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HR Versus People Ops: What You Need to Know

people ops

People operations, people ops, or even POPs—you’ve likely heard at least one of these three terms before. It’s just a new way to say human resources, right? Not exactly! 

During the pandemic, companies learned a lot about flexibility, communication, and wellness, among other things, on the fly. As we slowly return to “normal” (well, more accurately, a “new normal”), it’s important to carry those lessons to keep employees happy and highly engaged. 

The key to successfully doing so? People operations, also known as people ops.  

The Difference Between HR and People Ops 

Let’s start with some definitions. Companies often use the terms “human resources” and “people operations” interchangeably. HR departments and people ops departments do have some similarities, with people ops technically operating under the HR umbrella. 

At many companies, these two roles can blur together. However, they do have distinct functions: 

Traditional HR Roles

People Ops Roles

Main Focus Areas: 

  • Enforcing compliance
  • Maintaining an employee database
  • Managing employee benefits and compensation  

Main Focus Areas: 

  • Identifying and implementing action plans that help raise employee productivity 
  • Providing employees with all the necessary tools and resources to thrive 

Other Day to Day Activities: 

  • Recruiting, hiring, transferring, and promoting employees
  • Mediating employee issues 
  • Terminating employees

Other Day to Day Activities: 

  • Boosting employee engagement and retention  
  • Creating a robust company culture 
  • Elevating the company’s image
  • Reducing time to hire

Put more simply, HR teams have historically viewed employees as resources (hence the name). On the other hand, people ops teams view employees as customers, taking, as WideAngle’s Jon Birdsong writes, a “results-oriented,” “strategy-focused” approach to the “leadership and management of people.”

The Origins of the Term “People Operations”

Human resources has been around for decades. In fact, the first human resources department might have been created in 1901! So, where did the term “people operations” come from? 

Google kicked off this trend in 2006 by renaming its human resources department to people operations. 

Laszlo Bock, former Senior Vice President of Google’s People Operations, explained in his book that the rebrand was done to back away from HR’s “administrative and bureaucratic” connotations. The new label signaled “some actual ability to get things done.” 

Not long after this rebrand, Google executives noticed a serious problem—a lot of women were leaving the company. Digging deeper via surveys and employee interviews, they identified that new mothers, in particular, were leaving “at twice Google’s average departure rate.”  

So, Google’s people ops team got to work. Realizing that twelve weeks of paid maternity leave wasn’t enough for women who had just given birth, they changed the benefit in 2007, offering five months off at full pay and full benefits. They even gave new mothers the option of dividing that time up however they saw fit (for example, new mothers could take off a month before and after their due date). 

The people ops team decided to revamp its leave program for other new parents, too. Previously, the company gave new parents in its California offices seven weeks of paid leave but decided to extend that benefit to its workers worldwide. 

What Google did is a pretty significant example, and of course, not every organization can afford to give these lengthy leaves to new parents.  However, what Google accomplished perfectly shows the people operations process at play. Noticing an issue with retention, the people ops team got to the bottom of it and came up with a creative solution. 

Why People Ops is Here to Stay 

It’s been more than ten years since Google adopted the term “people operations” and overhauled its leave programs for new parents. Since then, various companies have opted for people operations departments in place of traditional human resources departments. 

These days, it’s more important than ever that companies have teams dedicated to helping employees be their best selves at work. 

Here’s one way to look at it: according to a 2020 Upwork study, 36.2 million Americans will work remotely by 2025. With that upcoming uptick in remote work, a large part of the American workforce will have more options than ever. If an employee isn’t engaged and invested in your company, they’ll likely nab another opportunity, leaving you to start a lengthy hiring process to fill their spot. 

Do You Need HR, People Ops, or Both? 

Now that we’ve established the different functions of human resources and people operations, you might be wondering if you need one of the two or both. The short answer is that you need both skillsets to design an amazing employee experience.

Since people ops is technically a function of the HR umbrella, many companies get things rolling by hiring an HR manager first. Doing so makes sense because you need someone to initially build the company’s code of conduct and employee benefits program. 

Think of this process as building a functioning house with walls and beams but without wall paint and furniture. The foundation serves as a shelter and fills your basic need for survival. That’s what HR is there to do—put basic structures in place that protect employees and the company. 

Once those needs are addressed, you can bust out the paint color chart and the Ikea catalog. It’s time to make that house feel like a home! That’s what people ops is there to do—make the company a place people are excited to show up at every workday. 

One recommendation is that for every 50 employees, there should be at least one HR manager. Another is to hire an experienced HR professional once your company starts to exceed 25 employees. 

After you hire your initial HR manager, if your company continues to grow, you can onboard other full-time HR employees, such as a talent acquisition manager, a benefits coordinator, and a people ops specialist. 

Here’s a good rule of thumb. If your company size stays relatively the same, with an average growth rate of one or two people per year, you may not need a full-time people ops person just yet. The founder, CEO, and HR manager should be handling employee experience responsibilities regardless. 

However, while you can get pretty far without a dedicated people ops person, be mindful that it’s a heavy, unsustainable workload. An HR manager can build foundational processes and happy culture. But, once your company is growing at an average rate of five to ten people a month or more, it’s time to bring on a dedicated people ops specialist who can keep a pulse on your company’s employee experience. 

People Ops: Best Practices for Strengthening Employee Engagement 

As you go through the process of adding a people operations specialist to your team, remember that people ops is not just about making people smile because your company celebrates International Talk Like a Pirate Day (yes, that’s a thing!). You’ll need someone who can accomplish two main tasks. 

The first is tracking essential metrics. Time to hire, cost per hire, employee turnover, and diversity numbers are just a few of the key metrics to track. There are so many valuable ones the people ops specialist can eventually add to the list!

The second is deploying all kinds of employee engagement surveys. New hires should be surveyed right after onboarding to see how it went and then again at the 90-day mark to assess if they’re feeling up to speed. All other employees should be surveyed regularly (ideally, monthly or quarterly) to see if they feel connected to the company’s mission, vision, and values, if they feel like their work matters, and so forth. 

In addition to these main two tasks, the other responsibilities of the people ops specialist include: 

These activities tie back to what a people ops person is ultimately in charge of employee happiness. As fluffy as that may sound to some people, employees are a company’s most vital asset for success. Without happy employees, the company’s culture will stagnate, productivity will take a nosedive, and turnover rates will climb. If employees don’t feel heard and valued, they’ll seek more exciting, employee-driven environments where they’ll feel more included and connected to the organizational mission. \

That’s why, again, no matter your company size, someone should be thinking about the employee experience. If nobody is focused on the people ops part of your organization, your culture might start to die a slow, painful death, complete with low engagement, decreased productivity, high turnover, and negative Glassdoor reviews, all of which will bite into the company’s time and money. 

Starting to craft an experience that makes employees feel excited and proud of their organization doesn’t need to be complicated. A great first step would be to add your own twist to these employee engagement survey questions. From there, you can distribute the surveys to employees and analyze the results to identify immediate areas for improvement. 

Remember, your employees aren’t expecting an end-to-end people ops process from the get-go. Starting with a survey will show them that they’re working for a company that cares about them and wants to put them first. 

 
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