Time for HR to Grow Up: The Five Stages of People Ops

Kevin Marasco, CMO at Zenefits
Jul 7, 2021

Moving from traditional compliance-based and paperwork-heavy HR to automated, integrated, and culture-focused people operations doesn’t happen overnight. On this episode of PIVOT, Zenefits CMO Kevin Marasco dives into the five stages of the People Operations Maturity Model, and how to use the tool to master people ops, one level at a time.

Moving from traditional compliance-based and paperwork-heavy HR to automated, integrated, and culture-focused people operations doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, a small business typically goes through five stages before achieving people ops mastery. But how do you figure out where you are on the journey and, more importantly, move from one stage to the next?

On this episode of PIVOT, Zenefits CMO Kevin Marasco dives into how small businesses can use the People Operations Maturity Model to do just that. You’ll hear sound bites from each stage of the model and how to use the tool to master people ops, one milestone at a time.

On this episode, you’ll hear:

  • [01:01-02:29] Meet Kevin Marasco, Zenefits CMO 
  • [02:53-03:46] What inspired Kevin to co-author People Operations
  • [04:11-06:02] What is the People Operations Maturity Model?
  • [06:45-14:26] The 5 Stages of the People Ops Maturity Model
  • [14:51-16:40] How to use the People Ops Maturity Model as a small business
  • [16:41-18:37] The value of having a people ops roadmap
  • [18:52-20:28] The first step in moving from traditional HR to people ops
  • [20:40-21:41] What Kevin is most optimistic about for small businesses in 2021

After you listen: 

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POPS Star Bio

Kevin Marasco is the CMO at Zenefits and co-author of People Operations. An insatiably curious and data-driven leader, Kevin is passionate about small businesses, entrepreneurship, technology, and the future of work. When not leading Zenefits’ marketing efforts, Kevin enjoys training for ultramarathons in his Bay Area neighborhood.


Kevin: You’d have to develop better programs to automate work in order to free up your time to focus on things that are going to make a much greater impact

Didi: POPS! 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. And this episode we’re celebrating the birth of our new book “People Operations.” The foundation of the book is what we call a people ops maturity model.

It’s a snapshot of the stages and milestones of moving from traditional compliance, heavy HR paperwork to a more automated, integrated, and engaging culture, focused on people work. And it’s what this show’s premise is all about. Joining me is one of the books, coauthors and Chief Marketing Officer at Zenefits. Kevin Marasco. What inspired him to take the time to coauthor this book with Jay Fulcher and Tracy Cote? 

Kevin: Was really the ability to help small businesses. And our publisher Wiley approached us. They actually bumped into work a star media site, and they said, there’s, this has never, before really been more important.

The work is fundamentally shifting and changing and some of the content tools they found valuable and thought, Hey, you really need. Get this out there to help small businesses. Would you consider writing a book if we, if we back to, and at first, you know, we’re very busy, so it’s tough to say yes, cause it’s such a big time commitment, but after talking through the impact it could have on small businesses, you know, we thought the idea to package up best practices from over 30,000 small businesses would be a good way to really help the market.

Didi: As we dig into the conversation, Kevin shares the data and tested applications behind the book. The goal was to create not just a practical, easy to use guide, but also to provide a planning framework you can use to build and advance your business and your people. Now here’s the conversation starting with a description of the people ops maturity model.

Kevin: So the people operations maturity model is a, is a tool that measures the extent to which accompany. Yeah, there are people, operations, um, are driven by established undocumented best practices. And so we’re looking at things like what’s the state of their people, processes, their employee experience, the level of digital automation and level of risk associated with their people program.

And what we’ve done is basically as a framework to score where you stand compared to other companies with their established best practices. And this includes all areas of, of people ops. So everything from time-tracking and payroll to employee benefits, employee engagement, and performance wellbeing, and the impact that all of these things have on business productivity and profitability.

