The Inspiration Behind the Book: People Operations

Jay Fulcher, CEO at Zenefits
Jun 9, 2021

How can a small business level the playing field and gain an advantage in the post-pandemic world of work? Zenefits CEO Jay Fulcher says that it all boils down to people. On this episode of PIVOT, Jay explains why the shift toward strategic people operations inspired him and his co-authors to write a book, and why mo

The pandemic put a spotlight on where traditional HR falls short—especially for small businesses. 

How can a small business level the playing field and gain an advantage in the post-pandemic world of work? Zenefits CEO Jay Fulcher says that it all boils down to people. And if people are truly at the center of a company’s focus and strategy, the shift from traditional HR to strategic People Operations can’t come soon enough.

On this episode of PIVOT, Jay explains why the HR paradigm shift inspired him and his co-authors to write a book, and why movement away from compliance-based HR has massive implications for small businesses.

On this episode, you’ll hear:

  • [01:16-02:17] Why Zenefits CEO Jay Fulcher loves working with small businesses
  • [02:51-04:51] How the pandemic put a spotlight on where traditional HR falls short
  • [05:11-08:21] What companies need to thrive in the new world of work 
  • [08:27-10:20] The importance and value of measurement beyond time-to-hire and turnover
  • [10:20-12:40] How to think about the HR function as a small business owner
  • [12:43-15:19] Jay’s Pivotal People Moment: Adapting to remote work overnight
  • [15:35-17:34] How to take steps away from old school HR toward strategic People Ops 
  • [17:41-18:57] Why we’ll see a resurgence of small businesses over the next year

After you listen: 

Ask a SMB Workplace Question and get featured on POPS! The People Ops podcast.

POPS Star Bio

Zenefits CEO Jay Fulcher is a seasoned leader with decades of experience building companies and teams at Fortune 1000 companies and startups alike. A serial entrepreneur, Jay is passionate about helping small businesses overcome the same challenges large enterprises face. He currently serves as an advisor and board member for several organizations around the San Francisco Bay Area, including the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business at his alma mater San Jose State University.



Jay: Work has changed. The nature of work has really changed permanently. I’m often asked whether or not we’ll ever go back to normal. And if so, when, and I think the reality is that it’s not so much, what is normal, it’s more around what is this new normal, what is going to be. Our new normal reality for how businesses are gonna function

Didi: parks. It’s the People Ops Podcast from Zenefits, the only show dedicated to small businesses, sharing stories of pivotal people, moments. I’m your host Didi D’Errico. How does small businesses level the playing field for better advantage? That’s what we’re exploring on this episode of PIVOT with Jay Fulcher. CEO of Zenefits and co-author of the book and the ideology that inspired this podcast.

The book is aptly named People Operations. Jay’s co-authors, Kevin Marasco and Tracy  are frequent participants on this show, but back to Jay. Jay is a seasoned leader with decades of experience building companies and their teams after spending much of his career, working with fortune 1000 companies and startups alike.

What is it about working with small business that especially excites Jay let’s hear. 

Jay: For the longest time, I spent my time with most of the fortune 1000 companies and really solving problems at scale for some of the largest corporations in the world, but generally with businesses that had all kinds of resources and money and people and expertise.

And in some cases, even the luxury of time. To address the things that were challenging for them. And I had been thinking really for the last 10 years or so that it would be great to try to find some opportunities where I could apply some of that experience. And some of that background and information to the needs of smaller midsize businesses.

These companies that don’t have the resources, they don’t have the budget. Oftentimes they don’t even have the expertise. To tackle some of the things that they are challenged by because frankly the small businesses have some of the same challenges that these big organizations 

Didi: do. Now here’s the conversation with Jay.

We begin with his insights on how the pandemic put a spotlight on where traditional HR falls short and even further disadvantages, small businesses. Then we’ll hear why this technology company is leaning in to share a practical guide and a whole host of complimentary resources for small businesses in the news.

