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People operations (people ops) teams focus on introducing products and services that improve employee engagement, development and retention.

Where human resources was once a heavily administrative function, businesses are now leveraging the skills of HR professionals to create a great employee experience and build healthy, productive workplaces through people ops. 

This area is experiencing another growth spurt as employee management systems proliferate and can be used to help drive retention and engagement efforts.

What is people operations?

People operations is a function that falls under the HR umbrella and helps organizations manage human capital to better meet company goals and increase employee performance.

Human capital can be defined as the value of an employee’s experience, knowledge and skillsets. Including but not limited to training, employee well-being, loyalty and punctuality.

People ops may exist as a separate team within the HR function or, as with companies like Google, be a rebranded version of HR.

Where did the term people operations come from?

The term "People Operations," often associated with tech companies and startups, emerged as organizations started focusing more on enhancing employee experiences by using data-driven approaches and integrating technology to manage and improve all aspects of the workforce.

This modern take on HR emphasizes a strategic, employee-centered approach, aligning talent management with the overall business objectives.

People ops teams rely heavily on data gathered from employee surveys, exit interviews and key HR metrics. This information is used to identify potential areas of improvement related to employee retention, satisfaction, engagement, and productivity.

HR metrics used in people ops

  • Turnover rate
  • Cost per hire and best time to hire
  • Diversity numbers
  • Absence rate
  • PTO reports

What do people operations teams do?

People Operations teams play a pivotal role in shaping the workforce and enhancing the employee experience within an organization. Their primary tasks include:

  • Talent Acquisition and Recruitment: Identifying and hiring the right talent to meet the organization's needs.
  • Employee Onboarding and Training: Ensuring new hires are effectively integrated into the company and receive necessary training.
  • Performance Management: Developing and implementing performance evaluation systems to assess and improve employee productivity.
  • Employee Relations: Managing employee concerns, fostering a positive work environment, and resolving conflicts.
  • Benefits and Compensation Management: Overseeing employee benefits, compensation structures, and ensuring competitive and fair practices.
  • Compliance and Legal: Ensuring adherence to labor laws and regulations.
  • Data Analysis and Reporting: Utilizing data to inform decisions and strategies related to workforce management.
  • Strategic Planning: Aligning people strategies with business goals to drive organizational growth.
  • Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives: Promoting and implementing policies that support a diverse and inclusive workplace.
  • Employee Retention and Engagement: Implementing strategies to retain top talent and keep employees engaged and motivated.

People Ops vs HR

While HR typically concentrates on administrative and compliance-related tasks, such as payroll processing and adherence to labor laws, People Operations takes a more holistic, strategic approach, focusing on enhancing the overall employee experience and aligning workforce management with the company's broader business goals.

People Operations tends to be more employee-centric and progressive, often integrating modern technology and practices to foster a positive workplace culture and drive organizational growth.

For example, looking at the recent trend of young men leaving the workforce, HR may think about benefits that tailor to young men or consider how the company's hiring approach might need to shift, whereas a people operations minded professional will think about what sort of practices may be contributing to it, what broader societal factors the company needs to mitigate for in their attempts to retain young men and how this trend is impacting the business overall.

People Ops vs Talent Acquisition

People Operations is a broad, strategic function that encompasses various aspects of workforce management, including employee engagement, performance management, training and company culture development.

Talent Acquisition, on the other hand, is a specific area within People Operations that focuses solely on the recruitment and hiring process.

It involves identifying, attracting, and selecting the best candidates to fill open positions within the organization, whereas People Operations deals with the entire employee lifecycle.

Why Google Switched to People Ops

In 2006, Google transformed its HR department into People Operations under the leadership of Laszlo Bock, a move aimed at breaking away from traditional HR bureaucracy and focusing more on effectiveness.

This change led to a significant discovery by the People Ops team: a high turnover rate among female employees, particularly new mothers, due to inadequate maternity leave policies.

By delving into data and feedback, People Ops identified the issue and implemented a comprehensive solution, extending maternity leave to 5 months with full benefits across the United States, showcasing the team's ability to pinpoint and resolve specific workforce challenges beyond the scope of typical HR departments.

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Benefits of People Ops

The benefits of adopting a People Operations approach include:

  • Improved Employee Experience: Fosters a positive work environment and enhances employee satisfaction and engagement.
  • Strategic Workforce Planning: Aligns talent management with business goals, ensuring the right people are in the right roles at the right time.
  • Data-Driven Decision Making: Utilizes analytics and metrics for informed decision-making regarding workforce management.
  • Enhanced Recruitment and Retention: Attracts top talent and reduces turnover through better hiring practices and employee development programs.
  • Increased Productivity: Boosts overall workforce productivity by focusing on employee well-being and professional growth.
  • Cultivation of Company Culture: Helps in building and maintaining a strong, inclusive, and values-driven organizational culture.
  • Compliance and Risk Management: Ensures adherence to legal standards and minimizes risks related to workforce management.
  • Diversity and Inclusion: Promotes a diverse and inclusive workplace, leading to a broader range of ideas, perspectives, and innovation.
  • Better Employee Relations: Manages employee concerns and conflicts more effectively, leading to a harmonious workplace.
  • Agile and Adaptive Strategies: Enables the organization to quickly adapt to changes in the business environment or workforce needs.

