Employee Engagement

People Operations For Beginners: How To Modernize Your HR Practices

By
Rebecca Noori

When Laszlo Bock joined Google in 2006, he was disappointed to receive the title "Vice President of People Operations" after being recruited as the "Vice President of Human Resources." In his book, “Work Rules!,” Bock describes his concern about finding another job if this "oddball" role at a "cute little company" didn't work out. 

But Google doesn't do conventional business language, and the company views traditional HR departments as administrative and bureaucratic. After some convincing to embrace the title, Bock got to work and developed a winning People Operations team and philosophy many companies have since tried to emulate. 

In this beginner's guide, we'll introduce how People Operations works, why it's different from traditional HR practices, the structure of a People Ops team, and best practices for your organization. We're confident that, like Laszlo Bock, you'll be a people management convert by the end of our guide.

What Is People Operations?

People Operations is a holistic reinvention of traditional HR practices. Also known as People Ops or POPS, this is a human-centric approach to managing and supporting the people who work for your organization. 

People Operations moves away from the rigid rules and compliance responsibilities in HR’s past, where companies viewed employees merely as resources to get the work done. Instead, modern People Ops focuses on developing processes that ensure your employees want to work and succeed with your organization rather than for it. 

The shift to People Ops is vital for: 

Inclusivity

People who feel included are 3x more likely to feel excited by and commit to organization missions, according to McKinsey. 

Employee Retention

50.5 million US workers quit their jobs in 2022, beating the previous record in 2021. People Ops promotes exceptional employer branding by creating streamlined onboarding sequences which ensure joiners quickly merge with their new team and the company culture. 

Employee Development

83% of organizations want to build a more people-centric culture, and 81% of L&D teams support this goal. People Ops can attract and retain talent with rich career growth opportunities that unlock each employee's full potential. 

Productivity

77% of employees have experienced burnout, according to Deloitte. Burnout can result in low productivity and high rates of disengagement and absenteeism. People Ops is vital for managing work-life balance and addressing organizational workload capacities. 

Hybrid And Remote Work

62% of employees follow a hybrid working model, with 16% working remotely. This dramatic shift requires People Ops to devise new ways to support all employees, regardless of location.

People operations often requires collaboration; three employees at a desk working together

What Does People Operations Include?

People Operations is a strategic business function that manages every aspect of the employee experience in alignment with organizational goals. 

Members of People Ops teams:

 

Support The Employee Journey

People Ops teams manage employee experience in a similar way that sales and customer success teams manage customer experience. They map out the entire employee lifecycle from talent acquisition, onboarding, and career development to performance reviews, promotions, offboarding, and everything in between. From here, they'll develop processes to support employees throughout every aspect of their journey.

Prioritize Employee Engagement And Recognition

Celebrating milestones and recognizing contributions is an essential part of People Operations. This correlates with our Nectar employee recognition survey results, which found: 

  • 77.9% of employees would be more productive if they were recognized more frequently.
  • 81.9% of employees agree that recognition for their contributions improves their engagement.
  • 83.6% of employees say that recognition impacts their motivation to succeed at work.

POPS teams use engagement activities like team-building, virtual events, and reward & recognition programs to foster a culture of appreciation and support teams in producing their best work.

Create a culture people won't want to leave with Nectar

Create A Strong Company Culture

93.5% of employees told us they would stay at a company for five years or more if the culture was great and their employer paid them fairly. Creating a culture where employees can thrive requires organizations to reflect on their values and how they implement these in the workplace. 

People Ops teams should create a culture of trust between employees and management by setting clear expectations and offering flexibility. They must also build a diverse and inclusive environment by actively recruiting employees from underrepresented backgrounds to ensure better representation in their workforce. 

Company Example: Databox has created a people-first culture, which is as crucial to the company as building a product its customers love. This puts it at a sustainable advantage when attracting and retaining top talent. At Databox, people are motivated to work, reach their full potential and innovate on a world-class level.

Connect Employees To Organizational Goals

Traditional HR fails to align people with organizational goals. Kevin Marasco explains in a Zenefits Q&A:

“People have never been more closely linked to the success of a business, any company's greatest asset expense, and source of competitive advantage. Yet at the same time, the function that oversees workforce practices is traditionally one of the least operational. When you think about being integrated into business strategy, outcome-oriented, data-driven, and tech-forward, in many cases, the HR scene is very reactionary and, at worst, seen as a necessary evil or overhead or hassle.”

