What is People Operations and What’s Different From HR?

what is people ops and how is it different from hr poprouser header

What is People Operations?

This is not a question that a lot of people outside of NY and California are currently asking, but it should be. While every other aspect of a business has been optimized and scraped clean for value, few businesses are looking to add that same rigor to HR practices, to satisfy the purposes of an HR component – to find and keep suitable people to innovate and provide increasing margins. This is the case with the concept recognized as People Operations.

People Operations is to HR what Digital is to Marketing

Like Digital Marketing, People Operations was dismissed as unrealistic hype and buzzwords among stalwart industry practitioners, but also like digital marketing, People Operations started to show more value than the traditional practice.

In addition, People Operations (again, like digital marketing) involves rapid experimentation across all areas of the business to identify the most efficient ways to grow a business. The ways in which People Operations achieves that objective is by refocusing on employees, contractors, and volunteers (hereto known as “People”) as the value driver of the organization.

How it’s done is by constantly experimenting with and improving processes that drive HR functions (which are historically administrative in nature), and offer services to the People to improve their quality. The quality of the brand, products and services, and innovation will improve as a result.

A Solid Definition of People Operations

Being HR practitioners and Strategy & Operations consultants who work with innovative companies, Poprouser can offer a durable and summarized definition of People Operations. Are you ready? Here goes …

People Operations is the business function of refocusing operations on its workforce as internal customers, and striving continuously for great internal customer service, using data-driven approaches. The core objectives of People Operations, also known as POps or People Ops, are to:

Shift from task-based management to objective-based management (MBO) – Higher productivity, measurable performance results

Encourage experimentation – Feeder for new insights

Carry out data-infused decision making – Better, more predicable decision outcomes

Rethink and redesign employee compensation – Compete for top talent

Offer unique and highly desirable perks – Greater employer brand

Build communities and closer relationships – Enhance retention

Provide autonomy and trust employees – Innovation

Improve, remove, and automate – Eliminate the need for previously redundant and unrewarding work

Cross pollination and collaboration – Build capable experts with fresh ideas from alternate sources


People Operations is also the name that Google gives to its HR department. Google pioneered People Operations under the tenure of Laszlo Bock, starting with his hire in 2006. He even wrote a book about how things are done at Google that makes them so successful.

Many of the initiatives and complex concepts that Lazlo wrote about are not applicable to or within reach of companies of all sizes and all industries. Software companies have more flexibility than most, and Google processes more data than almost anyone. However, the core tenets are solid, and can be acted on almost immediately, providing more value than traditional HR management, which is task-heavy and administrative, and almost never strategic in nature. Here are his four underlying principles of People Ops, summarized:

1. Strive for “Nirvana”

2. Use Data to Predict and Shape the Future

3. Improve Relentlessly

4. Field an Unconventional Team

work rules book people ops lazlo quote

That said, everyone who is or wants to be a leader of people should read the book Work Rules. You’ll understand those four principles better that way.

What People Operations is Now (2024)

Since its Google origins, a lot has changed. We’ve witnessed Alphabet and other tech firms under fire for their people practices, and other misconceptions about people ops dispelled with years of iteration. People Ops has become a de facto way for tech industry folks to refer to their HR job. But here’s the problem.

It’s not really People Ops.

Today, real People Operations isn’t the daily job of putting out fires reactively. That is what much of tech startup HR is like. Rather, people operations requires more creativity and knowledge about the business than even most founders possess.

The reason is because People Operations practitioners are:

  • Systems Architects – designing, developing, documenting, testing, and launching org components at scale
  • Project Managers – scoping, assembling and kicking off projects, delivering quality results, training, and reporting
  • Program Managers – operating systems as programs, with a focus on continuous improvement
  • Influencers – speaking with authority and conviction, able to pitch and gain buy-in
  • Collaborators – working with other stakeholders across and beyond the org to get things done well
  • Continuous Learners – updating skills relentlessly, seeking and applying tools for the betterment of themselves and others
  • Problem Solvers – creatively find solutions to issues, and permanently reduces risks of occurrence
  • Analysts – converting large bins of structured and unstructured data into valuable operational and financial insights that arrive right on time

This does not describe the majority of HR and self-described People Ops professionals. They simply don’t have the background or the remaining energy to take this on. Often, HR professionals are hired, walking into nightmare scenarios within organizations, never actually able to apply strategic HR or People Ops concepts as a single hire charged with putting out those aforementioned fires, which becomes a vicious cycle leading to their turnover.

