28 Oct 2022

What is People Operations? Roles and key responsibilities

The term People Operations (or People Ops) is gaining traction and many companies use it to describe what would traditionally fall under HR. But what is People Operations and why should you adopt it?

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In short, the term People Operations represents a shift from administering employees as a resource to treating employees like internal customers.

The people-centric organizations of today know that what defines them and enables their success is their people, so they do everything they can to attract the most talented employees and give them the right tools, conditions, and environment to excel.

In this article, we’ll put People Operations in the spotlight and see how its principles can help you improve employee experience at your organization and, ultimately, perform better.

What is people operations?

People Operations is the redefinition of HR, adapted to the reality and needs of modern people-centric businesses.

It’s not just the name that changes, though – it’s everything that’s under it that becomes redefined, as well. People Operations places the employee at the center of the organization – and the people ops function’s main responsibility is to provide an environment that’s conducive to better employee engagement, productivity, and performance.

People Ops is a way to rebuild HR from the ground up by focusing on the employee experience instead of on the needs of admin staff and outdated bureaucratic processes. Because let’s face it: admin is killing the employee experience.

People spend on average 3 hours per day on admin work, which is also the most hated job of knowledge workers – so it’s easy to see the necessity of rebuilding HR, reforming inefficient processes, and streamlining business operations in a way that enables employees to perform at their best. This is exactly what people operations aims to do: It eliminates busy work to improve the employee experience and, in the end, boost performance.

The concept of People Operations was created by Google and further developed by Laszlo Bock, former People Ops Director at Google, who explains its principles in detail in his book “Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead”.

The People Ops function builds the right conditions for managers to serve their teams, and for employees to have access to all they need to succeed – and ensures everyone has the right conditions to thrive.

Because when organizations shift from managing to empowering their employees, they create a workforce that is more motivated, dedicated, and productive – and that is able to achieve better results.

What are the responsibilities of the People Ops team?

Depending on the size of an organization, the people operations function might be managed by one person or a team, similarly to HR.

But do you need both HR and People Ops? Or just a strong People Ops function?

There are two distinct approaches to reconciling people ops with HR. Organizations might decide to:

  • Place People Ops under the umbrella of HR and have both teams, where the people ops isn’t preoccupied with compliance and managing contracts (and leave that to HR)
  • Replace HR with People Ops entirely and use the principles of People Ops to inform their human capital strategy

Obviously, there’s an overlap between the roles of the two, but people ops is much more focused on treating people as internal customers rather than as a resource (the R in HR).

The People Ops team is responsible for facilitating the work of all employees in a systematic and highly engaged way. Its main responsibilities are to:

  • Manage the entire employee journey and its touchpoints
  • Empower employees to do their best work consistently and support managers in creating the right environment for their teams
  • Modernize outdated, highly bureaucratic systems, including HR, payroll, access management, and more
  • Treat employees like internal customers and improve their engagement, well-being, and satisfaction
  • Take care of employee onboarding and offboarding and make sure both are executed in the most efficient way possible
  • Support employees in making decisions about their benefits and choices
  • Develop a strong and well-defined company culture (In the words of Laszlo Bock, “Building a great culture is not a one-time event. It requires constant learning and renewal.”)
  • Analyze performance and provide feedback and insights on opportunities for growth
  • Monitor different metrics and their evolution, such as turnover rates, time to hire, time to full productivity, onboarding length, and more (this last part is also commonly referred to as People Analytics).

Top 6 key focus areas of people ops

People ops is all about strategic work rather than admin – and about placing employees in the center. Ultimately, it is there to help the business leverage its talent, or, in other words, to maximize output by motivating and engaging employees.

For this, HR needs to move away from its traditional role of tackling routine tasks and needs related to people management and take on a more strategic mission to use talent to create and deliver value through the competencies of an organization’s employees.

Or, as McKinsey puts it, HR professionals need to stop being generalists and actually take on a talent value leadership role, in which they enable leaders to connect talent-related decisions to the outcomes that deliver the most value.

So, what are the focus areas of People Ops that make such a shift possible?

1. The employee experience

The employee experience (EX) is crucial for an organization’s success, and companies that understand this and invest in it are realizing 4 times more profit per employee than those that aren’t.

So, what’s People Operations’ role in improving the employee experience? Essentially, People Ops is the business function that puts the focus on employees, rather than on processes, and empowers them to excel. Otherwise said, building a positive employee experience lies at the core of People Ops’ responsibilities.

To improve EX, the People Ops team needs to:

  • Look at all interactions that employees have with the organization
  • Measure how efficient and simple they are and how much they contribute to a positive or negative experience
  • Define the ones which have the biggest impact and are the easiest to change and start working on them first
  • Then, progressively, work on all employee touchpoints to simplify and optimize interactions

Typically, touchpoints that often create the most frustration among employees and that are the easiest to automate include manual admin work, payroll, benefits management, account access, and onboarding.

A modern employee platform like Zelt can help you automate all of them and will serve as an enabler of all work in the company, since it provides employees with access to all hardware and software – and saves time by optimizing processes.

