HomeFuture of WorkHR EffectivenessJessica Zwaan on ‘People Ops’: What HR can learn from product teams

Jessica Zwaan on 'People Ops': What HR can learn from product teams

  • 7 Min Read

Think of People Ops as a subscription product. Employees buy into it during the recruitment process, subscribe monthly, and unless they remain a part of an alumni team, they stop subscribing when they resign. People Ops teams should focus on constantly iterating this product.

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In August 2020, Jessica Zwaan introduced the concept of ‘People Ops as a Product’. By borrowing principles from product management, Zwaan encourages people leaders to use feedback loops, design thinking, and tools to ‘maximize impact to the mission,’ and ‘accomplish everything through others.’ This approach helps HR teams to drive buy-in to their people operations strategy across the employee lifecycle. Moreover, it allows organizations to leverage their culture as a competitive advantage centered on outstanding employee experience.

Nearly three years on, the economic and business landscape in which we work is vastly different. The HR function has evolved in equal measure. Even in the past three months, although chat-based AI is not yet sophisticated enough to replace ‘Human Operations’ (empathy, listening, coaching), it is redefining many People Operations practices. HRD spoke with Zwaan to discuss how ‘People Ops as a Product’ has evolved, and what this means for HR leaders.

Jessica Zwaan on 'People Ops': What HR can learn from product teams

1) How do Human Operations (Human Ops) and People Operations (People Ops) differ, and do you still feel human ops needs ‘human input’?

Jessica Zwaan: Human Ops is anything that still requires human involvement. It could be coaching on values, advising on giving difficult feedback, or talking them through practices like maternity leave. No algorithm can quite replace this work, just yet. It still needs human involvement, and this part of work will always exist in HR. HR will always have to be involved in talking to someone suffering a bereavement, for example.

The other side is People Ops. This is the work people teams do to create ‘employee experience products.’ Think of People Ops as a subscription product. Employees buy into it during the recruitment process, subscribe monthly, and unless they remain a part of an alumni team, they stop subscribing when they resign. People Ops teams should focus on constantly iterating this product.

2) What new best practices do you have for how people operations can shape their culture as a competitive advantage?

Jessica Zwaan: There are plenty of best practices that HR can co-opt from product management and even marketing. Firstly, look at the problem rather than the solution. Rather than leading with ‘we need to seek new policies,’ what is the actual problem among your people? Is your team, for example, taking too much sick leave? This approach delivers solutions that actually affect the employee experience positively and move the metrics that are important to you.

The two best practices for product management also still apply. Firstly, everything must be in service of the mission. Whatever your company mission is, everything the people team does should have a direct correlation to this line of sight. Secondly, achieve everything through others. This is more controversial and difficult for HR teams. Very often, People Ops teams build products, features, policies, or projects that are run by the People Ops teams themselves. Take a 360-degree review process. We need to reject the idea that the people team should be triggering, running, and feeding back on this process. Instead, we need to build processes that are more automated and make managers more accountable, for the deliverables. The process of achieving through others allows you to keep a lean people team that’s focused on delivering products, rather than focusing on the day-to-day administration of running the processes they have already created.

There are also plenty of other principles, from embedded user models to roadmap planning that people operations can learn and adopt from product management teams.

3) What new best practices do you have for how people operations can ‘accomplish everything through others’?

Jessica Zwaan: This depends based on the type of project you’re working on. For example, performance calibrations. This process should be automatically kicked off with a reminder from whatever system or HR platform you’re using for feedback. The reminder nudges a leader from the business who runs the calibration, such as the Head of Engineering or Head of Finance. These leaders are responsible for challenging each other on each team’s performance and the outcomes from the calibrations. So, rather than HR having to remind each team to fill in feedback, the leaders take responsibility for accountability. The People Ops team can then focus on enriching these conversations with Human Ops. This model helps us move away from the outdated administrative role of HR.

4) Why are ‘design thinking’ and agile work practices still such important components of people operations?

Jessica Zwaan: Design thinking is a really important principle for People Ops to learn from product, design, engineering, and marketing teams. Their work is focused on delivering value to somebody that isn’t in the company. The better they make the product, the more customers will buy it, and the better for the company. HR teams have gone wrong in the past by not considering their end customer. This leads to HR’s reputation as being like the police, or mercenaries for the company who aren’t there to add value. That they are helpless when it comes to delivering something meaningful in a time of crisis.

Centering on a customer and relating benefits for this customer to the company, enables HR to deliver a better employee experience and company culture. There is a change of mindset about who receives the value of HR’s work. Design thinking and agile working come into this process because it’s not about shipping perfect work. It’s about understanding what your customer is looking for and designing with them in mind.

5) How can people operations and HR leaders equip their colleagues to take greater responsibility?

Jessica Zwaan: It depends on whether you have a pre-existing team or building it from scratch. If you’re building it from scratch, there’s plenty of work involved to teach others what your plan is, write up the strategy, and build a new team with a new way of thinking. But if you’re by yourself, it’s probably the easier option.

When you have a pre-existing HR team, you need to pivot or shift towards this new way of thinking, against a traditionally embedded approach. This requires a lot of work to help the team understand the analogy of employee experience as a subscription product. Once you’ve built that layer, you can then move on to considering the right metrics. You can’t move onto this step if the team isn’t clear on the foundations of People Ops as a product.

6) What tools do People Ops teams now need to follow the product management model?

Jessica Zwaan: I have a vendetta against ‘SaaS spread’. It refers to buying heaps of SaaS tools to try and plug gaps when you only need a very simple stack. This has really accelerated in the past few years. Yes, you need an HR system that suits your company’s size. You also need a way of collecting feedback, but this could be as simple as a customized type form. A calendar scheduler can help automate the process of getting face time with people. And a tool for mapping workflows can give you visual feedback and helps you implement design principles thinking like developing user research and retrospectives. Beyond that, how much do you need? It’s best to keep it as lean as possible.

7) What current (and future) challenges are there for ‘People Ops as a Product’ and how can HR leaders overcome them?

Jessica Zwaan: The biggest challenge is convincing people to try this methodology. Trying it without fully committing won’t work and will waste your time and resources. If you don’t do user research before the work you produce, you won’t achieve your outcomes. If you aren’t developing output metrics rather than input metrics, you won’t be able to know if this practice is working beyond anecdotal feedback. This doesn’t mean fully disrupting your team or replacing employees with new hires. But encourage your people to commit to this practice. It won’t work without their buy-in.


Jessica Zwaan is Chief Operating Officer at Whereby. She’s also a regular panellist and speaker at local and international events on how to positively influence culture, strategize a modern people function, improve your employer brand, advocate for a human experience, and generally how to think about people ops as a product. She is the author of the upcoming book ‘Built for People: Transform Your Employee Experience Using Product Management Principles‘.

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