From HR to People Operations: Why The Language We Use Is Changing

Catherine Tansey
July 19, 2022
People Operations, People Ops, Human Resources, HR

Today, the term People Ops is increasingly replacing ‘Human Resources’ at some of the most progressive and employee-centric companies.

Coined by Laszlo Block, the former Senior Vice President of the HR function at Google, People Ops doesn’t just represent a name change, but a shift in the way we think about managing people within an organization. 

At the heart of People Operations? A philosophy and way of establishing processes that is employee-centric.

Today, a growing number of software companies are adding People Operations teams to their staff, or doing away with traditional HR departments entirely and making the switch to this refreshed incarnation of HR. 

Here are some of the main differences between traditional HR and People Operations, and why considering adding a People Operations manager (or entire department) to your team may be a good fit for you, as well.  

People Ops versus Human Resources

The structural and hierarchical differences between People Ops and HR exist along a spectrum and vary from company to company. 

At some organizations, People Ops has replaced the HR function entirely. At others, People Operations is a function within Human Resources, like Comp & Benefits or Payroll. 

So what, exactly, differentiates the two?  

HR departments aren’t inherently outdated by any means—it’s absolutely possible to structure your HR department in a way that is people-centered and modern. But, HR has suffered from something of a branding problem over the years. This LinkedIn post highlights the issue, with 65 percent of respondents saying that “old school perceptions of HR” is what currently holds HR back as a profession. 

More than anything else, it’s the philosophy driving People Ops that makes it the future-forward choice. 

It’s important to be clear: Plenty of HR teams do incorporate this new People Operations ethos. But, for the purposes of this article, it’s important to focus on the things People Operations has emphasized that are missing from traditional, stuffy HR processes.

Here are some of the differences between “traditional” HR departments and People Operations:

  • Where traditional HR is process-oriented and administrative, People Ops is more holistic and strategic.
  • Where traditional HR views employees as a resource for labor, People Ops sees employees as internal customers. 
  • Traditional HR strategizes as to the benefit an employee can bring; People Operations understand the employee is the benefit. 

Perhaps more than any other distinction, traditional HR is reactive while People Operations is proactive:

  • HR would be responsible for filling a role and finding out why an employee decided to leave the company. 
  • People Operations would work on engaging the employee from day 1, in the hope that the employee wouldn’t want to leave in the first place. What’s more, People Operations would have enough of a pulse on that employee’s experience to be able to anticipate that they might be getting ready to give their notice, and take measures to re-engage the employee or be prepared for their departure.

What’s behind the shift?

Companies haven’t always thought of employees as their most valuable asset; before HR tech, they didn’t really have time to. 

Traditionally, HR was an administrative function in charge of a myriad of time-consuming, manual tasks, like recruiting, hiring, onboarding, compliance, and more. The human resources department completed these tasks without the technology we have to automate them today and had little to no sway in company strategy. 

With the advent and expansion of HR tech over the last 20+ years, HR has evolved—and at many organizations, evolved into People Ops. With technology automating formerly manual tasks and freeing up time and mind share, HR has grown into a data-driven powerhouse that sets and executes the strategies around all things people. 

Today, a People Ops function is a competitive advantage for companies, especially considering the rise of the hybrid workplace model—and the confusion it can bring if not managed properly. 

Now more than ever, companies need a team at the helm driving the people and engagement-center of the company. People Ops is focused on fostering an engaged workforce where employees have the tools to thrive—and enjoy the work they do. 

Today People Ops channels their energy into:

  • Creating and managing productive and holistic performance management systems.  
  • Finding ways to boost engagement across the employee lifecycle. 
  • Working to make work more meaningful on an individual and collective basis. 
  • Ensuring equitable experiences for hybrid and remote-first employees. 

Tech drives People Ops

Whether or not you choose to formally create a People Operations role or department at your company, it’s a good idea to consider the shifts that created People Operations as a function in the first place. 

People Operations creates a customer-like experience for candidates and employees, which will make it hard for companies with traditional HR philosophies and models to compete. Since traditional HR departments have tended to view employees as assets rather than, you know, people, companies that still use this dated way of thinking may find it harder to grow and compete for talent.

As you begin to think about the ideological and structural adjustments that have to happen to make the switch, keep in mind that tech drives People Operations. It’s a solid tech stack that gives People Ops the power they need to make data-driven decisions and have the time to focus on higher-level strategy. 

If you don’t already have technology that streamlines your People Ops function, you’re going to need it. Look for a single, all-in-one software or opt for best-of-breed point solutions. 

You’ll want a tech stack that covers the basics of the administrative tasks like:

  • General HR administration.
  • Compensation.
  • Benefits administration.
  • Payroll.

But People Operations will also be looking for the tools that make it easy to measure and boost employee engagement, like:

  • Engagement and pulse surveys. 
  • Performance management.
  • Growth and development tracks.
  • Goal setting and achievement.

With People Operations at other companies setting the expectation for a customer-like experience for candidates and employees, today’s companies will have to do the same in order to compete for talent today and in the future. 

But beyond simply upping your competitive edge, adopting the People Operations mindset, structure, and culture will aid you in building an engaged and productive workforce.

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