2. The employee lifecycle & its touchpoints

As mentioned, the employee lifecycle consists of different touchpoints that can either enable a positive experience or create frustration. People Ops can help shift the focus for each one:

  • Recruitment and hiring: By streamlining the recruitment process, concentrating on skills rather than diplomas, and hiring top performers who are also culturally aligned with the organization, a strong People Ops function creates a positive candidate experience and lays the groundwork for a positive EX, too.
  • Onboarding: Onboarding and orientation set the tone of how an employee will perceive your organization. If inefficiency seeps in at this stage, this shows carelessness and a lack of engagement with employees’ success. With Zelt, you can significantly improve onboarding to give employees access to all tools and systems from day 1.
  • Development: Feedback, reviews and promotions are all crucial elements of employee development. The way you manage each of those points will have a huge impact on how motivated and engaged employees feel. Zelt can facilitate communication and help you ensure that all communication channels are open and functional.
  • Offboarding: Offboarding is often overlooked but the way an employee interacts with your organization at the end of the employee lifecycle will define their overall experience and also the probability of having them recommend you to their network. Additionally, you need to make sure that you revoke access to all systems and data – and get your hardware back. Zelt takes care of all of this for you.

3. Employee empowerment

If employees are empowered to give their best at all times and see the meaning and impact of their work, they’ll also be much more engaged.

There’s an important difference between a “high-freedom” approach where employees are given latitude and are empowered to take decisions autonomously (and also make mistakes and learn from them) and a “low-freedom” model, which is a top-down, hierarchical, command-and-control approach to managing people (which is also extremely common, as it requires less effort to manage).

McKinsey defines the high-freedom approach as the adhocracy model, in which highly skilled individuals form an informal, action-driven, flexible structure that functions based on the principle of collaboration and cooperation rather than top-down decision making and control. This model is based on flexible forms of governance in which experimentation is key – and where rapid action and adaptation are encouraged.

At the core of Google’s philosophy, as explained by Bock, is the redefinition of the traditional management role by deliberately taking away managers’ typical responsibilities from them.

At Google, managers cannot singlehandedly decide whom to hire, fire, and promote, rate employees’ performance, manage salary increases, bonuses, or stock options, and even control the quality of code. These actions are all taken by a committee of managers and peers.

What do managers do, then? They serve their teams. Just as HR and People Ops should. Or, otherwise said, managers focus on overcoming obstacles, getting rid of bottlenecks, and motivating their team.

4. Company culture

Company culture is the expression of shared values and principles that inform the way a business functions. It defines the actions and behaviors that are encouraged or discouraged and, when aligned with employees’ values, it enables the organization as a whole to thrive. There are a few key notions and principles that could help shape the company’s culture, such as:

  • Meaning: The first cornerstone of a strong culture is a strong mission, so spend time on defining and refining yours if you haven’t yet. Define a strong mission that “gives individuals’ work meaning” and that is related to a moral goal rather than a business one (business goals change much more easily).
  • Transparency: Encourage open discussion frequently and give the possibility & space for each team member to ask questions
  • A sense of agency: Give each employee a sense of agency & control over what matters most to them (benefits, time off, working hours, location,…)
  • Play & innovation: Allow your people to experiment, play, make mistakes, and learn from them. If mistakes are sanctioned instead of used as learning and growth opportunities, this leaves little room for play and innovation.

5. Talent discovery and retention

Today, top talent is very flexible and open to new possibilities – but also demands more from employers.

The most skilled professionals are increasingly mobile, connected, and discoverable in a way they have never been before. Remote work facilitates this even further.

Google’s philosophy in regards to hiring is to always hire above average (ideally, “hire people who are better than you”) and invest most of their time and resources into finding the best people and give them the right conditions to thrive rather than training average performers to perform slightly better.

In this strategy, recruiting trumps onboarding and training. Hiring above average is now easier with the ongoing shift towards skills-based hiring: Rather than relying on CVs, hiring managers actively evaluate applicants’ skills early on with assessments and perform structured interviews in the later stages of the hiring process to identify the best talent.

Most of those highly talented people are interested in working for companies that place freedom and creativity at the top of their value ladder, meaning that talent flows to organizations who know how to empower it. A high-freedom environment in which cooperation, tinkering, and experimentation are encouraged, and in which every employee sees the meaning of their work and can take important decisions autonomously, is also what plays the most important role in retention.

6. People analytics

Benchmarking and employee performance management is key for empowering talent, because it enables the People Ops team to uncover problem areas and identify areas of excellence – and learn from top performers what makes them deliver more value than others.

In “Work Rules!” Bock explains that one of the core tasks of managers at Google is to see what makes the best employees so successful in order to be able to replicate their strategies and approaches and teach them to others.

In essence, the knowledge of what makes top performers so good can be used to address issues and weaknesses, both of individuals and teams, and help create a common strategy across different departments. And for this, embedded people analytics that leverage data (and, potentially, AI and ML) to drive insights and identify areas for improvement are key.

Tired of managing employees? Empower them instead

In short, people ops is to HR what employee empowerment is to employee management.

In the modern organization, the focus is shifting from seeing employees as a resource to treating them as co-creators who have the capacity, freedom, and agency to build things, cooperate freely, and innovate.

Shifting from a low- to a high-freedom environment is doable but certainly not easy for large organizations.

But smaller, nimble teams are more agile by definition and can benefit enormously from building a People Ops function to empower employees instead of managing them by using outdated bureaucratic practices and rigid admin processes. And for this, it’s essential to be equipped with the right employee platform from the start.