How People Ops can help shape company culture

October 15, 2019

Hi, my name is Teresa and I used to work in a bank.

Those who know me — and I know the vast majority of Unbabelers and am even called the “Shazam of humans” — have remarked that it seems an unlikely match: I am loud, bordering on eccentric, highly energetic and I’ve been known to start a dance party or two after work hours, or put on a one-person rendition of The Phantom of the Opera. It seems miles away from someone who might fit into a stereotypical corporate role.

Well… yes and no. Being in a Human Resources department in a large corporation presented different challenges. Back then, I was part of a large recruitment team bestowed with the important task of growing the bank’s presence in well over four digits worth of employees. We were, at the time, one of Portugal’s biggest employers in a post-crisis scenario where the country was struggling to create stable and well-paid employment. I had multiple candidates cry once accepting the job offer, out of sheer gratitude that we would offer them an opportunity… and that was incredibly rewarding.

However, the offices were spread all over the city, and it bothered me that I would get to know these brilliant, talented, groundbreaking individuals throughout the recruitment process and then never see them again. I nagged my hiring managers all the time — “How’s X doing?”, “Is everything going smoothly with Y?” — to get limited and monotone feedback. It seemed unnatural not to follow the employees’ trajectories in the company and be an added value for them in every step of the journey.

Little did I know, I was already fitting in the People Ops state of mind while working in a Human Resources department. Later on, when I had the opportunity to join Unbabel’s team, I immediately noticed that the modus operandi was completely different.

It’s People Ops, not People Oops

People Operations is all about creating a work environment people want to work in, naturally fostering engagement and connection with the company and its mission.

The changes I started to noticed in my day-to-day life were clear: while working in HR, it was all about policies, doing your job and nothing more, executing orders from above, working within traditional HR practices. But in my role at People Ops, I realized we are key instruments in the strategy, communication, diversity and inclusion plan of action in the company, but also in creating and maintaining a strong culture — something which is very dear to our CEO, Vasco Pedro.

There was one time, for example, when we visited an employee who was being treated at a public hospital and had the person transferred to a private one where they’d get better care; we help organize birthday parties, and every day we strive to bring something new to the table to make Unbabelers’ lives a little bit better at work. We have recently added a Birthday Bot to Slack, for example, to make sure everyone gets a shout out on their special day.

Our Office Management team (now part of People Ops) is absolutely instrumental in this. Not only to they make sure our offices are nice to work in, organized, and have everything we need to be productive, but they also arrange activities and events, which range from weekly surfing lessons to Thanksgiving celebrations and board game or movie nights.

We also do some work with our expats and their partners to prevent isolation and foster integration in our country and culture. We have language classes available for all employees and we celebrated Ramadan this year, involving employees’ families to help them develop their own community in this new foreign country.

Diversity and inclusion may seem like empty promises, but we have close to 40% of international employees right now and over 30 languages spoken across our offices and hope to continue fostering this. Hiring talent that lessens our interdepartmental gender disparities is also a concern of ours — we are present in Women in Tech events and continue to implement this mindset cross-business.

Not to toot our own horn, but in our recent Unbabel Annual Retreat we had an Awards Night, in which you could vote Unbabelers for pre-established categories, and two members of the People Ops team were voted for the Culture Carrier Award (one of us won). This is a testament not only to the work we do, but to the care, patience, empathy, and dedication we put towards the workplace every single day.

You is kind, you is smart, you is important

While it may seem like it, People Ops is not all just fun and games. We also help with internal communications — which is essential for businesses, especially startups, to survive — change management, reinforce rituals and create reporting that will influence company-wide decisions.

I’ve seen, and heard of, many companies not paying their HR or People Ops departments enough attention, sometimes even forgoing having one at all. While I can’t stress enough how important they are, I’m not the only one to hold this opinion. An eight-year long study conducted during the first dot-com boom found that companies that tended to bring in HR expertise first were the fastest to go public and the least likely to fail.

PeopleOps plays a key strategic role in understanding how recruitment, culture, employee engagement, and training, among many other things, are connected to the organization’s strategy, and ultimately, the “bottom line” metrics that organizational leaders often use to measure success.

Other companies, like Buffer, report that the development of a People Ops department will lead to “stronger company culture, more empathetic diversity and inclusion, long-term employee dedication, and stable business growth.”

No matter how big or small they are, businesses are nothing without their employees, so they should continuously invest in a department that will work on a daily basis to make sure they feel valued, happy, and in it for the long haul.

While we still have a lot of work to do at Unbabel in creating processes and structures that support our employees in their day-to-day struggles, in People Ops we live by the mantra of sticking up for the company’s interests and mission, but also making sure employees are heard and taken into account. And when employees are well, they are more likely to feel integrated and valued and become brand champions.

For me, this is the natural progression of an HR role in a modern, fast-paced company. Through our employee check-ins, I am able to follow the progress and cheer on the successes of our employees, while unblocking situations and helping them overcome their challenges.

And cheer them on I will — while being obnoxiously loud, creating personalized emojis on request and offering candy to anyone and everyone in sight.

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