People Operations: What Is It, Best Practices, and Responsibilities

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.” Here’s what we learned.

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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: competitiveness, customization, anticipation, and nirvana. Here’s how. 

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.

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.


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


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.

Common challenges in People Operations

Individuals change jobs more frequently now than ever before. Mass layoffs coupled with throngs of retiring baby boomers and economic uncertainty translate to quickly and dramatically transforming workforces. 

These accelerated changes are frustrating for employees and business leaders alike, and for those departing, they can be nothing short of heartbreaking. No one wants to think about these kinds of challenges, but People Ops coordinators handle every aspect of these and other, equally difficult situations as a part of their daily business operations, including: 

Internal conflicts

Few people arrive at work with the intent to clash with a colleague. Fortunately for all of us, most workplace conflicts are resolved quickly by those involved. When things get heated, unprofessional, or cause work disruptions, however, People Ops intervenes. 

They conduct interviews and investigations, which can be uncomfortable for everyone, and sometimes have to make difficult decisions when interventions or disciplinary actions are necessary. 

Compliance and regulation

Among the many unsung daily functions People Ops teams perform, a crucially important one is the continual monitoring of the organization’s adherence to laws. They ensure workplace safety, employee well-being, and act as a point of contact for internal and external legal professionals. “Worst-case scenario repercussions” regularly apply for People Ops professionals. One slip-up can result in a tax audit or immigration investigation. 

Maintain employee motivation

The People Operations philosophy places huge emphasis on employees’ continued motivation. They do this in a couple of ways:

  • Recognition. Employees whose work consistently exceeds expectations, but goes unnoticed, will either 1) leave, or 2) remain, grow cynical, and stop making an effort. Both of these reactions are huge losses to businesses. An in-house recognition program sustained by an enthusiastic People Ops team can make a big difference in how an employee feels about their working life. 
  • Happiness. People Ops departments understand that happy employees are motivated employees. They seek out programs and benefits workers truly want and will use by issuing surveys and soliciting honest opinions. Remote work and four-day work week policies are rising, for instance, because employees have indicated that family and well-being are what matter most to them.

Manage internal communication

Workplace communication has changed over the past few years, especially as workers have dispersed to remote locations and workplaces are no longer office-based. This distance may exacerbate any fears of potential job loss as layoffs dominate headlines. 

People operations teams work with management to proactive, transparent messages from a company to its employees. They encourage video interaction and establish teleconference meeting guidelines to make face-to-face sessions rewarding for everyone involved. 

People Operations vs. HR operations

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. 

People Ops places a focus on data and strategy, and an 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.

Essential People Operations roles and best practices 

Recruiting, hiring, and onboarding

People Ops teams begin recruitment by researching why, exactly, the previous employee departed. This is critical knowledge when recruiting candidates for a position. They work with the department lead to establish a recruitment plan. This often focuses on finding the best in-house talent, but it can also involve a third-party recruitment company to help in the search. 

The new hire fills out paperwork and returns it to People Ops; what follows happens fairly quickly: benefits cards arrive, paychecks are deposited on time, and vacation time begins to accrue. This does not happen by magic, but People Ops coordinators make it seem as though they do. They collaborate with internal departments and external businesses to seamlessly onboard new hires. 

Performance management and career development

From a People Operations perspective, one yearly performance review does not constitute nearly enough communication between employees and management. Workers and supervisors have several discussions throughout the year, resulting in goals, career objectives, and feedback – all documented by People Ops. Employees receive praise for achievements when they happen, and issues – even small ones – can be addressed quickly before they snowball into problems.

Employee development is central to the philosophy of People Operations. Traditional HR has historically overlooked this side of an employee’s tenure, but People Ops integrates it as a part of performance management. They listen to employees’ ideas and plans, and offer proactive solutions such as matching up less experienced workers with mentors for guidance and advice, and providing free resources for focused training to build skills.

Organizational culture and engagement

People Ops managers work hard to establish a positive, distinctive, and, most importantly, inclusive company culture to ensure employee retention. They amplify characteristics that set their organization apart from the rest and use them to forge a sense of belonging — and hopefully fun — to the office or online environment.  

Compensation and benefits management

People Ops coordinators’ work with wages and benefits does not conclude after onboarding. Safeguarding the dispersal of earnings and benefits for all employees, including temps, interns, and contractors, is a continual process. They make benefit and tax withholding adjustments for employees who experience major life changes. Any salary increase or bonus must be processed and communicated by People Ops, as well as changes in for an upcoming year. 

Setting expectations to meet company goals

People Ops meet demands not only from their organization’s workforce, but from management, as well. They are responsible for communicating to employees exactly what new policies will entail and what the end result should be in order to meet goals. A company-wide environmental initiative, for example, requires an email notification, ordering and distributing supplies (bins, mugs), and detailed instructions for employees. People Ops must deliver the policy, enforce it, measure its success, and report results to management.

Employee offboarding and termination

The same team who transitions employees into the company – People Operations – transitions them out. Think of it as a mirrored process. Both involve interviews, paperwork, a life transition for the employee, and a work transition for the team they leave behind. 

Most employee exits are positive and voluntary. When they aren’t, feelings can run high. People Ops managers must deal with uncomfortable circumstances head-on, and abide by offboarding processes to ensure a gracious exit. Among the emotional landmines, they must also ensure that departing employees receive all due wages and benefits.

Streamline HR processes

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting global supply chain disruptions, businesses are facing unforeseen profit losses and new costs. Consequently, they are looking to streamline operations, including those of People Ops. 

Processes like employee requests, compliance document dispersal, and cross-team approval signatures can be automated, allowing People Ops and HR teams to focus their attention on the most important part of their business: its people. 

What’s next for People Ops and HR? 

Whether the department is named “human resources” or “People Operations,” they are likely to deal with many of 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. Recruiting and retention efforts will remain a top priority as 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.

People Operations tools and solutions

Businesses rely on People Ops and HR teams to maintain employee engagement, help find business solutions, and implement them company-wide. In order to do that, teams are turning to process automation and workflow software to help eliminate unnecessary or repetitive manual work, improve employee experiences, and maintain business agility and competitiveness. 

Too many HR specialists waste valuable time filtering spreadsheets and scrolling through email chains. Pipefy provides your HR team with a powerful cross-department interface that centralizes tasks, information, and documents in one easy-to-access platform. With access to dashboards and reports, never lose track of important process metrics or strategic data insights.

Pipefy’s low-code visual interface makes it easy to design and optimize business processes to improve employee experiences. It also speeds up and simplifies approval workflows that require more than one department. This means higher visibility, better collaboration, and more time to focus on improving employee experiences.

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