People operations — or “people ops” — is all about putting employees first. Done right, it not only creates happy, productive employees; it also helps your organization reach its goals more effectively and efficiently. In this article, we’ll break down what people operations is, how it differs from human resources (HR) and how to build a successful people ops program.

What is people operations?

Simply put, “people operations” refers to the business function that supports employee engagement and productivity. People ops improves — and humanizes — business operations and works to create a positive employee experience.

The term “people operations” was first coined by HR executive Laszlo Bock, who describes what it means in his book Work Rules! — to have a team working “behind the scenes to fill every job, create learning opportunities” and also to help employees “be more productive, healthier and happier.”

How is people ops different from HR?

It’s easy to confuse HR and people ops since many roles and responsibilities overlap. In Work Rules! Bock writes, “Since we created the People Operations name, it’s become a popular name for HR departments.… I recently met the head of People Operations for another technology company. I asked him what made them use that name. He told me, ‘Oh, it’s just regular HR. We just like calling it that.’ A part of my heart died in that moment.” 

That’s because for Bock, people ops isn’t just about implementing HR policies — it’s about creating a workplace that’s energizing and exciting. He adds, “Of course, people can use whatever names they want. But they’re missing an opportunity to build something different, something perhaps better.”

In an interview with Forbes, Evelin Andrespok, former People Operations Manager at Toggl, echoes this sentiment. She says, “The primary difference between People Ops and HR is not so much in the daily tasks, but in the approach to members of a team. People Ops aims to understand employees holistically as individual contributors while the traditional HR mindset views them more as a resource to be calculated and managed for efficiency.”

Let’s explore what it takes to create a successful people ops program that goes beyond the traditional HR mindset.

How can I build an effective people ops function at my company?

Start with a strong foundation of HR best practices

According to Bock, “We must deliver the basics, flawlessly, every time. No errors in offer letters or bonuses, every job filled on time with a great candidate, smooth and fair promotion processes, speedy resolution of employee concerns, and so on. This level of consistent, high quality in all our operations was how we would earn the right to do more.” 

Once your company covers the basics, you can build a broader, more holistic people ops program.

Develop a people ops strategy that aligns with organizational goals

The people operations team understands how company culture, employee engagement, training and development, recruitment practices and other “people processes” impact the bottom line and will proactively develop a strategy to support the business. 

For instance, this could mean collaborating with your diversity and inclusion team to implement more equitable hiring and promotion practices or working with IT to plan for technology investments that bolster security and provide a good remote work experience.

Create a positive employee experience

Research shows that investing in employee engagement results in better business outcomes, including lower turnover and higher profitability, productivity and customer loyalty. 

People ops leads the way by creating a positive employee experience, which covers a wide range of activities. For example, the team might ask questions like:

  • Did our new hires have a seamless interview and onboarding experience? 
  • Do employees feel a sense of belonging at work? 
  • Do teams have the technology and tools required to be productive?
  • Are there ample opportunities for learning and career development?
  • How are we supporting employee health and well-being? 
  • Are benefits and perks meeting employee needs? 

Bock says, “Behind the scenes, People Operations aspires to have thought through the experience meticulously, clearing away all the stones in your path so there’s nothing to trip you up.”

Make data-driven decisions

To create a great employee experience, people ops relies heavily on data and analytics. For many companies, this means modernizing and streamlining HR systems and processes, like your ATS.

In addition to tracking standard HR metrics, people ops also works with analysts in other departments and continuously collects feedback to understand how employee experience manifests across the entire organization. As you work cross-functionally and leverage data findings, it will become easier to anticipate employee and business needs and incorporate these insights into your people ops strategy.

Recruit a diverse team

The way your people ops team is organized will vary depending on your company’s size and structure, but typically team members don’t all come from traditional HR backgrounds.

Skills like emotional intelligence, analytical thinking, problem solving and conscientiousness are important for success. 

When reflecting on building his team, Bock shares, “Before joining People Operations, some were engineers, some salespeople, some came from finance and some from public relations or our legal department. Some even worked in human resources!”

At the heart of any thriving company is its people. Whatever you choose to call it, ultimately, investing in a strong people ops function that goes beyond traditional HR policies and practices is likely to help you bolster employee engagement and boost business success.