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Every successful organization has certain areas where they plant their flags. The company’s mission, vision, and values are important drivers that, when used intentionally, help us to steer the ship in the same direction. Every successful organization has both spoken and unspoken values, whether they set out to have them or not. Words, context, and actions all matter. And guess what? Your employees are watching. They hear it, they see it, and they feel it. Where is your company staking its flags?

One of the areas I’d recommend you assess when making important organizational decisions is whether you’ll choose to lead through a traditional HR structure or whether you’ll choose People Operations, also known as People Ops, or even POPS. If you’re asking, “What’s the difference between People Operations versus HR?” or “Why do People Operations vs HR matter?” you’ve come to the right place. If you haven’t considered those questions or don’t really care, you may soon be missing the boat.

What Are Human Resources?

Everyone’s familiar with the term HR, or Human Resources. What you may not be as familiar with are the origins of the term and the need for creating HR as a department. HR as a term and function may date as far back as 1901, but became more established in roughly 1960 as unionized businesses found that to become more competitive during the collective bargaining process, they’d need a department focused on human resources. At this time in history, people were considered the actual resources or “human capital.” 

As human resource management evolved, the focus shifted to more administrative tasks such as running payroll, recruiting, updating and enforcing policy, and maintaining employee records. HR was more of a reactive function utilized when employee issues arose and needed to be addressed. Don’t get me wrong, a well-run HR department plays an important role in protecting both the employees and the company. Unfortunately, many HR departments remained disconnected from the larger company and the individual. A quick Google search of “HR gone wrong” will definitely bring laughs as, unfortunately, we’ve all encountered that HR rep.

Angie and Mike talking on couch Talking with employee virtually

What Are People Operations?

So what are People Operations? Fun fact, Google was the first to kickstart this trend by renaming their HR department and calling it People Operations. This was an effort to change the perception of who this department is and what it could actually accomplish. According to Cat Symonds at Factorialblog, “In its simplest terms, people operations, also known as people ops, is a person-first strategic approach to employment that takes a holistic view of progress, well-being, and results. It’s about creating a company culture and environment that makes employees feel happy and proud to work at their organization.” Essentially, it’s putting your people first, becoming people-centric, and providing an actual strategy for your people’s success. Let me boil it down even further: it’s caring about your people and recognizing that you wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of your goals without them. 

People Ops for Agencies

Here at Voltage, a Kansas City-based digital marketing agency, we’ve made the decision to be people-centric. We’re planting one of our flags in becoming a people-first agency. Does that diminish or distract from any of our core business goals? Absolutely not. It positions us to have an advantage over competitors who may still treat people as more of an afterthought or commodity. It just so happens that in becoming a people-first agency, we have created a company culture like no other!

In the agency world, it’s not uncommon for people to wear many hats as they move toward growth and more specialized staff. So, is human resource management just one of many hats to be worn at your agency or is human resource management driving your people? If HR is in the driver’s seat, you may be putting policy in front of people. People Operations puts your people first. HR and policy are necessary for legal, ethical, and structural reasons. POPS is about the human aspect of reaching our goals. It’s about recognizing that people are, well, people! We are individuals with many different thoughts, ideas, emotions, and needs. The fact is, a cookie-cutter approach to people just doesn’t work anymore. 

So when was the last time you thought about your agency’s people strategy? Wait – do you have a people strategy or just an “HR Department”? If you are unsure of your answer to this question, try answering these questions from your employee’s perspective:

  • Do you like stepping into your agency each day?
  • Do you want to work and stay there?
  • Is anyone considering your career development or planning for your experience and engagement?
  • Does it make you proud to say, “Hey! I work at ABC Agency…you should too!”?
  • How do you think your colleagues would respond to those questions?

If you think your employee’s answers might be uncertain or negative, I’d highly recommend further research into People Operations vs HR. Choose to put your people development strategy first, to make a difference in their lives, and to wave that people flag high!

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