People Ops as a Product 🚀

Jessica Zwaan
8 min readAug 1, 2020
Clearly Mark, Travis and Tom never worked in a team with a really good People Ops function.

In my experience, there are two sides to my job; People Operations and — Human Operations.

When I first started my career there was also (and still stereotypically) quite a lot of Administrative Operations but I am pleased to say our days of scanning contracts and manually adding data to 4 different HRIS systems (over and over) are generally behind us.

The role of People Operations is broad and varied, it crosses disciplines of marketing, communications, psychology, legal, and finance.

Human Operations

Over the last few years, Human Ops has been getting quite a bit of screen-time in the HR world. Human Ops, IMHO, are all of the parts of my job where you really need a human. Empathy, listening, coaching, supporting, making strong positions for a business’s ethics and values. No bespoke algorithm in the world can do what we do in Human Operations (not yet, anyway).

Like so many of my peers and colleagues I really love the Human Ops part of my role; the relationships I build with my colleagues are what keeps me going when challenges feel insurmountable, and I chase the feeling of inviting someone into our team whom I genuinely believe will shape the future of what we do.

I don’t think you can really treat Human Ops as a product, because it’s more like a bespoke service. It’s where my values around servant leadership come into play. For that reason, I want to talk about the People Ops bits…

People Operations

People Operations is the (largely unseen) product your team buys into during recruitment, and then continues to subscribe to until they hand in their resignation (and even beyond in alumni programmes, famously the brilliant one run by Google).

A product has to:
1) be the result of a process
2) offer something useful

Boiling it down: the Employee Experience.

Being recruited by a business, working inside their walls (physical or otherwise), and growing your career according to their values, policies, and programmes form some of the biggest “purchasing decisions” you will make in your life. The work an effective People Operations team does is building, maintaining, and iterating on that product so that it can be the best in the world (or in your industry, if you’re not feeling so ambitious).

Because of these truths, the best People Operations teams in the world run like product management functions. That may not be how they describe themselves, but it is often one of the reasons that they are successful, admired, and do innovative work. It’s also how I choose to operate when I build a function.

I do this by adhering to two principles which I have gratefully stolen off Product Management ways of working:

A. Maximize impact to the mission: develop a product strategy that maximizes the impact to an organization’s mission given a set of inputs.

B. Accomplish everything through others: PMs do not directly build or operate the product, instead they enable those around them to do it better. — Brandon Chung

Maximize impact to the mission

People Operations are largely the masters of destiny for many parts of the employee experience. I don’t think there are many things in People Ops which are nebulous, including culture. I like to think of culture as a highly-malleable, tangible competitive advantage. It is our job to use our People Ops practice to sharpen that advantage wherever possible, in order to build the kind of environment that people can do their best work (happily).

Employer Branding exercises have come a long way in demonstrating just how actionable and material culture-building can be, and how tied to the mission of a company People Operations teams have to be.

If your company’s mission is “Inspire Every Cat to be More Majestic” then it‘s the People Operations team’s role to do everything they can to enable people to achieve that mission. There is no point making a programme which affords your team the ability to craft the best pottery in Europe, unless of course somehow that pottery will be used to magestify cats.

What does this mean in practice? Whenever you add something to your People Operations roadmap or take feedback from someone in your team, ask the question — “How will doing what you’ve asked me to do help us inspire more majestic cats?” (or whatever your mission is.)

If the answer is, “well, I don’t know — I just think it would be nice for us to go and do pottery.” Don’t prioritise it.

If the answer is a positive one it’s also worth asking, “Is this the thing that will help us most to reach that mission?”

Then, if you can, run a test. Try it out, read the data and see if it’s having the impact intended. It’s important to run retrospectives where you and the rest of the people ops team are really honest about whether or not you achieved what you set out to — did you make an impact on the team’s ability to achieve the mission?

If no — Why? How could you do better?

If yes — Brilliant. Spread that further, maximise the product’s reach.

Accomplish everything through others

As Martin Eriksson points out, “Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful — from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support.”

