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People ops work is changing with the times

From being more flexible about taking personal time to leaning in to inclusion, here are a few things HR pros are talking about in 2021.

"Where Does People Operations Go From Here?" panel at Introduced 2021. (Screenshot)

Before we can really talk about people operations, we need to define people operations. Simply put, it’s the part of a company that deals with the people in the company, from hiring to benefits to conflict resolution.

So, basically, human resources — except that HR tends to prioritize process, while people ops aims to put people first. A lot of HR departments are, or have become, more people-focused, blurring the lines to the point that they are sometimes used interchangeably. But since the Introduced by session “Where Does People Operations Go From Here?” uses the former term in its title, that’s what we’ll use, though it certainly wasn’t used exclusively during the panel.

Led by moderator Bruce Marable, cofounder and CEO of Philadelphia-based Employee Cycle, an HR dashboard for small and medium companies, three experts talked strategy, retention, work from home, and diversity and inclusion, among other relevant topics.

The “from here” in the panel’s title widely refers to the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes, some permanent, that it brought to the U.S. workplace. But there’s more to it, including the corporate shift to prioritizing D&I after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and a political climate that adds extra anxiety to an already stressful time.

If old HR departments didn’t spend time on things like the mental health of the company’s employees before, they do now.

Here are five things people operations is focusing on in 2021, according to the panel:

Going beyond diversity

Diversity and inclusion became a major focus for many businesses in 2020 — but sometimes the focus was more on the company’s image than a commitment to equity.

“Recruitment is the easy part,” Marable said. “Where it gets more difficult is things like reducing unconscious bias from hiring managers.”

“It can’t stop at hiring. That’s one of the things that people get wrong,” said Tamara Rasberry, a D.C.-area HR consultant who focuses her work on DEI and mental health. “How do you make them feel when they get there? Are they included in things? Is there a sense of belonging? If you don’t make sure it’s a good situation when they’re there, they’re gonna go right back out the door.”

Keeping the team connected in creative ways

Culture, like everything else, moved online last year — but inclusion hasn’t always been the focus.

“Not everybody likes the same stuff,” said Talia Edmundson, founder and principal of Philly-based HRnB Consulting. “The online happy hour took off, and it should not have. Not everyone drinks. If your goal is to make people go on the internet to do that, come up with something different so you’re not making people feel silly or excluded because they’re not doing what everyone else does. It can’t be one size fits all.”

Becoming more “cross-functional”

The shift to the term people operations is more than just a new label.

“The umbrella of human resources is moving more and more toward ownership and collaboration in responsibilities of workforce success and how value is created in the firm itself, as well as more responsibility in the holistic employee experience,” said Everett Reiss, cofounder and COO of

Making sure staff takes breaks

Reminder: Work-from-home burnout is real.

“I think the keys are communication and flexibility,” Rasberry said, and “communicating to your staff that it’s OK to take a break. Use your vacation time. To me the best outcome would be not to say, ‘OK, the work still has to get done,’ but to say ‘I understand if you have to do your work at night instead of during the day,’ or ‘I understand if you have to take breaks during the day.'”

Continuing to learn

Knowing what you don’t know is a skill.

“There are so many things that happen to people,” Edmundson said. “The future of this role needs people who know where their knowledge gaps are and are brave enough to pass the mic and get out of the way so that you don’t mess up. None of us knows how to do absolutely everything to the degree that it deserves to be met.”

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