People Operations: A Guide to the New HR Term You Should Know

December 4, 2023
People Operations: A Guide to the New HR Term You Should Know

Is your company one of a growing number putting people first in all their business operations? This trend and its traction have led to coining of the term people operations, also known as "people ops," or "POPs." Essentially it's a spin on facets of human resources. But there’s a lot more to it.

In the landscape of human resources management, people operations emerges as a revolutionary approach, redefining traditional HR practices. This concept prioritizes the employee experience, intertwining individual success with the overarching success of the organization. As businesses navigate the complexities of the modern workforce, people ops stands out as a strategic, people-centric paradigm. Let’s explore what exactly "people ops" means and how you can best leverage your greatest asset: your talent.

In this guide, we'll take a deep dive into the world of people ops, covering:

  • What is people operations?
  • How people operations practically functions
  • What does a people operations manager do?
  • The people operations employee life cycle
  • How to effectively transition from traditional HR to people operations

What is people operations?

People ops includes every element of a business that encourages employees to be more successful and productive at work. While it lives under the HR umbrella, it’s a full-time job in itself when done right.

The people ops approach creates an employee experience that humanizes previously mechanical employee systems. A people ops model within the HR function focuses on the employees. It educates them about how their role directly impacts the company’s goals and key priorities. It positions employee performance as a result of how well they've been set up to do their job. Ultimately, it demonstrates each team member’s critical role in business functions and making the company successful.

When you treat workers as the core of your business, they tend to be happier. Happy workers are more productive, stay at the company longer and drive business profits.

The beginning of people operations: a Google story

The term people operations was coined by Laszlo Bock, former senior vice president of Google’s own People Operations department. In his book "Work Rules!" Bock discusses why he renamed the tech giant’s Human Resources department People Operations, shifting what had been considered a strictly “administrative and bureaucratic” department into one with “some actual ability to get things done.”

It all started when Bock noticed how many women were leaving Google after giving birth. He decided to investigate the problem further.

Like most Silicon Valley software firms, Google was mostly staffed by men. Executives have long made it a priority to increase the number of female employees. An exodus of women from Google wasn’t just a gender-related 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. He was hoping to give Google’s female employees what they need to stay after giving birth. New moms got five months of leave with full pay and benefits that they could split up and use however they’d like.

While people operations technically began with Bock's attempt to solve an attrition problem, what we now know as people operations emerged from the mindset shift that followed. Bock's 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 employees' impact on the company as people. Bock’s people-first approach was so successful that he ultimately created a “new” sector in the company. They eventually dubbed it people ops.

How people operations practically functions

A people operations team accepts key responsibilities that enhance the role of traditional HR. Functional tasks for a people operations specialist or team include:

  • Leveraging HR data to uncover employee patterns and trends; making adjustments and strategic plans.
  • Utilizing employee experience tools to gauge staff satisfaction and needs.
  • Empowering individual staff members, managers and teams through group and individual development. Actively seeking resources to enhance employee experience, performance management and empowerment.
  • Spotting problem operational areas and looking for solutions, either through resources or training.
  • Creating and administering incentive structures within groups and the organization.
  • Focusing on results-oriented employee experience and retention strategies.

What does a people operations manager do?

What exactly a people operations manager (or director of people operations) does can vary from company to company. There are some key responsibilities that this job description often shares. Most likely, the people operations manager will automate highly manual processes such as hiring, payroll and HR records. Elements of existing HR will have to stay, but a lot can be upgraded.

The manager will shift how the company views employees to see them as internal customers. Increasing employee satisfaction is key. This will mean supporting employees daily in various ways, including personalized benefits, remote work options, better work-life balance and other small joys. A people operations manager will also track and analyze HR systems and data — such as turnover rates. When onboarding new employees or providing onboarding support, they’ll do so with an employee-first approach.

People operations managers should also prioritize employee feedback within their processes. What is the best way to find out if employees feel valued and prioritized? Ask them. Not only that, ask for actionable ways these processes can be improved or specific things the company could do to better support employees.

The goal of a people operations manager is to make daily life smoother and empower employees at every turn. A small business might need a single specialist while larger companies could benefit from an entire people operations department.

What is the people operations employee life cycle?

Forward-thinking companies started adding their HR partners to their business leadership team more than a decade ago. In today’s environment, this means that whether a function is a revenue-generating role or a supporting staff role, its value is recognized within business operations.

With HR at the table, if they and the business have a people ops mindset, this is how the entire employee life cycle should look:

  • Interdependencies are vetted. As a new job is created, the business is intentional about the various touch points the position will have around the company.
  • Functions are clearly defined. Job descriptions, job analysis, and job responsibilities related to performance expectations and outcomes, career progression and ongoing training needs are identified.
  • Business goals are built into the position. Measurable goals are set that directly tie to the company’s quarterly and annual goals and link to the organization’s stated purpose and mission.
  • Candidate qualifications and skills are defined. Those closest to the functions of the position understand best what it takes to make an employee successful. When HR or people ops teams and the business work together to define these qualities for the ideal candidate, they increase the likelihood of a solid hire and a positive employee experience.
  • Succession plans are created. Understanding what roles should be part of succession planning is part of keeping your staff happy and healthy. The stress that could ensue for someone who cannot make a career move might begin seeding a dysfunctional environment.

