Let the Robot Have Your Job

Kevin Marasco, CMO at Zenefits
Jan 6, 2021

Nervous about being automated out of your job? In this episode, Kevin Marasco, CMO at Zenefits, shares what experience and deep research have proven about automation. Listen and learn why letting “the robot” take over tedious HR process will be good for your business and your career in people operations.

People are a company’s greatest asset, expense, and competitive advantage. So why is the function that oversees a workforce traditionally seen as, at worst, a “necessary evil?”

In this episode of POPS!, Zenefits Chief Marketing Officer Kevin Marasco explains why successful companies are shifting from “HR administration” to “People Operations” and the four key factors that have influenced this shift in the new world of work.

On this episode, you’ll hear:

  • [03:02] The three shifts that have created the opportunity to disrupt HR
  • [02:20] What small business owners think about HR (and the stats to support it!)
  • [5:32] Understanding the HR identity Crisis
  • [06:34] The Impact 2020 had on People Operations
  • [12:18] What’s a good “robot” looks like for small businesses?
  • [13:52] A look back at the jobs we used to do that are now automated

POPS Star Bio

Kevin Marasco’s first job was mowing lawns. He became intrigued with small business when his dad gave up a big corporate job to run a small business and have more time with his family. Today as the CMO at Zenefits, he’s parlayed 20 years of experience growing small businesses at the intersection of tech and people operations into market movers with big impact. He knows a lot about movement too: Kevin is an ultra-marathoner, with a side hustle in sports tech. It’s not uncommon to find him out on 30-mile training runs with his two preschoolers in a jog stroller.

After you listen:

Check out this People Ops Maturity Model for more context.

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Kevin: And one of the exciting opportunities here. Is to embrace technology to do more with less.

Didi: It’s the People Ops Podcast from Zenefits, the only show dedicated to small businesses, sharing stories of their pivotal people moments. I’m your host Didi D’Errico or if that’s too much of a mouthful, I also go by D2. In this episode, I’m joined by my friend, Kevin Marasco. He’s an ultra-marathon runner, dad of two toddlers, and a dude with a side hustle in sports tech.

But this self-proclaimed accidental marketer. Actually has a great pedigree for this show today. He’s the CMO at Zenefits and he spent the last 20 years of his career at the convergence of technology and HR on today’s show. We’re talking about the future of work and how you can make work well, work better at your business.But before we go there, let’s take one step back. Here’s Kevin sharing his first job, a job that fueled his passion for small business.

Kevin: My first job was borrowing my dad’s lawnmower and taking it down the street and knocking on doors to see if I can most someone’s lawn to make a buck. And when I was older, my dad, he had a big kind of corporate sales job and quit it. So he could spend more time with the family. And he started a landscape company and I spent a few years working for him there. So yes, but so many years in small businesses and just have a real passion for them. 

Didi: Fast forward to today when CEOs, founders, or you name the title when they think about HR, it’s often in the context of something they have to do.It’s overhead. It’s a headache. 

Kevin: 25% of small business owners or CEOs time in a small business is doing administrative work, HR administration, and four out of 10 say it’s literally the worst part of their job. So they tend to then start to outsource it and think about, Hey, how can I get this off my plate so I can focus on other things.

Didi: HR is a necessity for running a business. One thing Kevin’s clear on is that HR it’s ripe for disruption. Why so many reasons, but certainly 2020 may have had something to do with it. I’ll let him explain, so here’s our conversation.

Kevin: There’s like three real shifts that have created this opportunity. And the first is work has completely changed. The workplace has changed right now. The majority of workers in the workforce in the US are millennials by 2030. It will be 75%. They’re not looking for just a paycheck and a job and a title. It’s about flexibility and doing purposeful work. The workforce is more fluid now with contractors. So by 2027, the majority of workers will not be. Full-time employees, but gig workers, freelance workers who are literally doing gigs and work styles have changed. It’s no longer top-down authority, or you must do this work.

People aren’t just looking for a paycheck, but people are looking for that purpose. And if they don’t feel fulfilled, it’s not an exciting place to work. They’ll take another job or gig and we could go on, but the workforce workplaces’, work styles completely changed. Number one, number two. Technology like everything in our lives is completely [00:04:00] transformed and this is nothing new. This has happened over hundreds of years, right. And technology disrupts jobs, it creates jobs and it also creates opportunity. And. The opportunity when it comes to HR is there’s this newfound opportunity to take the technology and automate the drudgery as parts of the job. The must-have things are perceived as overhead and taxing things like record-keeping compliance.

