Employees are an organization’s biggest asset, and for a long time, referring to them as “resources” made logical sense.
While the phrase may seem harmless, more leaders are rebranding their HR teams. In its place, a new term has emerged: people operations.
To an outsider, this may all feel like nitpicking. But when it comes to taking care of employees, Caitlin Cuesta, senior people operations manager at San Francisco-based gaming tech company Captain.tv, said words are important.
What Is an Operations Manager?
“The term ‘human resources’ sometimes has a negative connotation,” she said. “It defines people as resources, and that can make people feel like they’re just a resource to help the company be successful.”
First coined by Google’s HR executive Laszlo Block in his 2015 book Work Rules!, “people operations” aims to paint employees in a new light. Advocates for the term agree that employees are an invaluable company resource, but also say they’re more than that. They’re people who deserve to be supported in ways that go beyond what they do at their desks.
“Startups are becoming more progressive about how they support their employees, not only ensuring that they’re doing their jobs well, but that they also have opportunities for growth,” Cuesta said. “People operations and operations managers are a huge piece of that.”
People operations management involves a lot of standard HR tasks, but there are a lot of aspects to it that may be unfamiliar to those with more traditional HR experience. Here’s a rundown of what a people operations manager is, what they do, and how they keep employees productive, engaged and happy.
What Does a People Operations Manager Do?
Within people operations, there are recruitment specialists, benefits analysts, and HRIS managers. At the center are operations managers, who keep an eye on all of the processes involved in running a people team and keeping employees happy.
“A good operations team can really make the difference for creating an excellent employee experience,” said Susan Charnaux, chief people officer at D.C. area-based software company Appian. “As a chief people officer, I count our operations manager to be our in-house expert on all things related to HR systems, data, and processes.”
“The core of my role is supporting our employees — making sure we have great benefits, that we’re hiring the right people, and that we have great employee handbooks... But there’s also more behind-the-scenes things, like making sure our bills are properly paid.”
The role of a people operations manager could be defined similarly to that of a project manager: Both are responsible for executing long-term strategies and supporting team collaboration. However, instead of directing product launches or sales initiatives, people operations managers streamline the employee experience so everyone is engaged and empowered.
Since the employee experience includes everything from strong benefits to team rapport, this means people operation managers have a lot of responsibilities dealing with culture and wellbeing. On any given day, Cuesta said her tasks range from reviewing performance review documents and turnover reports, to mediating interpersonal employee conflicts.
“The core of my role is supporting our employees — making sure we have great benefits, that we’re hiring the right people, and that we have great employee handbooks,” Cuesta said. “But there’s also more behind-the-scenes things, like making sure our bills are properly paid.”
Priorities for People Operations Managers
No role within a tech company is fully siloed, but this is especially true of operations managers. Executing HR objectives and anticipating employee needs means staying in constant contact not only with top-tier management, but with team members at every level. At Captain.tv, Cuesta reports directly to the company’s COO, as well as others in the C-suite and management.
“I’m also kind of the company’s representative to our employees, so I get a lot of questions through Slack about time off, reimbursement requests, and suggestions for improvement.”
Keeping in conversation with both leaders and employees is crucial for operations managers who want to make informed strategy decisions. Feedback from employees at every level across Captain.tv helps Cuesta make more informed decisions, she said.
“I participated in a fireside chat with our CEO a couple of weeks ago, where we talked about company culture and work life balance,” she said. “We took questions from the audience, and made a decision during that to transition from an unlimited PTO policy to a minimum enforced time off policy so that all of our employees take at least 15 days off a year.”
Day-to-Day Tasks for a People Operations Manager
People operation managers have a lot on their plate. There is a lot to consider when the goal is to make employees feel happy and empowered — it requires someone who can balance responsibilities well. At times it can be emotionally taxing, Cuesta said.
“The thing that I struggle with the most is appropriately prioritizing the tasks at hand,” she said. “At any given time, there are probably 20 different things that I can be doing. The challenge is deciding what the most urgent and high priority tasks are, and how I can accomplish them efficiently within an appropriate time frame.”
Exhaustive to-do lists are definitely challenging, but Cuesta said it can also be a blessing in disguise.
“[I love] when I can make an employee’s life easier so they can focus on their role and responsibilities.”
“I appreciate that I have all these different areas of responsibility, because if there’s a day I’m not super stoked about recruiting, I can work on drafting new policies, run reports, or work on deep culture-shift strategies,” she said. “It makes for a very interesting work week.”
People operations managers also have some of the biggest pull when it comes to cultivating company culture. Meredith Sny, director of people operations at Chicago-based parking software company SpotHero, said the biggest reward for her is getting to see the impact her work has on her employees.
“[I love] when I can make an employee’s life easier so they can focus on their role and responsibilities,” she said. “It can be something big like helping with benefits, or something small like making someone a new ID badge.”
Experience Needed for People Operations Management
Cuesta’s journey to operations management led her through a series of different HR roles and she said that there’s no one way to get into people operations. But she did offer suggestions of where to start.
“The Society for Human Resources Management offers certification programs. Through them, you can become an SHRM Certified Professional,” she said. “The process of becoming certified is helpful, because it makes you think about the problems you’ll encounter, as well as compliance and risk mitigation.”
Getting trained and certified is a great place to start for those looking to get into operations management. But on top of that, they’ll need strong interpersonal skills to be able to manage conflict when it arises, Cuesta said.
“It’s not all sunshine and butterflies,” she said. “You’re going to encounter situations that can get heated, and you have to intervene. I always talk about being radically candid — as an operations manager, you need to be empathetic, but also not afraid to confront people.”
Leaders often feel like they need to have all the answers, which can be an isolating experience. This makes it easy for people managers to feel siloed in their role, especially if they don’t turn to others for guidance, Cuesta said. The solution? Find people to talk to.
“When you inject yourself into the company’s culture, you show your employees that you’re not a big scary HR person. That’s how you build trust.”
“I would not be where I am today without the network of kick-ass people operations professionals I’ve surrounded myself with,” she said. “They’re probably going through very similar things that you’re going through, and the advice and encouragement you’ll receive from them will help you overcome sticky situations.”
At its core, the operations management role is fueled by a desire to make one’s company welcoming and supportive for everyone. The most important feature of a successful operations manager, Cuesta said, is empathy.
“For most of your employees, you are the face of the company,” she said. “When you inject yourself into the company’s culture, you show your employees that you’re not a big scary HR person. That’s how you build trust.”