Are People Operations and HR the Same?

Learn all about what goes into a People Operations role — including focuses, priorities, and differences from HR.

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If you’re confused about whether People Operations and Human Resources are the same, you’re not alone. The focus of People Ops is delving into talent management and creating pathways for improvement. Just as benefits administration specializes in negotiating contracts, managing coverage, and assuring accurate enrollment, People Operations is a specialized category. The People Operations role is to make sure human capital has all the tools necessary to execute their work and to do so in a way that’s productive, rewarding, and drives retention. Their role may work with and within the HR function or independently.

The title Operations Manager calls to mind a supervisor overseeing every aspect of manufacturing: from materials and supplies in, equipment and tools to create, staff to build and assemble, and packaging and shipping to get products to market. This role makes sure that for every step along the process, materials, resources, and talent with extensive training are available — at hand and in prime condition to complete the job.

People Operations leverages that mindset for every staffer in the company, whether they’re creating a physical product or an intellectual one, and whether they’re assembling a widget or supporting those who do. The same approaches and processes that assure smooth operations on the factory floor work across the entire organization when People Operations are at work.

What does People Operations affect?

From recruitment to retirement, People Ops team members are looking at how to create a workforce that’s more successful for themselves and the organization, and productive in the workplace.

From recruitment to retirement, People Ops team members are looking at how to create a workforce that’s more successful for themselves and the organization, and productive in the workplace.

HR must be process-oriented — such as working within regulatory guidelines, and structuring workdays to assure employees have adequate time off. People Ops, on the other hand, are results-oriented. These teams build processes around the needs of workers, not around the requirements of outside forces. They look at the desired outcome, then often work backward from there to determine how to give employees (and job seekers):

  • The tools they need to get there
  • The type of worker best suited to perform and thrive in the role, and
  • Ways they can support the day-to-day execution.

They leverage training and development resources to help staffers grow on the job and in the organization. From recruitment to retirement, People Operations has a hand in engagement, optimization, and retention.

Proactive versus reactive

For Human Resource professionals, goals can be to resolve problems globally and at the ground level. When HR spots tools that can help the organization overall (like better or new benefits) they work toward that goal. When employees have an issue they come to HR for help. HR may spot trends, like high churn or low productivity, then work with the management team to resolve them. In some cases, if they have the resource, they can turn problems over to their People Ops team for more in-depth solutions.

People Operations can be more proactive: they’re addressing issues, certainly, but they’re looking to improve processes even where there are no problems. They approach situations and decisions thinking about team members and what they want and need. They then work with them and their managers to build processes that drive the desired outcome.

Results-focused

These teams value results. Their focus is on strategic leadership of management and people to deliver the goods. Optimized teams have all the resources they need at their fingertips: high productivity is the result. Groups that aren’t working optimally need attention. People Operations looks for what is lacking: are there tools the team isn’t leveraging, or leveraging correctly? Is training warranted? Is employee dissatisfaction driving down effectiveness? People Operations has the time and resources to delve deep into problem areas to find solutions. They also look at high performing teams to discover what’s working for them, and how it can be brought to scale.

People Operations looks for what is lacking: are there tools the team isn’t leveraging, or leveraging correctly?

Resource-oriented

People Operations teams use a wealth of resources to uncover what needs attention. They leverage data provided by HR and spot trends like churn. They uncover areas where employee stagnation seems to be the norm. In departments where staffers stay in the same position for too long, training and development might do more than promote them up the ladder (making way for career progressions for those below), it may increase employee satisfaction and work/life balance. These are areas HR would love to address, if they had the time: for People Ops, these are job one.

They leverage survey data to uncover where employees are satisfied, and where they aren’t. People Ops also looks at what employees want from their company, team leader, and individual role. If your main objectives are retention and employee engagement, surveys are invaluable. They provide keen insight into what the company is doing right and where they should be changing course. People Operations seeks actionable data and creates solutions.

Tools-oriented

With emerging tools, like AI and data mining software, it can be difficult to know if there’s a tool for your application or if you can create an application with the newest tool. This can be where People Operations excels: they’re on the lookout for what’s new and how it can be used. They’re also on the lookout for new applications of existing resources. People Ops watches for trends in tech and tries to uncover how to make it work for their organization.

Reimagining existing resources is another priority for People Ops. From the smallest, most routine task to the most complex, they work with teams and managers to come up with ways to do things more efficiently, effectively, and in a more engaging manner. It may mean contracting out mediocre tasks so staff members have time to perform more rewarding, high-value duties. It may mean rethinking how processes are currently being executed and looking for ways to streamline or add autonomy.

People Ops may have a hand in finding staff members more time to work on projects that engage, develop, or challenge them. Their role is solution-oriented but they don’t have to wait for issues to arise. They:

  • Mine data
  • Follow survey indications, and
  • Look for bottlenecks and trends to propose solutions, often before a problem pops up

On a basic level, consider how much of the HR function itself has been streamlined recently, from screening software to chat-bot first interviews to self-scheduling apps. For the HR professional, eliminating these time consuming, low value duties has meant more time to work with talent. Looking for those types of rote-task reducers for every group — not just HR — is high on the list for People Ops.

Optimizing talent

The role People Operations has assumed is of strategic focus: optimizing talent for their individual good and the good of the organization. In the same way a manufacturing Operations Manager assures machinery, supplies, and product are at the top of their game, People Operations assures talent is at the top of their game. They understand talent is the most valuable asset a company holds: their job is to assure talent is engaged, optimized, and always moving forward.

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