This leads us to another concept of People Operations – building systems into ongoing programs, with durable knowledge capture that survives an single employee’s arrival and departure. Projects, initiatives, and nudges become the most basic forms of getting systems implemented, teams trained, and insights delivered.

The Poprouser View on HR vs People Operations

Human Resources is a giant arena with so many different functions and specializations, that for a large or growing company, it is unreasonable to expect a single person to own and run it. Even in small companies, HR needs to know a lot of different areas, most of which aren’t encountered in an HR degree or certificate program. A single person would be heading straight for burnout and is only servicing the role for the next person, sub-optimally.

Here are the generally accepted HR competencies:

  • Strategic Business Management
  • Workforce Planning and Employment
  • Human Resources Development
  • Risk Management
  • Employee and Labor Relations
  • HR Technology
  • Global & Int’l HR
  • Talent Management
  • Change Management

With the move to People Ops away from traditional HR, a lot of what would be considered HR is clustered into logical groups or doubled down on with data to augment decision-making. That, then, is broken down into smaller, more “edible” parts. Here are those parts (altered areas in blue, People Ops new additions in Yellow):

  • Strategic HR & People Ops
    • Strategic Business Alignment
    • Human Resource Development
    • Global & International HR
    • Workforce Planning
    • Change Management
    • Talent Attraction and Acquisition
    • Continuous Improvement
    • Strategic Interventions
  • Technology
    • HR Technology
    • Data Program
    • Systems Evaluation
  • Compliance And Risk
    • Employee Experience
    • Risk Management

Specific Deviations from the Standard

Strategic Business Management is now Strategic Business Alignment. To elevate the HR function, more management is not sufficient. In fact, the middle management class has largely been gutted from companies following the 2008 financial crisis and again during the COVID-19 crisis. The actions of the HR dept need to be justified for their alignment to the Vision, Mission, and Core Values.

There must now be alignment between those elements and all HR programs, specifically Total Rewards, Talent Acquisition, and Learning & Development. This ensures that People Ops practitioners can define what success means for each initiative, and communicate that across the organization. Alignment is about ethics, engagement, communication, and effectiveness.

Global & International HR considerations have been rolled into every People Ops process. We now know that remote members of the team can be integrated into the workforce at large, with their own global complexities. You want global customers to scale.

Without expanding your workforce globally, this would be a hard to achieve. People Ops also focuses on strategically deploying remote, hybrid, and work from home work arrangements. People Ops also oversees the compliant and legal deployment of contractors and freelancers.

Workforce Planning has been rolled into every People Ops process. This is because starting, executing, and following up on a specific plan requires strategy, people analytics, and a whole host of other factors to enable the success of the initiative. People Ops gets folks involved in the People function from across the organization (specifically in Finance/Accounting, Marketing, and Operations). Otherwise, workforce plans will be treated as suggestions, and you won’t get the support of stakeholders up, down, and across the organization.

People Ops puts Workforce Planning front and center of the organization, so having a seat at the table isn’t a recurring concern, distracting people leaders from day to day operations and solving strategic problems.

Talent Management is restructured to become Talent Attraction and Acquisition. This reflects the altered focus from outbound vacancy-filling efforts to attracting candidates and building automated systems for recruitment that inserts the human element at just the right time. Attraction is developed over time by cultivating interest in your organization through employee reviews, employer branding, and other promotional elements from marketing such as content marketing and social media.

Acquisition is the recruitment system, which sees the process rebuilt from scratch, assembling different candidate sources into a single source of applicant truth, most often an ATS, and the filling of strategically developed positions, The recruitment objective is refocused from filling slots to greater post-hire outcomes with each new hire.

Continuous Improvement is key in people operations that focuses on constantly improving and refining HR processes, policies, and practices. Here are some ways continuous improvement is done in people operations:

  • Data-augmented decision-making
  • Soliciting employee feedback
  • Regular process review
  • Testing and launching new tech features, and training on new technologies
  • Regular training and development

Strategic Interventions are activated by people ops teams when triggered by specific events in the org are on the horizon or are imminently going to occur. These are very specific situations in specialists must intervene immediately and without much preparation to alleviate a pain, prevent a catastrophe, or effect a strategic outcome. Here are some common ones:

  • Sexual Harassment, Discrimination, or Retaliation claim
  • Request/Demand by multiple individuals for an executive to step-down
  • Key team member burnout
  • Rising knowledge evaporation/attrition/hoarding
  • Employee walk-out
  • Labor dispute or active employee-initiated polling/petitioning
  • Pandemic lockdown
  • Developing silos

The people ops team develops action plans for these uncommon but very possible events, and time consenting, runs through simulations to ensure readiness.