Modern People Operations teams ensure that talent management is designed with organizational goals in mind to: 

  • Recruit the right talent
  • Build and nurture a culture of high performance
  • Ensure all employees work to achieve overall company objectives 

Through regular 1:1 check-ins and performance management, employees must always feel connected to the bigger picture and understand the purpose of their role in achieving company objectives.

Support Change Management

With the ever-evolving nature of businesses, People Ops is responsible for handling change such as: 

  • Business direction changes 
  • Mergers and acquisitions 
  • New business managers 
  • Updated training requirements 
  • Layoffs and restructuring
  • Company policies and procedure changes 
  • Modifications to compensation, health insurance, or employee benefits packages 

By understanding the root causes of change, People Ops teams can develop employee initiatives to ensure everyone feels safe, prepared, and supported throughout any transition.

People operations helps support change management; two employees shaking hands after a presentation

Design A People Tech Stack

HR teams are moving away from manual data entry and reporting. Now, hard data empowers People Operations departments to plan, predict, and measure the success of their initiatives through automation and artificial intelligence. People Ops teams will often introduce a blend of contemporary HR software to collect and analyze key metrics such as: 

  • Employee engagement 
  • Employee satisfaction 
  • Employee turnover rates
  • Candidate experience 
  • Time to hire 
  • Quality of hire 
  • Attendance data 
  • Performance scores 

It may not make sense for People Ops to track all of this data but rather to focus on the numbers that matter most to their specific goals and initiatives.

Example: If you want to improve employee retention rates, focus on employee engagement and satisfaction scores and how they relate to turnover. Low engagement scores may predict upcoming resignations, so you can start planning your recruitment initiatives or take steps to improve sentiment on the team.

Course-Correct To Meet People Ops Goals

Expect to stay on your toes and constantly monitor your People Operations processes and their impact. As your business grows, changes direction, or sets new goals, you can evaluate the purpose and success of your People Operations initiatives. With an agile approach, you can shape your strategies on-the-fly to meet these new objectives and ensure your team is working towards the same goals.

People Operations Vs. HR: What’s The Difference?

People Operations and Human Resources are two terms that many understandably use interchangeably—after all, they both focus on the management of employees in your organization. But there are some clear differences between the methods and approaches that each team style focuses on. 

Gaby Israel Grinberg from Proofpoint Marketing offers her opinion:

“I oversee People Experience, which is what others might traditionally call HR. But I personally hate the terminology, HR; I hate Human Resources; I think it sounds very archaic and very 1950s. I don't like the terminology, so we call it People Experience. That includes hiring, onboarding, recruiting, the lifecycle of somebody's journey at Proofpoint as well as offboarding, what they experience when they leave the company, and everything in-between.” 

The transition from traditional HR to modern People Operations (or People Experience in Proofpoint’s case) can be gradual and vary across organizations. The table below provides a general overview of the key differences between the two approaches:

Traditional HR Modern People Operations
Focus Administrative and compliance-driven Strategic employee-centric business function
Organizational Role Support or back office function Integral part of business strategy with a seat at the executive table
Employee Experience Transactional, such as payroll, compensation decisions, or tracking attendance Holistic with personalized career plans, benefits packages, and 1:1 support
HR Functions Siloed departments using manual processes, outdated HR systems, and legacy solutions for recruitment, training, and compensation Integrated approach with cross-functional teams and automated workflows across a custom-built people tech stack
Data-Driven Decision Making Manual collection of limited data sets and painstaking analysis of reports Relies on auto-generated data and analytics for informed decision-making
Performance Management Annual top-down performance reviews between a manager and a direct report 360-degree cycles incorporating peer reviews, self-appraisals, and manager performance coaching
Talent Acquisition Reactive, focused on back-filling open roles Proactive and culture-focused
Employee Engagement Occasional events and programs Continuous feedback, daily employee recognition programs, and growth opportunities
Organizational Design Hierarchical and rigid Agile and adaptable
Leadership Style Top-down management Empowers employees to voice opinions, provide feedback and engage in roundtable discussions
Communication Formal and hierarchical Transparent and open

Take our Traditional HR Vs. Modern People Operations table on the go by clicking here to download a PDF version.

What Skills Do People Ops Teams Need?

People Ops teams need a strong blend of skills to interact with people, manage data, and drive efficiency. Here are some key skills to add to your People Team toolbox: 

  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ): The ability to be aware of and manage your own emotions as well as those around you.
  • Interpersonal Skills: Excellent communication skills, understanding of the psychology of people, and the ability to develop rapport and strong relationships.
  • Data Analysis: Understanding data sets, interpreting trends, and drawing insights from employee surveys, performance reviews, and other reports.
  • Communication: Communicating effectively with different levels of the organization, from front-line employees to the C-suite.
  • Project Management: Juggling multiple projects simultaneously while staying organized and on track.
  • Problem-solving: Finding creative solutions to complex employee issues, including mediating disputes and other difficult conversations.