And. What we’ve done is basically based on work with over 30,000 small businesses. And we’ve seen the gamut, right. Companies of various levels of sophistication and success and struggles as well. Yeah. We tend to see folks that sit into kind of five categories and the maturity model basically breaks down these five categories and kind of helps a company do a couple of things.

It helps self assess where you are to identify a desired future state, you know, based on best practices and benchmarks. Where would you like to be? Where do you need to be? And then. It allows you to identify what your gaps are and build a low map to basically close those gaps, which effectively becomes your plan in your, your, your low map to, to success for your you and your team.

Didi: So let’s talk a little bit about unconventional thinking. If you can talk a little bit about the stages that you’d mentioned before, maybe buckets to capture where the typical small business journey is. And we want to make sure that we’re clear that it’s not. At some stages in terms of the size you are, because you can be very adept at advanced people ops and be a 10 person company.

But it’s really about how you adopt kind of this confluence of how you think, how you automate, how you design for your people. That that makes a difference. So maybe just take us through, what does it look like to be in each one of these five stages? And what’s the value at the, at the end of the day of moving from one to the next.

Kevin: We’ll just step through, you know, the five stages going from least mature to most mature, if you will. The first stage is chaotic and, and we described that label for a reason, knows actually the language that a lot of customers and companies that we work with describe their own processes. When we first engaged with them or perhaps a situation they inherited and.

It’s important to point out. There’s nothing wrong with being in level one or two or in this dot necessarily correlate to company size or company tenure or anything like that. And similarly, not every company necessarily needs to be a five or a four it’s it’s all relative to the state of the business, the opportunity.

However, there are some patterns and there’s definitely some risks with each category. There’s also opportunities and things like that. So kind of stepping through each of the stages, the first is chaotic and in this state things tend to be very ad hoc and reactive. So you’re only dealing with issues when you have to, so maybe, you know, filing taxes.

Oh yeah. This deadlines due and oh yeah. I need to make this pay run and. Well, we tend to see here in this first level is a lack of really clearly defined processes, workflow checklists, and, you know, the employee experience tends to be a bit inconsistent. There also tends to be a lack of mobility and self-service for employees.

You know, employees are having to shoulder tap, email, reach out to get basic information versus having an on demand on their own, you know, the, the risk. In this first stage or often around compliance, you know, not all the documents are digital. They might be stored securely in the cloud. So there could be personal information that could be accessible.

That should not be new documentation of, of employees appropriately. FMLA say things like that can, can, can be the risks. The second stage is reactive. Often in this case, what we see is maybe someone is an accidental HR person. They kind of inherited a HR. Maybe it sits in operations or finance, but there’s not often not a dedicated person.

And so again, it is reactive, but there tends to be some core processes that are defined in automated. Still a lot of work is still still ad hoc. And to quantify it, typically we see, you know, in the first stage in chaotic, there tends to be 20% or more of time. Is being spent in administrative busy work, reporting filings and things like that, and react to the second stage.

It tends to be greater than 10%, but less than 20% of time on administrative busy work. And there tends to be a little bit of self-service for employees to be able to manage some of their information, but typically not all of it. And there’s tends to still be some paper forms and things like that. Still floating around for some discrete processes.

The third stage is moderate. It here, most core processes are digitized at this point and less than 10% of time is typically spent on administration. And there tends to be a shift here at this third moderate stage, you know, more focus away from processes, more focus on the employee experience and culture.

And one of the challenges we tend to see at the third stage. Well, their systems, there tends to be separate systems for different things, maybe a system for payroll, another system for benefits, or maybe that’s even manual. And there’s time spent aggregating and consolidating that data from those different workflows and studies show that there can be 40 to 50% of time saved just by consolidating some.

Disparate processes. And so companies are generally starting to shift a little bit more to the employee experience and things like benefits and wellbeing. And then the fourth stage, a little bit more mature is called scaling. And at this point, The people leaders are tending to spend most of their time, not on administrative work at all, but spending their time with people and, and leadership and helping them and helping other employees understand the values and purpose of the company and the vision and how their work contributes to that.