Jay: A lot of what occurred throughout the course of 2020 from about. February on two, just recently, that’s a timeframe that is underscored. The fact that work has changed. The nature of work has really changed permanently. I’m often asked whether or not we’ll ever go back to normal. And if so, when. And I, I think the reality is that it’s not so much, what is normal, it’s more around what is this new normal, what is going to be our new normal reality for how businesses are gonna function?

We did some survey work and in that survey work, we discovered that about 80% of the customers that responded, and this was hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of customers, they basically said that where and how, and with whom they work. Is never going to go back to what it looked like pre pandemic. And so just the very nature of the way that we now basically think about how we’re going to either be in the office or not be in the office or potentially do a little bit of both how we think about the policies and the procedures and the tools and the business process.

That is going to have to be adjusted and tweaked and altered to be able to manage in that new reality. But there’s a shift in traditional HR thinking. And that’s really what the book is all about is starting to acknowledge that the way we used to think about the personnel department. Or the HR department, or in some cases, the policy police is very different going forward or entering into a new era of where the formerly known HR department has a more strategic role in the business.

And that more strategic role, I think reflects the fact that talent and people are at the core of nearly every company’s focus and strategy. So 

Didi: we set up the book a bit in terms of the, of the why of the book, but why is it more than just technology? You’ve been a technology provider for most of your career, but the book isn’t just about applied technology and the world’s problems, go away, talk a little bit about why it needs to be bigger and how you think that you’re thinking about them.

Jay: So, first and foremost, in our view, the technology is critical and we built a very. Integrated interoperable, cohesive platform across so many functions to help small businesses manage their workplace and their workforce. So the technology is critical, but it’s not sufficient. It’s not enough. There actually has to be a variety of other things that go beyond just the software.

That helps companies to be in the best position possible to basically thrive in this new world of work and processes have to adapt the way in which organizations are both learning about and curious about their workforce is really important. Understanding and checking in with all of the talent in your company and understanding a little bit about.

What’s working for them, what isn’t working for them, ensuring that you’re listening effectively and then frankly, acting on what you’re learning ends up all being an important component. And yes, the technology can help to automate a lot of that. It can help to facilitate a lot of the listening and the learning that is going to be important for any company, as it tries to basically build.

A better awareness around its most precious resource, which is its people. But it also requires really a number of other things that we think the best performing companies are building. And when we say best performing, really what we mean is companies that have built resilient cultures that can adapt.

And be flexible in a world that, that demands it, that requires automating the basics, making sure that you do have both technology and a mindset that says you don’t require your employees. To have to do stupid things or things that aren’t really necessarily a good use of their time. You have to design an employee experience.

I think, gap to think about the life cycle of an employee in terms of how they come into the company, how they are developed within the company, how you potentially exploit all the. Talent and capability that they have and put them in the best possible position to be successful and to, and to frankly, thrive within your business.

So you have to design what that experience looks like over time from start to finish. And then lastly, you’ve got to, you’ve got to measure a lot of what matters in a company. You’ve gotta have a sense of the level of engagement and how that engagement. Affects sort of the performance of not only that individual employee, but the overall company, we’ve done a lot of work in a lot of analysis around employee engagement.

And we know that when companies have employees that are very connected to the purpose of the business, Feeling very galvanized by almost the tribal motivations that happen within a company. Those are the businesses that perform the best. And so we’re trying to provide, in some ways, a methodology and a, in a toolkit that small businesses can utilize and leverage to be able to build that high performance culture that drives success.

Didi: You. And I have both worked for a number of companies in the HR space, and historically HR is measuring time to hire or turnover or things like that. And looking at the impacts to the business, being able to measure that and being able to understand those drivers is a much deeper value, not only to the leadership and the board of the business, but to individually, to the practitioners who were trying to bring this forward.

Connect the dots in a much more meaningful and powerful way. 

Jay: Yeah, sure. Measurement is not just necessarily how the employees are interacting with the various tools that you’re providing, but it’s also just this notion of making sure that there’s actual true engagement. We all have our all hands meetings.