And, uh, repetitive tasks that just have to be done. So now you can automate that like other parts of our lives and that frees time up to do things that are, that are more important. And that brings up the third area, which is also an opportunity. You know, HR is in a bit of an identity crisis. This whole function was born out of necessity for administration record keeping and compliance, and then.

In the late eighties, nineties, there was this kind of newfound need for managing talent, more strategic elements of, of people recruiting [00:05:00] performance management, succession planning, compensation strategy, and you know, the war for talent emerged. And now you have kind of two needs: the administrative side, the strategic talent side. And then HR is kind of caught in the crosshairs in the middle and drag with it and its reputation. And there are tons of data that show what executives think of the function. What employees, and if you want to do something fun, just look up, you know, Google, the urban dictionary definition of HR. but that therein lies now there’s an opportunity. To deal with this identity crisis, head-on and actually flip it and say, okay, Hey, HR has gone. There’s something new called people ops. And what the concept is to embrace technology, that’s transforming everything. Automating the drudgery must-have parts of the job it’s going to do better because there are fewer errors. It’s going to do it faster, more efficiently. It’s going to be completely digital. Now that frees up time to focus on things that [00:06:00] really matter to the business, the strategic areas of designing a great employee experience.

Being an amazing culture. That was a competitive advantage. Focusing on the talent and people inside the organization, helping the people to do their best work. That’s a win-win. It helps the company be more productive and do better work and helps people have a great employee experience that they really enjoy.

Didi: So what’s interesting about all of this is it sounds utopian. It sounds like a great directional thing, and it’s a great, nice to have, but there’s something else that kind of happened in the middle of all of this that gives us urgency, I think. And it’s called 2020. I think we took what happened to, to our world, into our humanity, into our business, especially small business, right at the apex of all of the change has fast-forwarded a lot of the things that we’ve been predicting or thinking about coming eventually, and that have emerged. They emerged in March. They’d dumped at our doorsteps in March, a whole new world, like remote working for companies that might have never even considered or might’ve vaguely considered it and never been there. So as we are going into 2021, Can you talk about the urgency piece, that kind of reframes all of why it’s not nice to have to take care of your people into engaging your people, but why it’s super urgent, particularly for small businesses and their ability to be agile and nimble?

Kevin: 2020, really just accelerated by five or 10 years. Macro shifts that are already taking place at work,  already becoming more distributed entering this year. 80% of all work was already deathless happening in the field. Now, all of these trends have accelerated, um, this year and now it’s really hit a tipping point where it’s created new challenges at the same time, new opportunities.

And so now from a people leader standpoint, there are new things that you no longer can overlook things like what’s our communications strategy. How do we connect, communicate, and engage with employees that are distributed? How do I think about employee safety and wellbeing? Um, how am I doing with my employee experience?

Um, what’s their level of burnout? What am I doing to mitigate that? Are they doing their best work? Uh, so there are all these new factors that things that might before had been. Someday, maybe we can get to them. Now you have to, those need to be at the forefront and you can only focus on those things. If you’re able to cover the basics, the things you have to do and have, you know, part of that’s having the technology to support, but it’s also being able to prioritize and focus the things that really matter, and you can no longer afford to avoid those things. 

Didi: So, yeah, there’s a tax that comes with HR in terms of time, but it is to your point about you can’t afford not to spend time in these new areas of engaging your employees. Can you talk a little bit about them? 

Kevin: There’s this concept called the Pareto principle or the 80 20 rule. And it’s really fascinating and it applies to so many things, but the idea is that 80% of the effort can yield just 20% of the] results. And 20% of Everett can yield. 80% of the results take your daily Workday. It’s easy to get up and just look through emails. You could literally spend 80% of your day, you know, responding to triaging and managing emails.

And are you getting done? The things that move the needle the most for whatever your job is probably not. So that’s a perfect example, 80% of the time to deliver 20% of the results, or you could get up and focus on. The biggest priority for your business and do that. And that could be like that 20% of your day, that has the biggest impact.

And there are so many examples of this and Tim Ferris, the best-selling author, wrote a book that really embodies a lot of this is called the four-hour workweek and how you automate all these mundane tasks and you can get as much. 40 hours worth of work done. And in his case four hours, and he does a quote he uses is great.

And he basically something along the lines of, Hey, you can take something that doesn’t really move the needle a job, right. Doesn’t really matter that much. And if you do it [00:10:00] so good, it’s not going to make that job more important. And that could be, you know, doing email or it could be doing paperwork and administration and in the case, of the people function is very easy to fall into doing 80% of busywork that doesn’t really move the needle for your people in the business.