And building programs that scale that, you know, helping managers, coach and provide feedback to the employees, spending time on talent. Yeah. How do you recruit, engage and retain, retain the best talent and building out those programs. So at this point you’ve kind of automated built processes and then automated them for kind of core things like payroll time-tracking.

And now you’re shifting to the more strategic areas like, okay, let’s build a program to source, identify and select the best, best talent, right. Some of the other processes that we tend to see take focus in this fourth stage of scaling our performance management compensation, employee listening, or feedback, uh, engagement and collaboration.

And I’m in here as to drive these, the, the business outcomes. So you can kind of see this shift from administration to people, leadership and really driving business outcomes. And then finally the fifth and somewhat aspirational stage, if you will, is, is mastery at this stage, the focus really elevates from people problems to business problems and opportunities.

And so everything, the people programs are basically aligned to. Specific business outcomes, often this accelerating growth, creating competitive advantages, building a moat around your company that this defensible and the specific work leads more towards data, analyzing data for predictive trends, benchmarks and things like that.

And. At this point, typically you’re getting recognition by peer groups. Other companies recognize for best place to work. You have great feedback. Typically resumes are flying in at this stage. You have more demand for employees to work at your company because the buzz is getting out there and truly a great place to work.

And that’s then becoming a competitive advantage in your industry and your marketplace and your, you know, your geography. And the work here typically shifting to like really more bleeding edge practices, how you can apply technology and innovation to take processes and strategies to, to another level in.

One of the neat shifts, you know, as you get kind of towards the middle of the maturity model and you’re getting out of kind of keeping the lights on, on the, you know, really the blocking and tackling of stuff that you have to do, you’re shifting to systemic programs that really help the company be its best self right.

Taking. What’s important is that people provided recognition and feedback. Okay. It’s not just, how do I do that? How do I create a program that ensures that it’s being done across the company, by every manager and empowering every employee and making sure every employee feels a sense of purpose and how can we build a program around that that really takes that to another level and scales that.

And that’s where you start to see some really neat and innovative work take place. And that tends to be in kind of the stage three, four, and five, and the, in the maturity model. 

Didi: I wonder Kevin, you know, on this show, we like to, and we’ve talked about a few examples, but whether or not there’s a, maybe a relatable example or as we call them a pivotal people moment that you could share on kind of the aha for a small business, using a model like this to really think about and shape where they might be able to go and what they might be able to do as well.

Kevin: I think having a vision for where you want to go is a good starting point. And we try to share in the book, you know, some examples of some companies that are at various stages in some of the work they’re doing and really in the back two sections of the book. I spend more time on designing a great employee experience and really unleashing workforce productivity.

And I think we try to share some examples and best practices there. And our hope is that companies aspire to implement some of these types of programs and approaches. But often it’s aspirational because, Hey, I’d love to do that work, but first I need to submit this pay, run and run this open enrollment period.

Right. And I think everybody in any type of job can relate to a similar being in reactive and doing the stuff you have to do and, and the busy work. And this is kind of true in any function or role or position really. Right. But you’d have to develop better programs to automate some of that work in order to free up your time to focus on things that are going to make a much greater impact.

I know I’ve had this and like every job I’ve ever had is like an often, especially right when I start, it’s like, okay, you know, there’s often all these fires that you gotta put out and hopefully, you know, what needs to be done and where you want to get to, but it kind of starts with getting some quick wins and, um, just identifying kind of building your roadmap.

Of, Hey, here’s something that will add value and kind of put us in a little bit better place than that kind of frees you up to step up the ladder. And do you know another program that’s going to add more value? So I think it’s identifying a vision, but also trying to get some quick wins along the way is a good approach.

Didi: I think that roadmap analogy is, is really powerful. I, you know, we come from a tech sector, so we we’ve, we live on roadmaps for the, for the product. But I think thinking about, um, thinking about developing out where you are and where you could be and checking in and communicating on that and getting the, not only the buy-in, but kind of the engagement from.