We all have our one-on-one sessions, different companies have different ideas about how they want to maybe perform performance reviews, but there needs to also be in some ways that less. Formal, maybe more informal methods of communication that are also really important at all levels of the company in order.

So that the company really does get the full benefit of understanding, like what is working, what is not working? What changes do we need to be making, or at least do we need to be considering? What are the implications of some of those changes, all of that. It’s really possible when the level of engagement is there.

I know one thing that we use it set up it’s on a regular basis as you well know, as I say, especially to our leadership team, that you listen to our employees, they’ll tell us what to do. They’ll steer us in the right direction, around our priorities, the investments that are really critical and frankly, how we can make sure that we get it right for our own customers.

That’s been a lesson learned not only in the businesses that I’ve been involved in, but it’s been a lesson learned. Uh, as a result of all the kind of customers and prospects that I’ve talked to over the years, 

Didi: a little bit about the overworked and overwhelmed small business owner who gets into HR once they make their first hire.

And all of a sudden, perhaps are learning about these 180 compliance mandates, what’s the most compelling and maybe measurable incentive for them to think about rewiring, how they think about HR or that they think about HR 

Jay: companies. Who are on the front end of the journey in some ways are best served.

Did they think a little bit around what sort of culture are they trying to build? What kind of workplace do they want to create? And. How is that going to be best facilitated by starting there? I think you can then understand. So what’s the role of technology going to play? To what degree are we going to be facilitating an environment where there’s technology in everybody’s hands in some.

Industries that we serve. Everyone’s got a laptop and a smartphone and maybe even an iPad and a variety of other devices and tools. Other industries we serve, they may just have a phone and that’s really the only device that they rely on. And so we’ve tried to build our approach to not only technology, but to some of the.

Business process and methodology that sort of is embedded in our technology in a way that can serve both types of companies, whether it’s one that has lots of tools and resources available to it, or whether it’s potentially an industry or a segment that isn’t necessarily really tech forward. And so I think for the most part, it starts with understanding.

So what are you trying to facilitate? What type of employee and professional environment do you have? What are the resources that are available and what resources frankly, can the company afford and then work in the technology habits, the biggest impact for the business? Is this a high growth company that’s hiring in some cases, 10 or 15 or 20 people a month?

Or is it. Potentially a more steady state business that has other kinds of challenges, not so much around bringing talent into the business, but it might be more around providing in some ways the support mechanisms that employees need in order to do their job more effectively. Super 

Didi: helpful as we wrap this up, I’d love to have you share with us the pivotal people moments, something that, that kind of brings this to light in terms of the impact that people operations can have, not only on individuals in the organization, but on the business in a larger sense.

Jay: I guess a story that is just so recent and most visceral for me would just be the Zenefits experience of living through. The pandemic and being in a situation where so many other companies, thousands and thousands and thousands of other companies across the us and around the world, we almost overnight in on the 2nd of March 20, 20, went to a complete remote workforce environment.

And what we discovered over the course of this last year is that number one, we have all kinds of both. Infrastructure and technology capabilities that allow us to work that way. Thankfully you’re in position to continue to support the thousands and thousands of customers that we have. And we were able to continue to connect with.

And stay close with our entire workforce, no matter where they were and how they were working. And so I think the dynamic of this last year is a really good example of where we had, not only in the use of our products and technology as we manage our own workplace in our own workforce, but we were able to leverage those investments that we’ve made over the last.

Four or five, six years to be able to adapt to this kind of crazy time and to really not miss a beat in the process, we’re able to manage all the twists and turns that came with what happened over the course last year. I think that’s probably one really good obvious example where we not only. Relied on the technology, but we really relied on a lot of these learnings that have been driving the development of actually our platform and the methodology that we follow for, how we support our customers.

And to me, that’s just one of the big lessons managing through some of the uncertainty of the last year has been a really difficult thing, I think for all businesses of any size, but I think particularly for small companies and so being. Somewhat existential around being able to deal with the uncertainty and to have a plan for it.

