Even pre-COVID-19, one of the biggest challenges for small businesses was to attract and retain skilled workers. And now, for a variety of reasons, the situation has worsened. But, we all know you can’t grow your business without a hardworking team, so you need to figure it out.

Kevin Marasco is the chief marketing officer at Zenefits, a company that offers software as a service to SMBs for employee management, with a particular focus on helping them with payroll and health insurance coverage.

Marasco is also the co-author of People Operations: Automate HR, Design a Great Employee Experience, and Unleash Your Workforce, an intriguing and informative dive into the future of work, one that emphasizes how vital it is to empower your employees. People Operations is a new way to look at HR (human resources), which is imperative if you want to grow.

Because this is such a vital issue, I talked to Marasco about how you can transform your company into one that puts people first and allows you to thrive by “unleashing your workforce.”

You say small businesses need to start “living their purpose.” What if they’re not even sure what their purpose is? How do they define that?

Marasco: As Simon Sinek would say, “Start with Why.” Why does your company exist? I mean, beyond making money. Ask yourself and your team, “why is your company here?” What impact does your company, product, or service have on people’s lives? This is an excellent management offsite topic. Then incorporate this into everything you do and let it help define your values and operating principles. Living with purpose isn’t necessarily about getting it right all the time. It’s more about defining and forming a solid foundation around the core values of your business. By understanding and tuning into those core values regularly, companies can learn to embrace and enjoy living their purpose every single day.

So many small businesses recoil at the notion of HR. You maintain it’s about “people operations,” which is different than the traditional concept of HR. What are people operations, and how does it differ?

Marasco: The world of work has forever changed. Between the pandemic and the shift to the people-driven economy, 80% of business owners say work will never be the same. So now, we need to tackle new challenges: How to manage distributed workforces? How to encourage connection, collaboration, and wellbeing? And how to drive employee productivity from anywhere.

As technology and workers’ needs evolve, so must the HR industry. Enter people operations: a new approach for the new world of work.

By automating traditional HR processes, people ops shifts attention from tactical administrative work to people and productivity. People ops is responsible for designing a great employee experience with pivotal people moments that make work exciting, rewarding, and engaging for your team.

People operations centers on maximizing productivity and employee work culture while striving towards business results. And this is accomplished by leaning into technology and using fewer resources to help advance admin duties such as payroll, compliance, regulations, and time tracking paperwork. This is a welcome change from the days of policy police and the middleman between management and labor unions.

It’s also more than turning in paperwork or reminding employees about policies; it’s about investing in the people as partners and treating them as an integral part of the business. It’s about using automated business processes and prioritizing data to focus on people and the employee experience. It’s not just a new title. It’s a philosophy, disciple, business approach, and function all rolled into one.

Technology empowers this, right? How do you integrate tech into your existing small business operations? Take the plunge? Phase it in? What do you tackle first?

Marasco: The first step is for small businesses to focus on fixing common problems, such as digitizing records for time tracking, benefits, and payroll, and then move these records to the cloud. Allow employees to securely access and update their own information from their smartphones—so you don’t have to. This reduces errors, saves time, and improves privacy and security. It also allows business owners to create best-practice processes and automated workflows for things like employee onboarding, goal setting, engagement surveys, and performance alignment. Technology plays an important role here, which is why a platform like Zenefits is ideal for helping small businesses streamline the employee experience through automation capabilities. Our technology-driven platform empowers and connects business data with people management.

One important thing to remember is that small business operations are nimble, agile, and can pivot quickly based on internal and external factors. This is why People Operations features a People Ops Maturity Model to help businesses assess, develop and refine where potential disconnects exist. The strategy helps with the alignment and assessment of the current state of people processes and provides a roadmap for developing and refining priorities.