The same is true for People Ops. Really great People Ops — from performance and growth conversations, to solid 1:1s, to a world-class team of colleagues delivered by an effective recruitment machine — is actually done by the people operating that machinery. Machinery which should rarely be turned at the hands of People Ops folk:

  • Managers should own performance and growth conversations
  • Hiring teams should run recruitment exercises
  • Our teams should deliver feedback to each other
  • Individuals should craft their career and learning opportunities

People Operations teams should, however, give all of the people around them at work the ability to do all of these things really, really well, by working with others to create well-designed tools, processes, and operating procedures (and stepping in with some Human Operations when necessary).

Whenever I am asked to build a process, tool, or policy I do everything I possibly can to work out how I can build something which needs almost zero People-Team interaction on completion, while still delivering exceptional experiences (leaving me more time to develop new tools or to invest in some crucial Human Ops work). Sometimes that’s a well-structured template document, sometimes it’s a piece of software that enables real-time feedback. If I create something which requires someone in my team to manage a new process or be a bottleneck in approvals — I have royally messed up (and I better have a good reason).

This works because I believe the best benefits you can give to anyone are a) incredible colleagues and b) maximum trust and accountability to get on with their jobs. These two objectives are only possible through world-class recruitment, and once you’ve reached this workplace nirvana, it makes sense to trust that your colleagues are perfectly capable of making hiring decisions, communicating feedback, and promoting their teams as they grow.

What the teams will need, though, is the tools to do this measurably, reliably and efficiently. In all of my experiences, and according to research, people really care about procedural fairness when it comes to People Operations work — that is an element of the employee experience it is our role to provide.

What do you need to work this way?

If you think of your team as customers to your employee experience, one of the most important principles of product management is developing clear and open feedback loops.

The first thing you should do is create channels where your team can give you honest, useful, quantitative feedback on the work you’re doing in the People Operations team. A tool I love to use is the RANDS test, and I am starting to incorporate, “How disappointed would you be if the People Operations function stopped existing?” I aim for >90% ‘Somewhat Disappointed’ or ‘Very Disappointed’.

It may also help to offer an anonymous place to ask questions, and give feedback. In the past, I’ve built “ask us anything” bots on slack, or open feedback surveys. Transparency is always the answer, as without it is difficult for your team to give honest feedback on their experiences.

Design Thinking
In order to effectively run your People Ops function like a Product Function, you need to incorporate design-thinking and agile working practices. This may take some training, or just sitting in on your Product, Design and Engineering team’s retros, standups, and road-mapping sessions.

The way I’ve tried to do this is to run quarterly road-mapping and retrospective sessions with my teams, setting clear goals and projects with sprints, time-lines, and room for testing and iterating. It’s important during these sessions, that whatever People Projects you set out to do, you keep in mind the following:

  1. What the goal is (mission)
  2. What the environment around you is signalling (feedback)
  3. What people, money, and time constraints exist

To run a product-thinking people team you will need some tools for planning, feedback, tracking, and testing; some of these are more expensive but quite effective (Peakon) and some of them cheap but practical for scaling businesses (Google Forms).

Whichever camp you are in, try to exercise creativity in what you do with these tools and diligence with the data you put into them (and get out in the forms of insights and reports). It might help to hire an HR Analyst for all or part of the year, a practice I implemented in my time in Wonderbly.

Mull it over

I’d love to hear from others who work this way, which programmes have you implemented? What has worked, and what hasn’t? What am I missing (and how could I do my job better?)

Meanwhile, I’m going to write a little more on how to think of your team like customers, and do everything you can to avoid falling into “computer says no” People Ops traps…

Me and my cat, looking professional

I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do. I’m a hands-on Chief People Officer. I find my joy in diverse, kind, and world-changing companies of excellent people, which is why I am at Whereby, where our mission is to give people freedom to live and work where they thrive. (How fantastic is that?)

Check out my LinkedIn
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Jessica Zwaan

G’day. 🐨 I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do.