People Ops: It’s About Respect

Why the future of People Ops is helping employees take care of themselves: a conversation with Sarah Braver

Sarah Braver has planned and led global leadership development programs for clients such as Microsoft, RBS, ArcelorMittal, Rio Tinto, Morgan Stanley, Citizen Schools, All Star Code and more in US, Europe, and Africa. Currently, she serves as the Head of People for All Star Code, which empowers young men with the skills, networks, and mindsets they need to create new futures through technology. She is also the founder of Braver & Braver, a consulting firm that helps small organizations with talent, strategy, and diversity needs. IOW, Sarah knows People Ops.

RY: Sarah, during our conversations I’ve realized that Human Resources is way more than my original, narrow perception. What does HR look like and encompass in 2016?

SB: The HR that we all know—benefits, payroll, paperwork, etc.—that HR is still alive and well. However, a lot of my work falls under a new, popular Talent-HR hybrid, “People Operations.”

I’m often thinking about what the organization is trying to accomplish, and what people we need in order to accomplish that.

There is low motivation in, say, a mission-driven nonprofit or a fast-moving startup to keep track of who is working on what, because it’s typically an all-hands environment with people working way beyond their job description.

That’s a strategy that works until it doesn’t: soon you have more and more people asking for role definitions, clear responsibilities and outcomes, and a vision for their own future at the organization. That’s where my work comes in.

And how might that impact what HR looks like in the future?

In the future, traditional HR, I believe, could be operationalized, and ideally outsourced or automated. HR keeps the car running, but talent has the map and they can see what’s coming. There should always be a human at the wheel, but I don’t see why processing payroll or administering benefits needs a full-time employee. Focus on the humans, I say — employee relations, talent development and promotion, and all the other good stuff.

You mentioned that one of your big focuses, across your career, has been thinking about bringing humanity into work?

I find typical American paid leave policies barbaric and inhumane. This includes vacation, parental leave, and all of the challenges that come with working for hourly wages.

Within any organization where I am a leader, my philosophy rests on one strong pillar: take care of yourself.

Relying on a company to take care of you is a mistake for several reasons; primarily they are very, very ill-equipped to do so. No matter how much an organization goes out of its way to help its employees, at the end of the day, it cannot act in its own interest and individual employees’ interests at the same time.

What a company can do, however, is to create as much freedom and flexibility as possible for employees to take care of themselves. This is respect, pure and simple. I acknowledge that work is a secondary component to anyone’s life, and they must look after their primary needs in order to be able to fairly contribute to a company.

To me, this means a couple of things:

First, it means being outcome-oriented, not process-oriented, and with clear expectations. Working with the end in mind (and hiring people who are able to do this) allows the team the freedom to decide how they want to get to that end. If you can be outcomes-focused, you can create space for employees to take care of themselves as needed.

Second, it means having policies that align with the philosophy. Whether it’s generous or even unlimited vacation, a remote working option (or suggestion!), or humane parental leave, the proof is in the pudding on whether orgs see their members as people or simply “resources.”

What are the biggest misconceptions about HR and how does that affect the role?

I think the biggest misconception about Human Resources is that HR is designed for the benefit of the employee. HR is, without question, a representative of the organization, not its people. It was originally created as a powerful response to unions, and it still exists as a somewhat anti-labor function. That’s not to say that HR can’t operate humanely and with compassion for its people, but in the end, if there’s a fight between you and the company, HR is fighting for the company. Just an important thing to keep in mind when you go to an HR rep for help on a company matter.

Talent obviously is still a big part of Human Resources. You told me previously that change agents can be extremely effective, but also unpopular. Where does it make sense to hire new talent vs build in-house expertise?

There is so much evidence that promoting from within is more valuable than hiring from the outside, and I agree with this premise to an extent.

The best way to keep the most talent is to allow staff to develop deep expertise. Management is a sacred art, I believe, and when you reward someone’s great work with the new responsibility of supervision, you not only squash that person’s learning trajectory, you also ask them to shift from “doing” to “overseeing,” which decreases expertise at the top of the organization. Promoting from within also raises the risk of the Peter Principle, or promoting to the point of someone’s incompetence.

Allowing individuals to grow within your organization as experts and consultants raises the company average and allows you to keep criticism alive and well in the ranks. Experts can offer insights or consultation without it being the official party line, which might allow for more robust feedback and possibly even experimentation.

Years ago, I served as an internal consultant on a major project within my own organization, and I could move freely between teams, getting feedback and piloting and testing without derailing the day-to-day flow of any one team or project. I had a manager, sure, but I mostly managed my own project and just checked in to report on progress and get any updated instructions. There was a lot of fear of change in that organization, so allowing me to do what would otherwise be very unpopular work, quietly and with determination, was a wildly successful model.

It feels like this is also a way to keep up with talent that identifies as multipotenialite.

Absolutely. I self-identify as a multipotentialite, and keeping employees like me engaged with meaningful work will have much stronger outcomes than “keeping me in my lane.” I’m a natural investigator and evangelist, so letting me work to these strengths, rather than trying to fit on an existing team, was more satisfying to me than doing just one job. Employers need to be better at figuring out what is satisfying for each employee.

Okay, last thing. When we talk about the future of work, we also hear about the future of perks. What are some of the best perks you’ve seen companies offer? What would you like to see companies do in the future?

My favorite perk I’ve seen lately is a remote work policy that a) clearly defines it and b) encourages it. It was a company with offices in other cities, so there was an additional bonus if you were able to check in at a local office and work some of the time from there. I am thinking about implementing a similar policy at my current organization.

One that I have been working on personally and plan to implement: I want to implement a policy that all full-time employees must take one vacation per year that is at least two weeks long. I think it is nearly impossible to truly unplug when you only leave for 5 business days at a time, as most people do, and it is almost impossible to enjoy international travel for only one week at a time. We have a high percentage of employees who were not born in the United States, so this policy might encourage those people to take that trip home they’ve been meaning to make. It could just as easily be a staycation, but I think everyone needs a little space to breathe away from work.

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