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What is People Operations?

Dec 5, 2022| Reading time: 8min

BY Alex Hilleary

Principal Content Marketing Manager

The business world loves its lingo. Jump into any meeting and you’ll most likely hear a variety of terms (and a million acronyms). 

And while people have been floating around the term “people operations’” for a bit, there’s some confusion about what it really means and how to use it to create a people-first organization.

What is People Operations?

People Operations – otherwise known as People Ops – is a business function in charge of crafting the employee experience at your organization. Those who work in People Operations help their companies empower, engage, and retain employees.

How Did the Term “People Operations” Originate?

Coined by Google in the mid-2000s, the term “People Operations” spread through tech and later to many other types of organizations.

Laszlo Bock, Google’s first Head of People, introduced this term to challenge a traditional style of Human Resources that focused on compliance and protecting the company first, instead of its people.

People Operations vs. Human Resources vs. Talent Acquisition

People Operations is a sub-function within a People department, alongside Human Resources and Talent Acquisition

  • At smaller organizations, one person might be responsible for all three of these elements of the People department.
  • At a larger organization, a People Operations team may be extensive, with roles dedicated to separate parts of People Operations (e.g. a Learning & Development Specialist or a Head of DEIB).

So what’s the difference between the three?

People Operations

People Operations builds and executes programs — like new hire onboarding —  that shape the work experience of current employees. People Ops ensures employees are resourced, supported, and empowered at work.  

Human Resources

Human Resources focuses on the logistics of employment. With a focus on tax setup, payroll, benefits, and administration, Human Resources helps a company pay people and comply with labor laws.

Talent Acquisition

Talent Acquisition sources and hires new employees for an organization. 

Who Needs People Operations?

All organizations with a workforce need People Operations. Why? Modern workplace dynamics are changing, which has resulted in employees having higher expectations for their work experiences than ever before.

Employees now expect:

  • Comprehensive onboarding programs that help them navigate the organization quicker and become productive faster
  • Learning and development programs that help them upskill on the job
  • Proactive interactions with managers and leaders
  • A framework for intentional inclusivity and equity in every aspect of work

The emergence of remote work means that your employees have more workplace options than ever before. That means that if your company doesn’t deliver on its people-first initiatives, your employees will find another that does.

Responsibilities of People Operations

A People Ops team is responsible for designing and running programs to enhance the day-to-day employee experience. Some of the most important responsibilities of the function include:

  • Onboarding: People Operations equips new employees with the tools they need to be successful starting on day one. These resources range from logins to social support and training needed to navigate the organization. Example activity: Sending a welcome email to a new hire.
  • Internal Communications: People Operations disseminates company-wide information alongside leaders and champions the organizational culture. Example activity: Coordinating an All Hands meeting.
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging: People Operations leads DEIB initiatives to ensure an organization is supporting an inclusive workplace. Example activity: Supporting employee resource groups.
  • Engagement and Connection: People Operations creates shared spaces to build trust and community among coworkers. Example activity: Organizing a company-wide social event.
  • Manager Empowerment: People Operations supports managers with training and education. Example activity: Running a new manager training program.
  • Performance Management: People Operations implements a standardized framework for measuring employee performance. Example activity: Leading a performance review cycle.
  • Learning and Development: People Operations supports employees in their career development and provides educational programs across the organization. Example activity: Facilitating a workshop to help employees develop a new skill.
  • Milestone Recognition: People Operations recognizes an employee’s impact and time spent at an organization. Example activity: Celebrating work anniversaries.
  • PTO and Leave Management: People Operations manages time off for employees and ensures they are supported returning to work after time away. Example activity: Re-onboarding an employee returning from parental leave.
  • Offboarding: People Operations closes out relationships with employees to ensure a smooth departure. Example activity: Coordinating an exit interview.
  • Additional Responsibilities: Sometimes, those with People Operations titles also take on some responsibilities of Human Resources (e.g. perks and benefits management, compensation, compliance) or those of Talent Acquisition (e.g. recruiting and employer branding).

How Do You Create a Top-Performing People Operations Function?

Outstanding People Ops teams have the four following approaches in common:

  1. Dedication to Operational Excellence: A strong People Operations team is process-driven and builds programs that will scale alongside the company. The team effectively implements software to complement the manual work they do.
  2. Focused Business Priorities: A strong People Operations team can articulate how their programs help advance company-level goals and priorities.
  3. Fixation on Results: A strong People Operations team is driven by results. If they create a program that no one uses, they see that as a failure, instead of a box they checked.
  4. Appreciation for the Human Touch: A strong People Operations team knows that human connection is at the heart of a positive employee experience. The team thinks about how to put people at the center of the programs they build.

What’s Next for People Operations?

Since People Ops is still an emerging field, you have the opportunity to make your mark as an organization. No matter the size of your company, you can create an impactful employee experience that helps attract and retain top talent. 

That doesn’t mean the role isn’t complex – pressure to surface DEIB initiatives into daily work, adapt to a hybrid-remote model, and accommodate a changing talent landscape has dramatically reshaped the People Operations function. 

Clearly, People Operations is indispensable in every step of the employee lifecycle. So if you’re looking for a sign to double-down on your people-first efforts, this is it. Try new things, gather employee feedback, and rinse and repeat to create an amazing employee experience that will set a new standard for other organizations. 

Interested in building a People Operations department from the ground up? Read our Q&A with Karen Kuhn who did so at Order. 

Read the interview here

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