Data Program is a new addition, as establishing data governance and establishing stringent IT security standards becomes top of mind for executives looking to unify systems and control risk. People Ops brings the IT function into HR due to the following 21st-century realities:

  • Data quality issues diminishing the value from HR measurement
  • Regular data breaches that used to only affect enterprise-level companies are now hitting small and medium-sized companies
  • Data protocols such as CCPA and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requiring more strict oversight of and access to users’ data for anyone doing business in these geographic regions
  • An understanding of data and its value is not understood across the organization
  • Overly convoluted IT systems and processes have made it difficult to assemble and control the flow of data from various sources
  • Reports are no longer timely and useful enough for competitive advantage
  • Since ownership of data has been restricted to IT and Finance, HR has not been empowered to use data to extract value from tracking the data it generates

Systems Evaluation (or tech curation as Poprouser like to call it) is added to HR Technology and coexists with Strategic HR. People Ops focuses on UX/UI design, depth of features, ease of reportability, integrations, customer service, and usefulness of analytics/insights as key determinants of HR technology selection.

Total Cost of Ownership, pitch, demo, AMA, and fit gap analysis are tools to communicate recommendations to project sponsors and other stakeholders. User acceptance, system up time, and feature utilization are key metrics to watch on an ongoing basis. HR tech implementation as a key skill area is important, but that is a topic for another post.

Employee Relations has been around for a while, but the attention is shifted from putting out fires and addressing grievances to treating employees as internal customers. This means that the way that employees are approached as you would customers. So Employee Relations evolves into Employee Experience. Examples of how employee relations works in People Ops vs HR are:

  • Employee issues are managed in “tickets” or “cases” in a centralized digital helpdesk
  • Availability and response times are communicated to employees similar to service level agreements
  • Common questions are answered in “FAQ” or wiki format and released to employees
  • Commonly requested forms are digitized and made available to employees, and prefilled whenever possible
  • Chatbot features are added for employees to conveniently reach out to their people operations team for on-off issues and questions, with preprogrammed responses and AI augmentation whenever possible
  • Staff-facing employee records begin to resemble CRM over time
  • Employee self-service is a key focus of the employee experience
  • Communication is clear and frequent, with the intent to nudge behaviors

Where Is DEI in People Ops?

Across the spectrum, when times got tough the first thing to go was the PR led, often exclusively performative diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. The diversity officers were among the first terminations when companies started staff reductions, and the viewpoint that HR should lead the DEI efforts and convince everyone else that it’s worth the investment led to failed and incomplete DEI projects led by some of the most overworked, powerless people in the company – low to mid level HR people.

It also led to agencies being brought in with “cookie-cutter” DEI approaches, which tend to dance around what the real problem is with lack of diversity, cultures of exclusion, and approaches to equity that lack nuance. The default scenario for HR-led or agency-led DEI is to bow to the sensibilities of the majority and negatively vocal minority, without comprehensively auditing a company’s own risks, vulnerabilities, and blind spots.

Another problem is that diversity and inclusion has been footnote in HR curriculums, not taught as a core set of skills with financial analysis, consultative approaches, and communication of insights as a basic foundation. Practitioners then feel it’s necessary to look beyond their degree programs for certifications and training that they believe will move them to functional capability in DEI. They are not taught to identify champions, blank slates, and detractors, forming strategies for each.

Therefore, goals are not clarified, vulnerable populations are not protected, and diversity is not seriously and directly addressed.

HR is generally afraid to address the “elephant in the room” in these DEI situations, and they lose the confidence of others. This leads to a reticence in trying DEI projects in the future, degraded customer & employee relations, and a hostile and unsafe work environment.

The most successful DEI initiatives are driven from the most permanent leaders of an organization. People Operations specialists understand this fact, and are empowered to engage these leaders directly to establish DEI systems, with their full support and leadership behind them. They won’t set themselves up for failure by going at it alone. In fact, people ops itself in the ideal form is a spider reaching across the organization, or a the foundation of the org itself.

The people ops view of DEI is that it is embedded in business operations across department, not “owned” by people ops.

Take Aways

In summary, People Ops is able to scale the People function (and often, the business itself) by automating processes, documenting repeatable steps, and using creative consultative approaches to gain buy-in. Operations are refocused on intentional company culture design, customer service for employees, and continuous improvement. You keep the four original principles close by when restructuring the org and building durable systems. When the limitations of HR as a business function are shed, a world of new options become available in People Operations.

In this featured post, I share some of my favorite resources I recommend for people to learn required People Ops skills.

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