The way businesses operate has changed drastically in the last three years. We’re now well into an era where organizations understand the importance of putting their people first; the so-called Great Resignation acts as a damning example of what can happen to those that don’t.

As organizations continue to focus on meeting the wants and needs of their employees in a bid to improve retention and well-being, the role of ‘People Operations’ is becoming increasingly important. But what exactly is People Operations, and how does it differ from traditional Human Resources (HR) functions?


What is People Operations?

People Operations (PO) refers to the function within an organization that focuses on managing and developing the people who work for the company. It is responsible for various aspects of employee lifecycle management, from recruitment and onboarding to training and development, performance management, compensation and benefits, employee engagement, and offboarding.

People Operations focuses on putting the employee first through the humanization of impersonal systems and continuous improvement of employee engagement, development, and retention. As such, its primary goal is to create an environment where employees can thrive, contribute their best work, and feel supported and valued by the organization.


What is the role of People Operations?

The key responsibilities of People Operations can vary between different organizations. Broadly speaking, however, they will take the lead in areas that involve employees, such as:

Recruitment and Selection: Managing the hiring process, including job postings, candidate screening, interviews, and offer negotiations.

Onboarding and Orientation: Facilitating the smooth integration of new employees into the organization, providing necessary information and resources, and ensuring a positive onboarding experience.

Training and Development: Identifying skill gaps, designing training programs, and facilitating learning opportunities to enhance employee knowledge and capabilities.

Performance Management: Implementing performance appraisal processes, setting performance goals, providing feedback, and coaching, and recognizing and rewarding achievements.

Compensation and Benefits: Administering compensation and benefits programs, conducting salary reviews, managing employee benefits packages, and ensuring compliance with applicable labor laws.

Other People Operations responsibilities might include:

  • Managing the employee journey
  • Developing a people strategy
  • Increasing employee value
  • Updating HR systems
  • Analyzing metrics
  • Helping to achieve organizational goals


HR vs People Operations: What’s the Difference?

There are some crossovers between the HR and PO functions, and it’s not uncommon to see the two terms being used interchangeably. While the distinction between the two can vary depending on the organization, there are some subtle differences in how these teams work and the approaches they take to their work.

Focus and Mindset

HR: Traditional HR departments often focus on administrative tasks, compliance with labor laws, and managing employee policies, internal relationships, and, sometimes, culture. HR’s primary concern is therefore centered around compliance and risk mitigation.

PO: People Operations, on the other hand, takes a more strategic and employee-centric approach. Its focus is on creating positive employee experiences, fostering a positive culture, and driving engagement, productivity, and growth by making an organization’s people its biggest champions.

Function and Scope

HR: The scope of traditional HR departments is typically quite narrow and focuses primarily on administrative tasks like employee records, payroll, and benefits administration. HR will also usually handle employee relations and policy development.

PO: People Operations has a broader scope and is concerned with all aspects of the employee lifecycle, from attracting and recruiting the best talent to performance management, upskilling, and offboarding.


HR: HR is a broad term that covers various administrative functions related to managing employees. Recruitment, payroll, compliance, and more can all come under the HR umbrella.

PO: People Operations is a fairly new term that emerged to encourage a more holistic and person-centered approach to managing people within organizations. It reflects a shift towards viewing employees as valuable assets and resources rather than just numbers to be managed.

Although there are some distinctions between the two, the above is not universally applicable. The specific roles and responsibilities of HR vs PO can vary across organizations, with some choosing to use People Operations to signify a more modern and people-centric approach, whereas others might continue to use “HR” with a similarly people-centric focus.


Building an Effective People Operations Team

A People Operations team is what you make of it. Depending on the size of your business and its objectives, it could consist of one person or an entire team responsible for managing the complete employee lifecycle.

1. Get the Basics Right

Before diving into putting together a PO function, you need to ensure that your existing HR function is optimized and working well. After all, PO doesn’t replace the need for an HR team, which will still be responsible for handling fundamental HR processes even when the PO team is up and running. For example, you should ensure that:

  • Roles are being filled by the right candidates
  • Promotion processes are unbiased and work well
  • Employee concerns are addressed promptly
  • Absences and leave are managed in a timely manner

Only when you have the basics down can you use them as a foundation to build a more comprehensive people operations strategy that goes beyond the black and white.

2. Develop a People Operations Strategy

Your PO strategy needs to align with your overall organizational goals in order to deliver results such as more equitable hiring practices and empowered, upskilled employees. Collaborate with existing teams to implement strategies that will help the PO team carry out its function. For instance, you might involve IT in proposing investments to ensure that employees can continue working remotely rather than returning to the office—something which a new PO team would be tasked with managing.

3. Include the Right Roles

Unless your PO team consists of one or two people, you’ll need to ensure you recruit the right roles and have some sort of hierarchy within it. A typical PO team, for example, might consist of a PO Manager, PO Coordinator, and PO Specialists and Analysts. In larger organizations, the PO team may be represented at an executive level by a Chief People Officer or a VP of People Operations.

4. Ensure Diversity

A People Operations team doesn’t need to be made up entirely of people from a traditional HR background. Indeed, the opposite is often better because people who thrive in PO roles tend to be analytical problem solvers who come from areas like sales, engineering, legal, and so on. At the same time, HR experience doesn’t hurt, so mix it up.

5. Streamline and Optimize Your HR Processes

People Operations must be able to make data-driven decisions in order to deliver an exceptional employee experience. This means replacing outdated legacy HR systems with newer technology that produces that all-important data, such as people analytics systems. Streamlining and optimizing HR with modern solutions will make it easier for PO to understand and act on employee needs.


All Leaders Should Care About People Operations

People Operations, as we’ve explored in this article, is a multi-faceted organizational function that can have a big impact on your employees and their experiences.

As time goes by, more and more organizations are beginning to understand this, with Google’s head of People Analytics within its People Operations team, Prasad Setty, saying in the past that the “same level of rigor” should be brought to people decisions as is applied to engineering decisions—speaking of course in the context of Google.

By implementing People Operations and giving it the autonomy to optimize employee development, organizations can benefit hugely from driven and engaged employees who are motivated to help achieve core business goals and objectives.