You know, I talked to a colleague that I used to work with, an executive and we work together and then he went to another full-time fee level job. He’s like, “You know what?” They have two kids that are off to college and they adopted another child in the pandemic and it’s like, “Wow, I like spending time being flexible and I’m done with this full-time job thing. I’m just going to advise companies.” He’s like, “I love this, this is the balance of, I have good opportunity, I kind of can cover my bases needs and I have this new flexibility that I placed even more value on now,” and I’m sure we’ve all heard those stories and it’s neat to see that this isn’t just folks doing delivery service and a job out of college to help or something to pay for school.
I was talking to another friend who has a pretty senior job at a very huge Fortune 500 company and he’s like, “Yeah, I’ve been here for 30 years and if I have to go back into the office, I’m going to quit and go to another company where that offers me just more flexibility” and I haven’t seen this level before. It’s pretty fascinating and so for people leaders that offers them new opportunities, they can engage and work for companies in ways that they haven’t before but moreover I think, you can re-evaluate how we’re building companies.
[0:09:46.2] RS: Yes. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I want to take advantage of the fact that I have a marketer on this podcast with me. I normally speak with HR and recruiting people, sometimes CEOs, founders, advisors, consultants, but I see your role running marketing for this company trying to solve problems for HR individuals as it is so important for you to understand, really, what these folks are going through, what are like the pain points of their role and what is the reality of living that job and doing that job.
I’m kind of curious as you like, sort of seek to understand the individuals in this industry, are you speaking with these people, kind of like I am just unrecorded? Right? How do you kind of do your own research, how do you try to seek to understand these individuals and then shape a solution around it?
[0:10:29.3] KM: Great question Rob. I think to be a good marketer, it starts with listening and understanding, knowing your audience and in today’s world, I’m trying to look at ways to use technology to do that more effectively at scale. Of course, nothing’s going to replace a conversation so absolutely, you have to – the more customers you can talk to, the more frequently, the better.
Just having conversations is huge but then, also augmenting that with research and being able to talk to tens of thousands and you know, thousands of customers, of users, this is so important and so this is where technology can help. Just like it can help people, professionals automate busy work and administration to focus on more higher value add activities, as marketers, we have the opportunity to do the same thing. Can we use technology instead of talking to five people, can I talk to get the voices and understand the voices of 500 today?
It’s huge and so, you know, I personally deploy a number of technologies. We look at conversations that we’re having. We’re fortunate to talk to hundreds of people every day. There is over 30 million small business out there and so we’re having chat conversations with them on our website and through technology and then automated email and there’s of course a lot in the AI technology applied. What’s kind of neat is you can synthesize and look through that and see trends and questions and patterns. That’s kind of some of the fun parts, so it is kind of combining qualitative and quantitative tools.
[0:12:05.9] RS: Yeah. I have found from the last several years of my career working in HR tech and trying to relate to recruiters and talent folks, I’ve come to respect what they do so much and in having conversations with these individuals and learning how all of their jobs are these interesting sort of puzzles that involved prioritizing people’s needs and motivations and goals and wants with that of the organization. It just harkens back to kind of what you were saying at the top of the show here, about like, you know your heart goes out to these individuals and what an amazing job and what a difficult job it is. I’m curious how your perspective towards these individuals— like you had that same experience I have had where just and then learning about these folks you’ve sort of come to see a whole side of this career that you never did?
[0:12:53.6] KM: Absolutely. It’s amazing because I think it’s so difficult and so opportunistic at the same time. It adds so much value here, not to be cliché, right? But I don’t think there is a more important role because the way I think about it is a people leader, you have an opportunity to be a force multiplier and impact every person in the company and especially when you get out of the administrative and you are focusing on the employee experience, on employee engagement, productivity, if you implement a new program systemically and it helps increase productivity by 20 percent of every employee, that’s a massive impact that one person can have.
That is not true necessarily in every role in the company and so it’s a huge upside, a ton of opportunity and of course, the impact that it has on building culture, the employment brand and the workplace and employee experience but also, it’s also equally challenging because, to your point, there is so many different unique jobs within it, right? You have the talent acquisition side, you have employee relations, all the compliance, payroll, benefits, in each area, so is technical sophisticated. You know, a hundred regulation changes every year, just trying to keep up with that, right? There is like high risk, high value, a ton of upside but also it’s moving so fast especially in the past 12 to 18 months.
The other piece to this is you get like, in our case, we work with 10,000 small businesses and you see folks just kind of get thrown into the role. They’re a good office manager and, “Hey, you’re doing good with this like the people thing, run with it.” One of the things we really take pride in is just trying to provide knowledge, tools in a community that helps and helps shorten that learning curve and connect them with thousands of other similar folks who’ve been down that path that can help them quickly. My heart goes out to the people leaders. That is an important role and pretty exciting.
[0:14:49.6] RS: I like that you said force multipliers and I think a huge rubicon for people in this role is breaking beyond the administrative and it can be very common early in this career to be sort of like an order-taker and that is true for any career really when you are an individual contributor and you are trying to hone your craft but you might, “Okay, here is a job description, go fill it” or “Hey, we need to separate healthcare” whatever it might be, there is that sort of challenge earlier in the career. I think an important part of becoming meaningful in the organization is breaking through that. When you think about how to optimize this role, how these individuals can be the most impactful toward their companies, what does that look like for individuals?