How To Structure Your People Operations Team

The makeup of your People team will vary depending on headcount and the roles within it, which may include: 

Director Of People Operations

As the Head of People Operations, your Director will oversee, lead, and coach the People Ops team. They must understand the company's needs, culture, and mission in-depth, working closely with business leaders to design strategies that support the entire employee lifecycle. 

People Operations Manager

The People Operations Manager runs the day-to-day operations, such as performance management, onboarding/offboarding, employee engagement, and retention. They work closely with everyone in People Operations, ensuring productivity across the team and feeding out into the organization. 

People Operations Specialist

A POPS Specialist ensures that all employees understand their roles and the competencies required to succeed. They work closely with new joiners during onboarding and may also support talent acquisition teams with recruitment. 

People Data Analyst

A People Data Analyst collects, interprets, and communicates people data to support the organization's strategic decision-making. They review data to identify potential improvement areas and work with the rest of the People team to develop action plans. 

People Operations Coordinator

A People Ops Coordinator assists with day-to-day operations and administrative tasks. They ensure all People Ops processes are followed correctly and that all data points are accurate. They may also coordinate events and assist with other people projects as needed.

Structuring your people operations team the right way is important; two employees working together and writing on a whiteboard

7 Tips For Acing The People Operations Role

Ready to embrace People Ops? Here are seven best practices, with guidance from industry experts, to ensure you ace the transition to modern people management.

1. Lean Into Data

Meaningful data is your ticket to People Ops success. Gathering employee statistics and insights gives you real-time visibility into how things work within your organization and where you should focus your initiatives. 

Career Expert Aleksandar Ginovski unpacks why data is so integral to the people function at Enhancv. He told us:

“The success of policies and procedures can be evaluated, and opportunities for development can be pinpointed with data analytics and metrics, which are used extensively in people operations. By using this data-driven method, you'll gain a deeper comprehension of trouble spots and be able to implement more targeted safeguards.”

But not all data is created equal; Laszlo Bock describes in “Work Rules!” why it’s critical to get granular with your data to uncover the real truths. 

“Step one is agreeing on a common set of definitions for all people data. Only then can you accurately describe what the company looks like. Analysis and insight are about slicing the data ever more finely to identify differences. For example, analysis would show that employee retention decreases with tenure. That’s interesting, but not revelatory. Of course more people leave over time. The insight comes when you start comparing very similar groups to tease out what might encourage retention in one and not another.”

Make your data work for you. Keep digging until you find meaning in the numbers and can use the data to tell stories to your stakeholders, which drives decision-making.

2. Keep Employee Engagement At The Heart Of People Ops

Remember to use data to keep your employees engaged, predict the future, and intervene at the right time. Laszlo Bock continues:

“Someone who is not promoted after sixteen quarters is all but guaranteed to quit. Armed with this insight, you can start predicting the future. We know that when the timing of someone’s promotion lags behind his peers, he’s more likely to quit. And not just that, a more sophisticated analysis might reveal how much more likely he is to quit, and that the greatest increase in risk is after seven or eight quarters. So now you can act.” 

Jefferson McCall, Co-Founder and HR Head of TechBullish, agrees with the importance of people leaders creating an incredible employee experience to build a positive work culture with high engagement. He told us:

“Employee engagement should be a top priority since it drives motivation, job satisfaction, and can substantially reduce turnover rates. By prioritizing technology and employee engagement, leaders can succeed in the people operations role and differentiate from traditional HR practices.”

Nectar Tip: If you’re struggling with a disengaged team, check out our eight strategies to inject energy back into your key players.

Employee engagement is essential to people operations: three happy employees sitting on a couch and looking over paperwork

3. Understand Company Culture

A winning people strategy goes hand-in-hand with a thriving culture. The two must complement each other, and strong leaders will use every opportunity to reinforce the culture they wish to build. Darren Shafae, Founder of ResumeBlaze, shared his top tip with us:

“Take the time to really get to know your organization, its culture, and its needs so you can develop a people strategy that supports and aligns with the goals of the business. This strategy entails understanding the drivers of employee engagement and performance, implementing the right programs for recruiting and retaining talent, managing employee relations, and deploying data-driven decisions to ensure the organization is achieving its business objectives. Prepare to pivot quickly as the environment changes and take a more consultative role in helping to shape organizational culture, which you can only do if the first step is taken to truly understand the organization you are working with.”