In the last year, small business owners navigated fluctuating regulations while also trying to protect the health and safety of their workers, customers, and overall business. They needed a platform that could automate all administrative duties and prioritize data—regardless of physical location. When businesses can utilize digital automation that eliminates timely tasks while also accelerating growth and lowering violation risks for compliance, it makes for happier and more efficient people operations.

So much is still up in the air about the workplace. Are there differences between managing a remote, a hybrid, or an in-office business? Do you think there’s a “best way” right now?

Marasco: While there isn’t necessarily a ‘best’ way, businesses can and should determine a workplace model based on its people. Each company has its own set of goals, but its people should always be at the very heart of that model.

Your employees will have different work styles that require flexibility and asynchronous communication. It’s therefore important that managers constantly check in with direct reports to ensure that they are feeling productive. Of course, technology can automate these check-ins and the capturing of team feedback. This could also mean that setting work hours to align with the different work styles is a must to make room for preferences and prevent burnout.

In recent weeks, we have seen droves of employees leave their current positions because they were forced to return to the office despite their objections. This is an example of how not to use people operations principles. It’s not enough to just ask for feedback. You must listen to this feedback. This is key to maintaining a balanced employee experience, and when this improves, productivity increases and leads to data-driven insights.

Many businesses are having a hard time attracting workers today. Any recommendations?

Marasco: Offer a great employee experience. With the shift to remote working, there is an even larger talent pool available and so many more opportunities for employers to open doors wider for everyone. Companies need to embrace flexible work environments, competitive benefits, and a people-centric culture. Businesses also need to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion across the business every single day. This commitment should be baked into business goals, values, and practices and aligned with modern DEI practices. Ensure that underrepresented voices are heard, listened to, hired, promoted, retained, and rewarded across all levels of your growing workforce.

Another thing businesses can do is offer fairer pay. However, it’s also important to remember that it remains a job seeker’s market. One way businesses can acknowledge this is to make compensation competitive and equitable to a candidate’s work experience. These acknowledgments motivate people and help grow confidence in a company’s culture.

Create a place where employees can have remarkable experiences, see potential for growth, be a partner in the business, and feel like they are making an impact. Businesses need to be transparent about their values during the talent acquisition process and share how they are internally creating opportunities for their employees.

What are the three most important aspects of creating a great employee experience?

Marasco: Start with these:

  1. Communicate with clear direction in a way that makes people feel valued and respected. Ensure leaders are trusting and transparent while also encouraging a culture of listening and collaboration. We have the People Hub on our platform, which streamlines communication and empowers employees to use their voices.
  2. Close the engagement gap. One way we do this is with Zenefits’s engagement surveys. It helps us keep a pulse on how people are feeling and what we can do at the management level to make improvements. Action is key.
  3. Develop employees and invest in their career growth. Provide opportunities for coaching, teaching, and mentorship. It will show people their knowledge is valued, and it will be mutually beneficial in the long run.

So often, it comes down to money. Workers want to make more; employers want to pay them less. How do businesses strike the right balance? 

Marasco: Compensation strategy is one of the most strategic parts of people ops. If you underpay your employees, your people could feel underappreciated. To stay competitive, offer fringe benefits such as mental health hours, additional PTO, Summer Fridays, financial literacy education, and incentives for goal-setting. If your growing workforce is made up of millennials and Gen Z, this can often be a deciding factor. These generations value wellbeing, balance, and a mission-driven company rather than just the standard health benefits and salary.

In addition to offering flex benefits, being able to gather compensation data is another way for businesses to be more competitive. Salary benchmarking tools can help with real-time salary data for specific jobs in certain industries. Pay is one of the reasons employees leave their employers and move around frequently. Small businesses need to have a solid compensation strategy and utilize data to help create a fair and competitive market rate for potential job candidates.

People Operations is available for purchase through, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, The Kindle Store, and wherever major book publications are sold. 

Be sure to check out the WORKEST website, which is an excellent resource for all things small business and people relations. And take a listen to the POPs podcast, where we dive deeper into pivotal people-centric moments in small businesses.