And with people ops is flipping that and saying, Hey, we realize it has to get done. We’ll get a better way to automate that and have it get done. But now we’re going to focus 20% of the time. This is going to make 80% of the difference. And that’s going to be things like the employee experience, driving employee engagement, employee productivity, building culture, and creating a great place.

Didi: Kevin is one of three people at our organization that is writing a book on people ops. So he spends a lot of time you might tell by the data that’s coming trippingly to his tongue. A lot of time looking at the data behind the story. Because that’s a big part of the Pop’s equation. So talk a little bit about an example of applying pups.

Kevin: Small business, especially you often don’t have the luxury of tons of resources, capital, huge teams to manage all areas of the business. Prioritization and focus is key. And one of the exciting opportunities here is to embrace technology, to do more with less. An example of that might be instead of hiring a person or outsourcing to someone, a bunch of manual work.

If I embrace technology and automate that it’ll get that done faster with more predictability, fewer errors at a lower cost. And then that frees up. Our time and resources to focus on things that will have a bigger impact and that needs to tie to whatever your business strategy is. And, and now a lot of people, small businesses that are evolving and changing overnight, all of a sudden, we might need to go brick and mortar to online.

I need new skills. So I should be focusing my time on finding those skills and there are new ways to do that because of the new world of work. I might be able to find a specialist as a contractor outside of the country that can come in and help me. But that’s where the time needs to be a focus on strategic areas like that.

Didi: So what’s that robot look like for the small business? 

Kevin: Something that I’m always thinking about is how can I embrace a better way to do something and all aspects of life. And so from a people’s perspective, one of the concepts is employee self-service. You know, one of the big time sock for legacy HR teams was responding to and triaging questions from employees where now just like Siri answers a question or Alexa or Google, there’s no reason to employ. Can’t pull up and make their own changes to their insurance. Change their deductions at, Hey, I’m moving to a new state. 

They can make that, that change. There shouldn’t need to be a person to be involved in that employees are able to do it from their fingertips, from their phone, we should embrace robots and think about working alongside technology. If you think about it, our lives are. Becoming integrated with technology things. We used to use the mental capacity to do, you know, growing up, learning how to do all types of crazy math and calculus and that like, you know, calculators can do that much faster than I can. So I don’t have to use my mental capacity to do that.Um, might need to solve other parts of the formula or algorithm, but the basic algebra and even more sophisticated things, just like we don’t have to remember. Store all these phone numbers in our heads anymore. Right? Cause our phone will do that. So we should be thinking about how we work alongside technology and how that frees us up to do more rewarding, more fulfilling and more impactful work.

Didi: Some examples of things you wouldn’t have thought about in terms of a job a hundred years ago, 50 years ago, and what we’ve automated. 

Kevin: Well, there are so many jobs that have been, uh, automated over the years early entering the 1900s Almost all jobs were agriculture. They actually weren’t really jobs. Jobs didn’t really exist. People just, they had a. Uh, craft, you know, and, um, and then as jobs evolve ever since then, we’ve continuously automated those. So, and there’s some that you probably think about like switchboard operators that were hundreds of thousands of people that were employed as switchboard operators. And now like that’s, there’s no such thing, you know, and, and another one of my favorites is the bowling pin center. That was an actual job and people got up in arms, “Oh my gosh, this machine is going to replace jobs” And we would never think about that doubt. And we have to remember technology.

It also creates new jobs, more sophisticated knowledge work to build the machines, to manage the machines, and spend more time on the strategy side. And then here’s where. HR, I think has both an identity crisis and a huge opportunity because one of two things is going to happen. The technology is going to [completely replace that task and job where it’s completely eliminated.

You might say switchboard operators and examples of that. And then in other cases is actually. Uplevel that job or profession and take stockbrokers. For example, acknowledge it came out. I no longer need a stockbroker to get a stock quote, to even place a trade. I can do that in an app now, but stockbrokers eventually embrace the technology.

They give up a fight at first, but then embraced it and graduated to become wealth managers, more sophisticated role, and they can make more money and deliver more value by working alongside the technology and, and, you know, marketing. It used to be just advertising. It became more sophisticated with technology finance as a strategic business function.

It started as bookkeeping and accounting, but they embraced technology. And it became more sophisticated. And I think HR is at an interesting and similar intersection, embraced technology and up to a level to focus on people, operations and run it like a real strategic part of the business, which it is, or try to just fight technology and fight for the administrative side.

Didi: Is there a word of advice  you would want to lay out here for small businesses who are trying to figure out how to get into 2021 on the best foot?