[0:15:35.1] KM: Great question. I’m a big fan of the 80-20 rule, the Pareto principle, which basically says, “Hey, 20 percent of the effort can drive 80 percent of any given set of results” and in HR also conversely and something to be careful of is where you can do 80 percent of work that’s only going to drive a marginal 20 percent impact. You want to be careful. That’s where administration I think record keeping and things like that even, they need to be done because it can be high risk but it doesn’t mean it’s super important high value, right?
You can take something that’s not important and just doing that task really well doesn’t make it more important. I think about the 80-20 rule and it is about focusing on the 20 percent that’s going to drive 80 percent of value and that is where you get this forced multiplier a fact and that starts with okay, take this stuff that has to be done and automate it. I think this is where technology in today’s world is so powerful and I think we often overlook it.
There’s this neat study that someone did and they basically found that 50 percent of all of today’s work, this is a cross function so you could function industry, et cetera is automatable. KPMG did a study a few years back and they found that in HR, they took all the most common tasks, 21 of them, and they found that 76 percent of those tasks all but five, could be automated. In HR we see even a bigger opportunity and so in order to focus on the 20 percent, they get this forced multiplier, let’s use technology to just automate the essentials. By the way, it’s going to do it faster, cheaper, more consistent, less risk, less room for error and that’s kind of the building blocks and you know that didn’t – and people in the HR world but in other areas too. It’s kind of like automating the essentials, if you will, then frees us up to focus more time on systemic programs so that they will have a bigger impact for the organization.
[0:17:33.2] RS: Yes, I think that’s an important point that saying 76 percent of a role can be automated doesn’t mean that the robot is coming for your job, it means that you will be free to do your highest leveraged activities, which now you are not free to do because you spend 76 percent of your time focusing on low leverage activities. You will be much more valuable to the organization when you focus only on the things that only you can do.
[0:17:55.0] KM: That’s exactly right. In the marketing world, we’ve had to do the same thing. You know, we used to have to individually respond to hundreds of people on chat and now there’s like AI that can answer basic questions. It can do scheduling, it can do unsubscribes, et cetera and so now, we don’t have to spend that time. We now actually have valuable real deep conversations with our customers, et cetera and this is same is true.
I say hey, let the robots have part of your job and embrace them. Picture them as like a personalized assistant that’s going to help you and free you up to do work that you are going to be more passionate about that’s going to add more value to the business and build more credibility for your team and your company and focus on the people, not just the process.
[0:18:38.8] RS: Yes, do you get into the automation in the new book you all are just coming out with?
[0:18:43.3] KM: Absolutely. It’s really the entire section two. Section one kind of just frames up how the world of work is changing, “the new work order” we call it. The entire second section is about, “Hey, take the stuff that you have to do and here’s how to automate it. Get it into the cloud, define that repeatable process and then have it just run with it” and then so on and so forth, and that is kind of like what I’d call the essentials. That’s the first step that is going to allow you to then go from automation to now I can focus on the employee experience and really designing an amazing employee experience. Then finally the third step to unleash the workforce. This is where we get this force multiplier effect to really optimize employee engagement, productivity, and output of the entire workforce.
[0:19:31.4] RS: What’s the book called?
[0:19:31.9] KM: People Operations. It’s People Operations: Automate HR, Design a Great Employee Experience, and Unleash the Workforce.
[0:19:39.2] RS: I love it, we will definitely put a link to the book in the episode description. Are we doing a giveaway? Are we going to hook up the TT2M subscribers?
[0:19:46.0] KM: We are.
[0:19:47.3] RS: I love it.
[0:19:47.4] KM: Absolutely.
[0:19:48.5] RS: How many can we give away?
[0:19:50.2] KM: Let’s do 10, 20?
[0:19:52.4] RS: If you’re listening to this podcast, look under your seat right now. We don’t have that power, we don’t have that Oprah power.
[0:19:59.2] KM: That would be pretty cool.
[0:20:00.2] RS: That would be. Yeah, that’s a David Blaine street magic right there. Let’s give away an uncertain amount so that people will know they have to click right away so that they get their chance to get this book for free but even if you don’t get the free giveaway, you should buy this book and you can expense it to your personal development stipend, right?
The book is going to help everyone I think get a lot more productive as you shared, how to automate things about your role and just be a higher value to your organization. Yeah, I mean people, check it out.
Kevin, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, it’s been great, just sort of gushing about these awesome people that we get to try and serve with our own marketing efforts. Thank you for your candor and for being here and for being on the show, I really loved chatting with you today.
[0:20:40.2] KM: Likewise, Rob. Really enjoyed the conversation, appreciate what you do to the show and dropping and sharing knowledge, it’s great so I appreciate it, and thanks for having me on, and yeah, keep up the great work.
[0:20:50.1] RS: All right, thanks, Kevin.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
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