Your leadership from your managers, from your team of where you want to be as a company helps eally, maybe power that culture that you were talking about earlier in terms of kind of designing around that.

Kevin: One of the most valuable. Applications of the maturity model is as the people ops roadmap.

And that’s really the tool that can be used to build your own plan for you and your team. Hey, here’s the work we’re going to do. Here’s where we are today. Here’s what we’re trying to go. And here’s the timeline and specific. Tactics and programs we’re going to implement, oh, you know, Q1, this Q2 Q3 this, and here’s, this gets us from here to here and then using that as a tool, not only for you and your team as your roadmap of where you’re going, but also as an alignment tool, what the rest of the business and aligning with your executive leadership.

And, and getting their feedback. Hey, are we off that kind of helps align on the strategy, right? Hey, we, this, this is the right sequence of priorities. Maybe there’s something going on in the business. You don’t do an expansion and recruiting needs to be more important or there’s a regulatory change going on.

And, uh, or you’re hitting a different size threshold and say, you’re crossing over 50 employees and you’re now eligible for larger group rapes. Well, that should be on your roadmap to shop your benefit rates and look at your whole strategy. So. That can be a great tool for aligning with the leadership team, with your, you know, the other functions to understand what you and your team are going to be working on and what’s required of them and what support you’re providing.

And, um, it’s just kind of really a good tool to also rally your, your internal. So, 

Didi: where do you think anybody who’s listening could start? Where would you recommend if they haven’t really started thinking about this in terms of, of really thinking hard about moving from traditional HR to people up. 

Kevin: The first thing I’d recommend is checking out the maturity model.

Like even just, you know, you can go to our website and download it and kind of seeing where you are and you can probably just glance at, and probably most folks we’ve talked to pretty quickly say, okay, yeah. We’re level two or between level somewhere between level two and three. And that’s a good, I think starting point just to understand kind of where you are in simultaneously, where other companies already, Hey, there’s, there’s a lot of companies in level four and here’s.

Again, in the book, we share, try to share some stories of companies and what they’re doing there, but I think that’s a good starting point because it kind of can level set of your current state, both in the maturity model and in the book, we recommend some specific next step. Hey, if you’re a level one, start with just getting some records into the cloud and digitizing things.

Start just defining basic processes. What needs, where’s the checklist of things that need to happen when someone is hired? What’s a checklist of things that happen when, you know, during the open enrollment cycle. By the way we have a lot of tools for that, that, that can kinda help get a jumpstart on it that are available for free.

But that’s kind of, I think, a good first step kind of understand your current state, start to understand what should be next based on best practices from, you know, 30,000 other small businesses, and then starting to make some incremental improvement and, and you can see, Hey, in order to get from level three to four, here are the things a level four companies are doing.

It’s uh, maybe that makes it onto your, to your roadmap for the company. 

Didi: And then last question, when you look at 2021, as we, as we sit here today, what are you most optimistic about this year for small business? 

Kevin: The thing that I’m most optimistic about in 2021 for small businesses, a resurgence, you know, small businesses were hit pretty hard and the pandemic, especially, you know, certain industries obviously, and early on, and we’re seeing a record number of, of small business starts, uh, in the U S that get me, gets me really excited because I mean, You know, there’s entrepreneurs and small businesses that are spinning off or starting new companies and new ventures to solve, do palms and do new things and doing so in a new world where like things have fundamentally shifted at many levels, right?

Some stuff will kind of go back, but a lot of things will not. And so I’m really encouraged and excited to see the types of. You know, solutions that these new small businesses that are starting up at a record pace, what they solve. So I can’t wait to see like the new ideas and innovation and you know, what small businesses are creating really.

And I love, love being part of that and being able to participate in it and, you know, directly or indirectly. 

Didi: I’m Didi and this was PIVOT. If you want to learn more about inspiring people, operations ideas, like Kevin’s checkout, zenefits.com/pops-podcast, where you’ll find a bonus resources, profiles, and even a link to order our new.

Titled. Yep. You guessed it, 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.


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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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