Ultimately, the people operations life cycle starts before the employee knows they’re needed at the company and touches every part of their employment experience. It ends when an employee leaves the company.

What is the difference between people operations and HR?

The differences between the standard HR function and people operations may seem negligible. Everyone on the HR team knows and works toward retention and engagement.

But while HR has additional roles to fill, people operations is focused singularly on that task. To retain talent, you have to take care of talent. People operations finds out how employees want to be taken care of and fills the need. It homes in on data and surveys to uncover the tools, support and services employees want to drive success at the individual level and, therefore, throughout the company.

Now: People Operations Focus 

Then: Traditional HR Focus 




Administrative tasks 







People ops platforms 


The bottom line is that a people ops model not only says that results matter, but so do the methods used to get those outcomes. People ops puts the people and ethics back into the process of doing business.

The bottom line is that a people ops model not only says that results matter, but so do the methods used to get those outcomes. People ops puts the people and ethics back into the process of doing business. 

How to effectively transition from traditional HR to people operations 

A business with a people operations mindset shifts from seeing those who work there as resources or cogs in the proverbial machine to valuing them as the people who breathe life into its customers’ experiences. 

Moving from a traditional HR mindset to thinking with a people ops perspective requires significant changes — for everyone. Business leaders need to embrace the value that staff processes bring. And HR needs to move from thinking in terms of forms and rules to seeing the people they’re there to serve. 

Let’s break down some major functions within HR. We'll briefly discuss how this mind shift starts to move a company to a new way of getting work done. 

Benefits and compensation 

This is the range of financial and non-financial rewards provided to employees in exchange for their work. 

HR then: 

Benefits were created with a one-size-fits-most approach. Jobs were designed to fit within industry-defined parameters to make analysis and market pricing more efficient. 


Benefits are menu-driven, acknowledging that team members have multiple and varied life scenarios and well-being needs. Jobs are defined to fit what the business needs the functionality to be for the organization and are market-priced to recognize changes in the employment environment. New roles are included in career path planning. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion 

These are strategies and practices aimed at creating a workplace that values and actively supports a

diverse range of backgrounds and perspectives.


HR then: 

Identified groups may have been segmented and separated, with the unintended result being divisive. 


The goal is to establish a strong company culture and improve the company’s image. Education and appreciation of differences and strengths are the focus to make the whole organizational culture healthier and more cohesive. 

Employee development and training 

With enough resources, every employee has the potential to succeed in their role and climb up within the organization. 

HR then: 

Mandatory regulation-driven training and basic functions were the focus. 


Training and development are built into performance plans, career paths and schedules. They include education about setting personal goals that align with individual and company improvement. 

Employee relations 

How you're treating employees, and how they're treating each other, really matters. 

HR then: 

The approach to concerns and complaints was often slanted to the company’s and management’s point of view. Only managers had access to employee-relations consultants. 


Employees have the freedom to confidentially express concerns and seek advice regardless of position or tenure. Internal communications are streamlined through software. 

Organizational and leadership development 

A company is only as good as its leadership. 

HR then: 

The C-suite was the only group with access to this. They were the only ones who benefitted from observations about being a more effective leader. 


The goal is to optimize the business’s performance. The process is built into career pathing, including access to opportunities for personal development. Examples of focuses can include how to effectively give and receive feedback and how to identify the most effective career path for their individual strengths. 


This is one of the key functions of HR in many organizations. 

HR then: 

The process was rigid and impersonal. Payroll mistakes negatively impacted employees. 


Team members are valued, and empathy is expected when working through payroll issues. Expediency in resolution is a priority. 


Acquiring talent is no easy feat, and people operations can make a big difference. 

HR then: 

Focused on ineffective technology and manufactured ways to shrink the candidate pool due to overwhelming responses. 


Takes advantage of AI processes. This can include evaluating legitimate minimum requirements for positions and completing required compliance forms. That way, the focus can be on conducting meaningful interviews and finding the best fit for the prospective employee and the company. 

Ready to move to a people operations mindset? TriNet can help. 

When your employees feel that they are viewed, heard and valued as individuals who are contributing to the company’s greater goals, everyone will win. Team members will be satisfied, you'll see higher employee engagement, and the company will thrive. 

Looking for an expert partner who can help transform your company to the people operations mindset? TriNet can help capture, analyze and share data-driven insights about the workforce, taking the guesswork out of HR. Whether you need to retain top talent or refine your processes, TriNet’s full-service HR solutions can help.

Contact a representative today to learn how your company can benefit from a strategic partnership with TriNet. 

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