If you’re struggling to get a handle on what company culture means to you, it typically comprises: 

  • Employee behaviors
  • Leadership styles 
  • Company values 
  • Employee expectations 
  • Employer brand


4. Prioritize Employee Growth And Development

Employees want to work for companies that offer enticing career growth opportunities. Previously, HR has shied away from developing employees to their full potential, fearing that training investment could result in employees taking their qualifications to another company. But People Ops see the value in upskilling and reskilling their workforce to bridge skills gaps and enable internal mobility. 

We spoke to Divvya Desai, Group HR lead for Naman HR, who explained how People Operations is a form of Strategic HR designed to promote a culture of continuous learning and professional growth.

“Traditional HR used to focus on recruiting the right talent, but strategic HR aims to attract and retain highly engaged individuals through long-term career development plans, frequent job rotations, role changes, and building a robust talent pipeline to foster progression for future positions.
Traditional HR expects employees to progress solely through on-the-job experience under a manager's guidance; however, Strategic HR provides proactive training to develop the desired skills necessary for specific positions, going beyond a mere assessment of existing skill sets and ensuring that employees have a clear understanding of the job requirements, alignment with organizational goals, and expectations.”

5. Build Employee Trust By Delivering On Promises

Trust is essential in a productive workplace, as proven by a Harvard Business Review article on “The Neuroscience of Trust,” where neuroscientist Paul J. Zak identified eight key management behaviors that stimulate oxytocin production to elevate levels of trust. 

This is important because people working for high-trust organizations: 

  • Enjoy their jobs 60% more.
  • Feel 70% more aligned with their company's purposes.
  • Are 66% closer to their colleagues.

Tim Toterhi, CHRO at Plotline Leadership, feels passionate that delivering on promises is critical for developing trust in People Ops:

“Success in HR comes from managing a series of cyclical events and one-off initiatives, both of which can benefit from the strategic view and tactical discipline of a well-trained project manager. Want to ace the role? Keep your promises by delivering every item on time, on budget, and at or above quality standards.”

6. Become A Strategic Business Partner

When People Ops becomes a strategic business partner, this accelerates an organization's progress toward its key goals. Amie Devero, President of Beyond Better Strategy and Coaching, explains:

“For decades, People Ops has been tasked with administrative work, taking orders from leadership teams about adding or reducing headcount or providing training to fill gaps or meet compliance standards. Much of that can be automated or outsourced today. As for headcount or training, when People Ops is truly strategic, those requests can be predicted and anticipated.”

Double down on strategy by: 

  • Anticipating business needs and proactively offering solutions.
  • Thinking ahead to future trends and how those might affect the organization.
  • Being an advocate for employee well-being and development.
  • Incorporating data into decision-making.
  • Defining measurable goals and improving those continuously.
  • Becoming a driver of change.

People operations works best when you become a strategic business partner; Two employees working in a room one standing by a whiteboard and the other sitting in front of a laptop

7. Dare To Innovate

People Operations should never be static; this key function is about embracing evolution and adapting quickly to keep up with changing trends. In "Work Rules!," Laszlo Bock details how Google isn't shy about exploring new avenues to prioritize its people and their needs. 

“Be open to crazy ideas. Find some way to say yes. The ultimate source of innovation for us is Googlers across the company. Googlegeist generates hundreds of thousands of comments and ideas, and Googlers are not shy about telling us what they think throughout the year. Vital programs such as equalizing benefits for domestic partners, our childcare centers, and our meditation courses all started with Googlers.” 

Follow Google’s lead by taking regular pulse surveys to understand what your people want and need. Then act on the information. If you’re a larger company, Bock recommends experimenting: 

"One of the virtues of size is that it creates more opportunities for playing around with the information gathered. With about fifty thousand employees, we can carve out a pocket of two hundred or even two thousand people to test ideas."

Win At People Ops With The Help Of Nectar

People Operations isn't a destination; it's a continuous journey. With a great culture, engaged employees, and the right technology, you'll get closer to achieving your goals every day. 

Nectar offers a suite of tools to support your people. Our Recognition software promotes a positive company culture by encouraging your employees to live your organizational values and share daily praise with peers. Incentivize recognition by turning Nectar points into Rewards, engaging your workers with a selection of Amazon products, gift cards, branded swag, charity donations, or custom rewards. 

If your teams need motivation or support with bonding, bring them together with our Challenge feature to drive healthy behaviors and positive outcomes. Or use Milestones to remember important dates like birthdays or work anniversaries. 

Ready to engage your employees and ensure your People Ops function is a roaring success? Take a demo of Nectar today.

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