Key takeaways we can learn from Google

Google's adoption of a People Operations approach provides several key takeaways for organizations aiming to enhance their HR functions:

  • Emphasis on Data and Analytics: Leveraging data analytics to make informed decisions about workforce management and policy changes.
  • Focus on Employee Experience: Prioritizing the overall experience of employees, from onboarding to career development, to boost satisfaction and retention.
  • Strategic Alignment with Business Goals: Aligning People Operations strategies with broader business objectives for cohesive growth and development.
  • Innovative Problem Solving: Using creative and innovative approaches to solve traditional HR challenges, like turnover and employee engagement.
  • Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion: Actively working to create an inclusive environment that supports diversity at all levels.
  • Flexibility and Adaptability: Being willing to change and adapt policies, like maternity leave, in response to identified employee needs.
  • Proactive Approach to Employee Well-being: Taking steps to ensure employee well-being, which in turn positively impacts productivity and loyalty.
  • Investment in Employee Development: Focusing on continuous learning and development opportunities for employees to grow within the company.
  • Cultivation of a Strong Company Culture: Building and nurturing a company culture that aligns with organizational values and goals.
  • Balancing Automation with Human Touch: Using technology to streamline processes while maintaining a personal, human-centered approach to employee management.

Why Use a People Operations Team

People Operations teams are integral to fostering a positive and productive workplace. By focusing on key responsibilities, they connect individual performance to company goals, enhance employee experiences and cultivate a thriving organizational culture.

Let's take a look at some of the key responsibilities of a people ops team that allow them to do this.

Connecting Individual Employee Performance with Company Goals

By setting clear performance metrics and aligning them with company goals, employees understand how their work impacts the bigger picture.

Actionable Advice

Regularly communicate company goals and how individual roles contribute to these objectives.

Mapping the Employee Journey and Lifecycle

Understanding the employee journey, from onboarding to exit, allows People Operations to create a more cohesive and supportive experience. They can identify and improve key touchpoints in an employee's career path.

Actionable Advice

Conduct regular check-ins and surveys to gather feedback on different stages of the employee lifecycle.

Employee Recognition

Recognizing and rewarding employees' efforts is crucial for motivation and morale. People Operations teams implement recognition programs that highlight individual and team achievements.

Actionable Advice

Establish a regular, diverse recognition program that celebrates both big accomplishments and small wins.

Continuous Engagement

Maintaining ongoing employee engagement is vital for retention and productivity. People Operations teams foster an environment where employees feel valued and connected.

Actionable Advice

Create interactive channels and events for employees to engage, share ideas, and collaborate.

Employee Development

Investing in employee growth and development is a cornerstone of People Operations.

Actionable Advice

Provide access to professional development programs and encourage employees to set and pursue career goals.

Gaining Employee Trust

Building trust is essential for a transparent and open work culture. People Operations teams establish trust through consistent communication and fair practices.

Actionable Advice

Ensure transparency in decision-making and openly communicate changes and policies.

Change Management

Navigating organizational changes smoothly is key to maintaining stability and morale. People Operations leads change management efforts by preparing, supporting and guiding employees through changes.

Actionable Advice

Develop clear change management plans and involve employees in the process to reduce resistance and anxiety.

Culture Development and Transformation

Shaping and evolving the company culture to align with organizational values and goals is a critical function of People Operations. They create strategies to instill and reinforce desired cultural attributes.

Actionable Advice

Regularly assess and reinforce company values through initiatives and policies that promote the desired culture.

How people operations works

The people ops department will look different depending on the company’s size. 

There will be a people operations manager/head of people operations/head of people who oversees daily operations and assigns tasks to people operations specialists. Specialists will take on various functions such as onboarding or training and development.

Smaller companies may have a people ops manager and one specialist. Larger companies may have a people ops manager, supervisor, a few specialists, and an additional people operations analyst or analysts to drill into data.

When an issue is discovered, for example, the high turnover rate at Google and missing emails at my last company, the people ops manager will escalate it to the leadership team with suggestions and possible solutions.

But problem-solving isn’t the only function of people ops. They work proactively to help employees stay productive, engaged, and working towards company objectives.

The people ops team will develop a people strategy to achieve this. A people strategy is a plan devised by a company to attract, retain and develop employees.

It’s the blueprint on which the people operations team will drive employee development covering feedback, goal setting, performance reviews, training, health and wellbeing, and diversity and inclusion.

The people operations team will work closely with managers and leaders who are ultimately responsible for implementing new methodologies, tools, and initiatives.

In recent times, people ops have adapted to take the employee’s overall well-being into consideration.

This could cover helping employees achieve a better work-life balance by offering time management courses and flexible working. Organizations may offer access to gyms, yoga classes, mental health apps, and financial literacy training.

Making the Switch to People Operations

It’s no secret that competition is higher than ever to attract and retain top talent. Employees value employers who are willing to invest in their development. 

Ultimately, the switch to a people operations mindset allows HR to add greater strategic value to an organization.

But don’t fall into the trap of re-labelling HR as people ops and thinking this change in mindset will happen automatically! Successful people operations functions require investment and a switch to an employee-first way of thinking characterized by servant leadership.

Some trends to keep an eye on as you transition toward a people ops approach include the following.

  1. Emphasis on Employee Well-being and Mental Health: Companies are increasingly incorporating wellness programs, mental health days and resources like counseling services into their benefits packages.

    This trend reflects a holistic approach to employee care, recognizing that a healthy and happy workforce is more productive and engaged.
  2. Data-Driven People Analytics: Organizations are leveraging data to gain insights into employee performance, engagement, and satisfaction levels.

    This trend includes the use of sophisticated tools and software to analyze trends and predict future workforce needs, helping companies make more informed decisions about hiring, development, and retention strategies.
  3. Flexibility and Remote Work: Companies are rethinking their work models to offer more flexibility, recognizing that it can lead to increased employee satisfaction and productivity.

    This trend also involves adapting People Operations strategies to manage a distributed workforce effectively, including virtual onboarding, training, and team-building activities.

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Brittany Brooks
By Brittany Brooks

Former office manager, HR specialist, and marketing specialist turned content and copywriter. Passionate about employee wellness and communicating with leaders through powerful content.