And if you’ve got. Technology and underlying business process that can be somewhat flexible and adaptable based on what’s coming at you. I think you have a leg up. I think you have a competitive advantage, and I think you have the ability to deal with some of that uncertainty in a way that other companies don’t.

For people 

Didi: who are listening in, what would you say are good takeaways, a few things that they could do to start moving from more traditional, basic, get it done. Rules, police, HR, to people, operations, things that would matter. I 

Jay: think number one, we’ve got some great tools and they’re available in a variety of different places, whether it’s unwork or whether it’s on, a couple of our websites where there’s so much content and information available.

And of course, as we’re talking about today, one of the inspirations behind this book was to try to basically put forward a way for companies to basically self assess themselves about where are they on the journey. From moving from maybe old school. And maybe old-fashioned thinking about HR to what we would consider to be new school ready for the future people, operations thinking and being able to, in some ways, see where you are on, on, on the curve and understanding a little bit more about how to.

Maybe organize your thinking about the steps you might want to take or consider again, basically readying yourself for this new world of work. That’s step number one. The other thing is being able to understand better going forward, how you want to measure both the potential of your people and your business ends up being a big part of this as well.

And as you can imagine, that’s not just about. Payroll or benefits or HR systems that that’s actually strikes to the heart of what your strategy is as a company. And so connecting the people part of your business, to the talent part of your business with strategically, what you’re trying to accomplish as a company ends up being something that.

We believe is a real important dynamic in any successful business. And it doesn’t matter how big or how sophisticated or how global you might be. That’s something that even small businesses can leverage today. And so some of the resources we have out there help you and guide you through the process of how to think about it.

Didi: So last question for you, Jay, what are you most optimistic about this year for small businesses? 

Jay: Yeah. So I think as we sit here in the spring of 2021, it’s hard not to be optimistic given what’s going on in our own country. My, my heart breaks for a lot of the fact that so much of the rest of the world is still in a very difficult spot related to COVID.

But in the U S clearly we’ve started to turn a corner. And so I’m very optimistic about. I think the opportunity for small business to come roaring back in a year, like 2020, where one inspired businesses roughly went out of business and evaporated. I suspect that what we’re going to see both this year, and next is a real resurgence of entrepreneurship and small businesses.

Coming back to life and being in a position where hopefully they’re able to make the investments that are necessary, they’re able to hire effectively, and we’re able to get people back to work and building thriving businesses. And so that’s what I’m really optimistic about. I’m really, really excited about.

The role is that have it’s gets to play in helping to facilitate some of that resurgence. And this is going to be a very interesting time, and I think we’re poised for more good news over the course of the rest of this year and beyond 

Didi: I’m Didi and this was pivot. If you want to learn more about inspiring people, operation stories, like Jay’s check out  where you’ll find bonus resources, profiles, and a link to order the new book, people operations.

Also, 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. Thanks for listening.


Previous Episodes

PREVIEW: By the numbers: People Ops Advantage

Kevin Marasco, CMO at Zenefits
Sep 7, 2021
The people ops approach is a win-win-win: a win for your business, your people, and your people team. On this episode of PREVIEW, Zenefits Chief Marketing Officer Kevin Marasco explains why, and shares the benefits you can expect when moving from traditional HR to people operations. After you listen: Order your copy of our book...

“Main Street Values” for Small Biz Success

Kimberle Seale, Business coach, author, and entrepreneur
Mar 9, 2022
Business coach, author, and entrepreneur Kimberle Seale explains how leading with your values produces measurable results.

Q&A: Pros and perils of unlimited PTO

Lora Patterson, HR Advisor at Zenefits
Feb 15, 2022
Unlimited PTO is a popular time-off policy, especially in the tech field. It can be a great benefit for your employees, but Lora Patterson, Senior People Ops Advisor at Zenefits, recommends you consider its implications to ensure the policy works well for your company. Lora reveals the potential pitfalls of unlimited PTO and gives 5...

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.

Best-in-class remote teams will use best-in-class technology.

Zenefits mobile HR platform makes it easier to communicate with staff, onboarding new hires, pay employees, and manage any HR task from any home office.