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At the beginning of my career, HR was administration-heavy and strictly adhered to regulations. This is a must in the field, but it can come across as impersonal.

While administration still needs to be taken care of, in more recent times there’s been a marked shift towards leveraging the skills of HR professionals create a great employee experience and build healthy, productive workplaces. 

The culmination of this is the rise of people operations (people ops) teams whose focus is to introduce products and services that improve employee engagement, development, and retention.

It all began with Google back in 2013, but people ops is experiencing another growth spurt as companies find it increasingly difficult to retain employees and keep them engaged.

What is people operations?

People operations is a function of human resources that helps organizations manage its human capital to better meet company goals and increase employee performance. Human capital refers to viewing employees as an asset rather than just a worker. 

Human capital: The value of an employee’s experience, knowledge, and skillsets. Including but not limited to training, employee well-being, loyalty, and punctuality.

In short, people ops teams are tasked with figuring out how to get the best out of employees by putting as much focus on the individual as possible.

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

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

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

Related Read: 25 Useful Exit Interview Questions + Template

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Why Google switched to people ops

In 2006, Google rebranded its HR department to people ops. The former Senior Vice President of Google’s people ops, Lazlo Bock, said they wanted to take a step back from the bureaucracy of HR.

They felt the new label signified an “ability to get things done.”

After the people ops team was established, they began to review the company HR metrics listed above. They noticed the turnover rate was increasing. When the people ops team took a closer look they discovered it was mostly female employees resigning.

This is where we see the true capabilities of people ops come into effect.

They probed through data, surveys, and exit interviews to locate the source of the problem. In doing so, they narrowed down the group to not just female workers but new mothers.

At the time, Google offered their employees different maternity leave policies depending on where they resided. Employees in the United States were given 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, except in California.

California was only given 7 weeks for maternity leave. The policy wasn’t sufficient enough for new moms in either case which led these employees to resign.

By 2007, the people ops team was able to correct the issue. Maternity leave was extended to 5 months with full benefits for all United States employees. Google’s people ops team was able to identify a problem, find the cause, and devise a viable solution.

HR could have solved this issue but, let’s be honest, the typical HR department may not have the time or the manpower to identify and rectify this issue.

HR vs. people ops

We usually see HR and people operations used interchangeably. People ops is human resources, but with some key differences.

Traditional HR (the old way)

Traditionally, the main remit of human resources is focused around administration with some talent acquisition and implementing HR policies.

Typical HR responsibilities:

  • Recruitment and onboarding
  • Compliance
  • Workplace safety
  • Maintain employee records
  • Employee benefits & compensation

HR reaches out to employees to get updated W-4 forms, changes in benefit status, or anything related to the employee file.

These functions are required to operate a business smoothly, but they’re more focused on staying within regulations.

People operations - a new focus

People ops, meanwhile, works to ensure each person has the best employee experience possible at an organization and can operate at their best.

The people ops team keeps track of slow seasons and lets HR know when it’s the best time to hire. People ops also evaluate current techniques, procedures, processes such as performance management, and policies for effectiveness.

Typical Functions:

  • Create a people strategy
  • Collect and analyze data to hunt for issues and areas of improvement
  • Align employee and company goals
  • Update HR-related systems and tools
  • Employee engagement/satisfaction surveys

Here's an example of people operations in action.

At my last HR position, a few employees complained about missing emails. We thought it was an IT issue and would direct them accordingly, but IT said the emails were getting through fine.

A coworker in the people ops team sent out an employee survey to gather more information. She asked if employees knew how to operate Microsoft Outlook, how often they checked their emails, and if there was anything that may help people ops resolve the issue.

It was found that a few employees didn’t know how to operate not only Microsoft Outlook but Office 365 in general. Other employees admitted they stopped paying attention to certain emails because there were so many people cc’s they weren’t aware it was for them. Some emails were in a chain and the information for any particular employee was buried.

Our people ops department worked with management to clean up our email communication. No more email chains unless between the originator and initial recipients. A new email must be created if it includes a new recipient. Those who wanted or needed it were also signed up for Microsoft Office 365 training.

Afterward, my coworker in the people team sent out another employee survey and the results were much better. Employees took advantage of the training and were more productive in their everyday tasks.

Some employees were happy someone finally asked. They’d felt uncomfortable mentioning a lack of skill in fear of being perceived as incompetent.

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.

Next steps

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 relabelling 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.

If you choose to make the switch to a people operations mindset, then you might want to check out the 10 best HR analytics software for actionable workforce data.

Some further resources:

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.

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