Why Did Google Invent the Term “People Operations” — and Did It Work?

“People operations” teams ensure employees are happy, satisfied, and having an optimal employee experience. Learn where the term and concept originated.

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Why Did Google Invent the Term People Operations

Have you been noticing job descriptions with the term “people ops” where traditional human resources jobs used to be? If so, you’re on to something.

People operations has been blowing up in recent years — and it’s much more than a new word for HR. People operations (otherwise known as people ops or POPS for short) takes a people-first approach to business. Rather than looking at your employees as numbers on a spreadsheet or cogs in a compliance wheel, people ops sees employees as your customers.

It might sound like a small thing, but that mindset shift is actually pretty major — consequential, even.

It’s the job of a people ops team to ensure that employees are happy, satisfied, and having the best employee experience they can. When you compare that to traditional HR roles that focus more on compliance and productivity, you can see that there’s a major difference. One of the main ways that people ops accomplishes this is by harnessing the power of technology to automate administrative work. This way people ops pros can focus on people instead of processes.

But where did this new idea come from? And has it produced the results that its creators thought it would? Let’s find out.

Rather than looking at your employees as numbers on a spreadsheet or cogs in a compliance wheel, people ops sees employees as your customers.

Where did the term “people operations” come from?

The concept of people ops began at Google in the early 2000s. Laszlo Bock was a human resources leader for the company who, after noticing how many women were leaving the company after giving birth, decided to investigate.

As Slate explains, “like a majority of Silicon Valley software firms, Google is staffed mostly by men, and executives have long made it a priority to increase the number of female employees. But the fact that women were leaving Google wasn’t just a gender equity problem — it was affecting the company’s bottom line.”

Because the company competes for talent, the problem was a costly one that Bock wanted to solve. In 2007, he changed how maternity leave worked at the company with the hope of giving Google’s female employees what they need to stay after giving birth. New moms got 5 months of leave with full pay and benefits that they could split up and use however they’d like.

This is how people ops began.

Why did Google invent “people operations”?

While people ops technically began when Bock went to solve an attrition problem, what we now know as people ops really grew out of the mindset shift that followed.

This early innovation led to a shift in how Google approached traditional HR. Rather than simply focusing on compliance and processes, the company began to look at the impact that the employees had on the company as people. In this instance, the way that new mothers experienced the company left enough to be desired that women were quitting because of it.

Taking a people-first approach to what these new moms needed in order to continue happily working at the company was what solved Google’s new mom attrition problem and a new mindset was born. Bock’s people-first approach was so successful that he ultimately created a “new” sector in the company that they eventually dubbed people ops.

Today companies across the country are following suit.

Did Google’s plan work? The state of people ops today

When it comes to HR, automating as much of the process-based work as possible leaves professionals with more time to do what they do best: work with people.

If you browse job descriptions in the HR field today, you will almost certainly come across a handful that have “people operations” in the title somewhere.

That’s because, ever since Google pioneered people-focused HR thinking in the early 2000’s, a shift towards a people-focused approach has been infiltrating human resources.

Google is far from the only company with a dedicated people ops team. HubSpot, Asana, Slack, Zoom, Box, Apple, Pinterest, and more are just a few companies that are currently hiring for people ops positions. Considering the number of companies that have followed suit alone, it seems like Google’s approach has certainly worked.

Plus, the tech- and data-driven approach that people ops tends to take is also well-suited for the modern workforce. We’re moving away from an IT-driven economy towards a people-driven economy. While there’s certainly still a need for valuable technology, the key is using it to our advantage. When it comes to HR, automating as much of the process-based work as possible leaves professionals with more time to do what they do best: work with people.

With that extra time, companies now focus on creating the best employee experiences they can. As the Google example shows, when you consider the needs of those who work for you — not just their employee needs, but their personal needs — it pays off.

People ops is all about making sure that businesses take the people-first approach that will likely save them countless dollars in hiring and training costs. Because happy employees stay where they are. And when employees’ personal needs aren’t trampled in favor of work, they’re happy.

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