People Ops: The Heroes of Successful Remote Companies

People Operations is a crucial yet sometimes overlooked function within companies. Some consider People Ops a sub-function of HR, others claim it’s the evolution of HR to become more strategic, transparent and holistic. Either way, it has become clear that People Ops hold the key to successful distributed teams. They are ultimately the glue that keeps remote teams together.

So what exactly do People Operations Teams do?

People Ops is the root of a branch with many responsibilities. These include traditional HR tasks such as payroll, analyzing data, onboarding new employees and supporting the current ones. However, while HR takes a reactive approach, People Operations is pro-actively involved in shaping strategic decisions by understanding high-level business objectives. Their main goal is to help employees be productive at work. In addition, they are considered culture builders and shapers, who are responsible for employee engagement and satisfaction. Content employees equal a positive working atmosphere, remote or otherwise. 

In a recent interview series, we spoke to Maria Ursente, People Operations at In Marketing We Trust, and Ali Greene, former Director of People Ops at DuckDuckGo. They shared their insight into what it takes to build thriving People Ops departments and successful distributed companies.

For Ali, these three are the essential goals of People Ops department: 

“To make sure employees are, 

  • – Effective
  • – Efficient
  • – Engaged at work” 

Not only is this a clear and efficient way to see what is working. This also dips into the analytics side of People Ops to collect data and improve any practices already in place.

Why is People Ops especially important for distributed teams?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Laurel Farrer says,

“Traditionally, the objective of the operations officer is to supervise results, while the human resources officer supported the workers. However, the future of work is rapidly moving toward results-based work models. These are fueled by autonomy.” This is especially true for distributed teams, where workers manage their own results. 

In addition, distributed teams face challenges such as: 

  • – Collaboration and coordination, sometimes even across time zones.
  • – Building rapport amongst colleagues.
  • – Difficulty to establish culture and team cohesion 
  • – More urgent need for clear communication processes and habits

Unlike in traditional offices where you can meet colleagues in-person and gauge their mood and response, doing the same virtually requires clear processes. People Ops can act as the go-between for team communication, but ideally they should define processes that allow all members of the organisation to communicate effectively with each other. 

People Ops are like those do-it all moms that organise company meetups, plan events and discuss personal matters that can affect your productivity at work. They “design work” to enable employees to bring their best to the job every day. 

In this new era almost every company has some distributed teams, even just temporarily with colleagues on a business trip, or working from home or communicating across multiple offices. Therefore, People Ops proves to be highly relevant to both, fully distributed and ‘occasionally remote’ organisations. 

What are some of the must-have skills that People Ops must possess in distributed companies?

“It’s not necessarily about having particular skills, rather than having the ability to drive outcomes that matter,” says Maria.

This relates back to driving initiatives in line with business objectives. Building People Ops as a multidisciplinary team facilitates different strengths as well as perspectives to the many challenges these teams face. 

However, a key skill across the board is the ability to communicate extremely well with different stakeholders inside and outside of the company. As a team that dedicates a large percentage of their time to advise, motivate and help employees, communicating well from day 1 is essential. 

Maria adds that “This can be tough at times, even for someone well versed in the remote work environment. Working out loud is an essential core value that we cultivate and enforce and In Marketing We Trust”.

In addition, being able to build robust organisational systems and a cohesive culture are also crucial. This requires analytical skills, and a data driven mindset as well as a large degree of empathy. This leads to effectively identifying and eliminating employee pains, while understanding which improvements to focus on. 

What challenges do People Ops often face in a remote work setting? 

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

It is easier for remote workers to hide behind a computer screen, and give no indication of struggling. This makes this job, which requires being in tune with people’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction a lot more difficult.

Ali points out that employees need to remember to use you as a resource and remember you’re present and part of the team too.

“Being a part of the community helps people remember to use you as a resource. It also removes some of the stigmas of the “out-of-touch HR person” that sometimes is present in people’s minds (Yes, I can’t believe that stereotype still exists either!).”

Onboarding can also provide challenges and must take on a different approach. In a distributed company this means instead of a ‘first day in the building’ or ’talking to your peers over coffee’, different strategies need to be created and implemented. 

Maria says,

“Designing and implementing these processes has been challenging at times, but these can be overcome by maintaining good communication and feedback throughout the organisation.” 

How do you overcome administrative and compliance-related challenges?

Once again some requirements do not make any sense within a remote company. As the future of work, laws and regulations are just only starting to catch up. Laws and regulations are still very dependent on the state and country your company operates in, and where your employees are located. This creates higher complexity while being highly specific to each company’s setup. This makes it difficult to rely on best practices, and to create clear administrative management for a global remote workforce. 

Ali says,

“Hands down the biggest challenge is compliance-related employment laws. Some administrative needs simply do not make sense for the remote environment. An example is workplace safety – what does that look like without a physical workplace? The best way to manage that from my perspective is to make decisions from the most considerate legal perspective. However, it should also align with your company’s values. This ensures not only the strictest policies are met but also that employees feel appreciated.” 

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