People Operations: How Does it Differ From HR?

Benjamin Babb
people operations

Search for job postings related to HR and you’ll likely return results that can be divided into two categories: position titles that include the term “HR,” and those that include the term “People Operations.” Although the number of job titles in HR far outweighs those of People Ops,  the presence of these two categories raises an important question: Is there a difference between People Ops and Human Resources?

To find the answer, the best place to start is with Laszlo Bock’s book “Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead.” Bock is a former SVP of People Operations at Google. Originally hired to manage Google’s HR Department, he describes in the book how and why Google made the shift from “HR” to “People Ops.”

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What is People Operations?

People Operations refers to a specific model of human resources management that Google developed and adopted in 2006 – and that other companies later did as well. The four primary goals behind the company’s shift from an HR model to a People Ops model were:

1 – Changing the perception that HR’s functions were primarily “administrative and bureaucratic.” 

2 – Increasing the use of data to inform management decisions and set organizational strategy.

3 – Building a model of HR that drives continuous improvement for both people and processes.

4 – Delivering the HR basics, flawlessly, every time.

Seen in this light, Google’s decision to rename the HR department as “People Operations” appears to be something of a reset: an effort to change expectations of what HR could (and should) be doing. Adopting the People Ops model is an effort to increase the scope and depth of what HR could deliver without compromising its ability to meet the company’s fundamental HR needs.

What does a People Ops team do?

The responsibilities of a People Ops team vary from company to company, but, in general, a People Ops team manages the tasks, workflows, and processes that are usually associated with human resources. In addition, People Ops teams may also spend more time collecting and analyzing data in order to shape business strategy. People Ops teams also engage in ongoing HR process optimization.

Bock writes that Google’s People Operations team was expected to deliver results in four primary areas:

1: Providing “HR that just works.” The People Ops team would need to deliver familiar and common HR functions that keep an organization running and help it stay competitive. Examples include recruiting, onboarding, and managing employee requests.

2: Mass customization. People Ops would optimize HR processes to produce the best outcome for each end user or team, rather than assuming that identical processes were always the best policy. For example, customizing performance review processes to be most effective depending on the department or team.

3: Anticipation. Understand the company’s people, strategies, and processes well enough to identify needs and create solutions before they are asked for.

4: Nirvana. When basic HR needs are met, processes are optimized through customization, and the People Ops team is able to predict their internal customers’ needs, then the team achieves what Bock refers to as “nirvana.” In other words, an ideal employee (and employer!) experience that promotes job satisfaction, fosters employee development, and increases productivity.

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People Operations vs HR

The differences between People Ops and HR vary depending on the company, but there are two areas in which the two models may be distinguished: 1) focus on data and strategy, and 2) emphasis on employee experience. As one people operations leader put it:

“People Operations has gained space in the strategic discussions of the company, because it is no longer an operational area that only manages taxes and payments. People Ops provides data analysis, identifies trends, and develops strategies for attracting and retaining talent. People Ops plays a key role in generating the best employee experience.”

Paola Phaedra, People Operations Manager at Pipefy

Focus on data-driven strategy

Bock observes that “in most companies it’s distressingly difficult to report on seemingly easy questions like, Who has given the notice to resign but hasn’t hit their last day yet? How many employees do we have? Or even, “Where is everyone?” One of the reasons for this opaqueness is that the data in question isn’t centralized. Data follows processes, and HR processes tend to get siloed and fragmented. Or, as Bock points out, different teams define terms and metrics in different ways, or differ in their access to data.

Sometimes this is due to privacy or compliance issues. At other times, it may simply be a lack of process harmonization. Different teams collect different data, label and store that data in their own ways, and use different tools to manage and access their databases.

Google’s People Ops model prioritized data consistency and consolidation in order to deliver the kinds of insights that can help business leaders make decisions.

Emphasis on improving employee experiences

When asked to describe the difference between HR and People Ops, several people summed up this way: HR prioritizes the company’s interests; People Ops teams are on the employees’ side.

This point of view echoes the earlier observation that HR is sometimes seen as the company’s administrative branch, whose top priority is making sure that employees follow the rules. People Ops, on the other hand, appears to focus more on the employee experience and to play more of an employee advocate role.

It may be just a matter of optics, but for many workers the term “People Operations” suggests a team whose mission is more closely focused on employee wellbeing rather than administration and compliance. Bock writes that “people ops” suggests both a focus on people and the ability to get things done.

It’s important to note that many teams which retain the name “human resources” also work diligently to plan, create, and improve employee experiences. Similarly, many HR teams are already making important contributions to business strategy and decision making. But by putting the word “people” in the team’s name, some companies may be signaling — to current employees and potential new hires — that the employee experience is a high priority.

More than anything, what unites us in People Operations is a vision that work doesn’t need to be miserable. That it can be ennobling and energizing and exciting.

Laszlo Bock, “Work Rules!”

By distilling what Bock and others have said about People Operations, we can put together the following description:

People Ops refers to a group of people, processes, and data that manages — and expands — traditional HR functions. People Ops is a data-driven model of HR management that aims to deliver actionable business insights while simultaneously improving outcomes for both the company and its employees.

What’s next for People Ops & HR?

Whether the department is named “human resources” or “people operations,” they are likely to be dealing with the same challenges as businesses continue the process of digital transformation and process automation. Remote and hybrid work models appear to be here to stay, so figuring out how to cultivate company culture in a remote-first world, enhance collaboration, and manage the requests of employees who may only be in the office occasionally (or not at all) will be a primary concern.

All people management teams will continue to feel the pressure as recruiting and retention efforts will remain a top priority, as the Great Resignation continues to unfold and competition for workers increases. People management teams will have to remain agile in order to accommodate the new technologies and workflows needed to sustain their focus on employee experiences, and keep in tune with the increasing recognition that HR insights are essential for steering business strategy.

See how Pipefy helps HR & People Ops teams deliver exceptional employee experiencesLearn more
Written by
Benjamin Babb
Senior Writer at Pipefy, where I focus on helping businesses manage workflows, optimize processes, and deploy automation. I'm also a ghost story aficionado who listens to more Enya than anyone should.

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