Talent Management 2.0: The Rise of the PeopleOps Role


First coined by Google, "PeopleOps" is a new approach to recruiting, HR, and retention, turning old school processes into a data-backed science.

We’re seeing more and more companies hire people for this sort of role, so we sat down with two pros in Boston, Becca Van Nederynen, Head of PeopleOps at Help Scout, and Steffanie Sayce, Senior Director of People Strategy at MassChallenge, to hear their thoughts on the purpose and evolution of the PeopleOps role — and why more companies may want to consider investing in this function.

What is PeopleOps?

PeopleOps is still a relatively new term and role, so first let’s get clear on what it is and the benefit it brings to a business. “I really define PeopleOps as the new face of HR,” says Becca. “A lot of what I do as Head of PeopleOps is what HR has been tasked with in the past but did not have the support or buy-in from the CEO to get the job done.” Steffanie adds, “PeopleOps brings a people perspective to business decisions.”

While PeopleOps is primarily a human resources-based role, it also touches on many recruiting tasks, too. “The role of PeopleOps is really to get to know people — both candidates and employees — and make sure we’re building out the right team and culture. It’s the fun stuff, but it’s hard work,” says Becca.

PeopleOps has become particularly appealing to companies in the tech industry who face stiff competition when it comes to sourcing and hiring in-demand candidates. “It’s how companies can optimize the company experience and attract and retain great talent,” explains Becca.

The Rise of the PeopleOps Role

The role of HR has been evolving for a while now, but it was Google’s Work Rules! book that helped bring PeopleOps to the mainstream. Innovative companies like Help Scout and MassChallenge pretty quickly realized that by bringing the employee experience to the forefront of strategic initiatives, they could become more attractive to candidates as an employer and retain talent longer.

Local companies like Disruptor Beam, InsightSquared, Price Intelligently, and Buildium are also leading the way in hiring for PeopleOps. Agile by nature and willing to try new technologies and methodologies, tech companies have been early adopters and champions of the PeopleOps philosophy.

According to Becca, what makes PeopleOps attractive to many companies is that it’s based on data-driven decision-making:

Leveraging data like how much it costs to hire someone, how long the hiring process takes, or the impact a hire will have on the business can bridge the gap between HR, finance, and leadership, is really key to a business.

She continues, “We’re starting to see companies give the HR/PeopleOps function a place in the C-suite, whereas previously it was viewed as an administrative role."  

With a seat at the table, PeopleOps can more effectively collaborate on the following initiatives:

  • Working with the finance team to decide on strategic hiring plans
  • Working with the recruiting team to develop seamless hiring processes
  • Working with the executive team to conduct interview training

“HR pros are now giving input on strategic business initiatives; they didn't have that before,” Becca adds.  

Steffanie’s prediction:

We will start to see the stripping away of HR in favor of the PeopleOps function in the same way HR took over the personnel title.

PeopleOps is the next big evolution in staffing — impacting everything from the way companies design compensation packages and develop hiring processes to how they retain employees, and much more.

When to Add PeopleOps To Your Company

PeopleOps may soon become one of the first few roles a young company hires for. Steffanie explains, “Your culture is going to grow and evolve whether you have someone shaping it or not, so if culture is important to you, then you should be looking to bring a PeopleOps manager on pretty early.” She continues, “They can help ensure every new hire has the same cultural values and that you hire the right team.”

“It’s a lot easier to bring on a PeopleOps person as one of your first hires than when you’re a team of fifty people,” says Becca. “There will be an uphill battle for them to try to systemize and put in place processes and define company values later on.”

In fact, right before Help Scout raised their Series A round of funding back in 2015, they brought Becca on board to support their hiring goals and lead their PeopleOps initiatives. With someone dedicated to all things people operations, Help Scout could ensure a seamless hiring and onboarding process, as well as develop and maintain a strong culture as the team grew.

Steffanie adds that the time is also right for PeopleOps when, “You’re managing multiple offices and/or remote employees, or have any other operational complexity.” She continues, “If you can plan for that in advance, that will only benefit you as you grow.”

How to Hire a Great PeopleOps Manager

So, what makes for a great PeopleOps manager? First (and it should go without saying), they need to be a people person! Becca explains, “A great hire is someone with high emotional intelligence, empathy, and good listening skills.” She continues, “They have to listen to all types of people — from candidates to employees to leadership, and be able to empathize with them.”

They also need to be an advocate for both the business and its employees. Steffanie explains, “It’s a balancing act; it’s about the people, but it’s also about being able to lay out great processes, implement good systems, and remain business-focused above all else.”  

Because it’s such a data-driven role, the PeopleOps pro(s) you hire should have a background in data. “If they can ground their decisions in data, they can make better decisions for the team,” explains Becca. PeopleOps is responsible for planning everything from how to source for diversity to creating benefits packages to increasing employee engagement, so being able to collect data from systems and employees will help you make better and more informed decisions.

Another big thing Steffanie and Becca look for is the ability to creatively problem solve. Asking how a candidate has been put in difficult situations before and worked themselves out is a good indicator of tenacity. “I look for their ability to look at the big picture, but they also need to acknowledge the details,” says Steffanie. “I want people who think about how to differentiate the company and understand the people consequences of business decisions.”

A good PeopleOps candidate will have a background that shows a mix of HR, data, and leadership skills. This mix of skills can come in different packages:

  • If you’re a startup, you may be looking for someone who has handled a mix of office management, HR, and recruiting tasks and is excited about the impact people can have on the growth trajectory of a young business.
  • If you’re a larger company, you may want to look for someone who has been an HR leader or a financial planner/analyst (FP&A) who loves data and has a knack for forecasting.

Above all, the most important piece is finding someone who is interested in the people aspect of a business and able to systemize and scale processes around that.

PeopleOps: The Key Business Function of the Future

PeopleOps is growing for a reason. It impacts just about every facet of a company, right down to the day-to-day employee experience. If you don’t yet have a PeopleOps function on your team, remember that it’s never too early to add one, and it can give your company a competitive edge in a job market where candidates have many options in front of them. Sometimes, having someone embedded in your culture and at the helm of every recruiting and employee experience makes all the difference.