Kevin: One major opportunity for small businesses, in particular, they don’t have the luxury of massive budgets, resources, and teams to do all this work.

So we have to be very diligent about prioritizing and focus. People ops bring a new opportunity instead of. Investing scarce resources and building a legacy traditional HR team or function embracing people ops allows technology to do that work faster at a lower cost, more predictable at fewer hours. And you can reinvest those resources and focus on things that will move the needle more for the business. That could be your product sales and marketing customer experience. And as the company grows and scales, and you have a bigger workforce, more people to manage then. People ops bring a new opportunity, a way to rethink it, instead of doing the traditional old HR way again, embrace technology, but now build a team, focus on people and culture and the employee experience and build a great place to work. So you’re focusing on the things, the strategic areas, they’re going to have a bigger impact on the business. So in both cases and either any stage really it’s, it’s about re-imagining the way you manage and engage your people and design a great experience and culture. 

Didi: Kevin provided us with context on exactly what this show is all about. The great workplace pivot. It’s a cool opportunity for small businesses to gain a competitive advantage. 

Rob: It’s Rob your podcast, employee, and residents here to provide a more lighthearted employee-centric. Take on our HR topics. Like most industries, HR tends to engage in a bit of Naval gazing, spending all day talking about employees, but never actually with them. I myself usually only talk with HR twice per job. Once when I start and they hand me a laptop and then when they check my browsing history and ask for it back. So I’m here as our designated employee control group to provide some occasional real talk and help us work through our dysfunctional HR employee relations. Now, earlier, we heard that HR is going through a bit of an identity crisis and is looking for a rebrand. Honestly, I can’t say I blame them. Historically HR has been right up there with cable providers, pink slime, and cell phone wielding Karen’s in terms of positive brand perception. Now don’t take it personally. It’s not you. You’re all actually wonderful people. It’s the job you see, despite all those motivational posters and mission statements, you hang all through your offices. All of us employees know why you’re actually there as the velvet glove enforcers of corporate and governmental policy. It’s a rough gig.

Managers get all the carrots. They can hand out raises [00:19:00] promotions and pick up the tablet employee, happy hours. But you. You’re stuck, ensuring compliance, deadlines, squashing, office romances, and selflessly jumping in front of potential lawsuits. Like the secret service, it’s sticks city. You can’t possibly be having any fun, nothing, but do your homework, eat your yams. And don’t forget to floss and really what relationship. Wouldn’t be just a little strain when one of you can Sue fire or fire and Sue the other one. But if it makes you feel better, even we know that it’s all very necessary. Because let’s face it. We’re not all conscientious high performers. The workforce has its fair share of mouth breathers.

That always seems to ruin it for everybody. You know who they are, the ones that cost you, your security deposit for the holiday party, sidetrack the all hands with demands for gluten-free toilet paper, and who thought the sexual harassment training was going to be a how-to guide let’s face it. If there’s one thing we can agree on and say, you don’t want to do HR, and we don’t [00:20:00] want to have it done to us, which is why I’m so cautiously optimistic to hear about people ops in the HR reboot. You want to put aside the whistle and clipboard and actually helped me do my best work and HR that actually cares about my safety, wellbeing, and experience and got me intrigued. 

The truth is most of us never wanted to star in a lifelong Dilbert cosplay.

We’re more than happy to drop the never-ending meetings and forever scrolling inbox for a shot at doing better. More interesting work. We’re not incompetent. Just unmotivated. Give us a shot at up-leveling, our careers, and goodbye janitor. Hello, chief hygiene officer. So against my better judgment, I’m prepared to give you a Mulligan. Let’s start over and see what happens next. Good luck, HR. We’re with you as an olive branch, I’ll even get around to that harassment training. I’ve been putting off. I do it now, but I got to run. I’m late for a meeting. 

Didi: That’s Rob and I’m Didi, and this was PIVOT. If you have questions, you want us to answer on our show, check out the link in our show notes below and we’ll get it covered. Thank you for joining and be sure to subscribe to Google, Apple, Spotify, or anywhere you get your podcasts.

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About The People Ops Podcast

Every week, we share the decisions, struggles, and successes for keeping up with an evolving workforce and a changing workplace. No matter if you’ve been in HR or are just getting started, this combination of transformational stories with actionable ideas, as well as context on hot issues, keeps you up-to-date while answering the questions you didn’t even know you had.

Oh, and you know what they say about all work and no play? We tossed in a little levity to keep it real. Lessons, answers, and humor: everywhere you listen to podcasts.

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