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I recently onboarded myself - Introducing People Operations

· 8 min read
Ara Gonzalez

A new approach to People Operations...

A new approach to People Operations

In July I joined Weaviate as our first People Operations Manager. That’s not just a 21st century name for “human resources”, which was traditionally focused on administrative tasks and often seemed to assume that employee retention was a given. The difference is marked by emphasizing “people”—as in real, whole persons.

While People Operations still provides some administrative functions that have not changed much since more conventional days, the main focus has now shifted: today, People Operations is not only operational but also strategic and employee-centric. My goal as People Operations Manager is to build a foundation that can enable and sustain the business, while fostering a high engagement and performing environment. All this leads to additional responsibilities, some of which did not exist before:

  • Taking charge of all new team member’s journeys and ensuring they go through an amazing onboarding experience. This is a critical moment, because an onboarding experience that inspires doubt can create an immediate retention challenge. Recent research shows that a positive onboarding experience improves new hire retention by 82%, and productivity by over 70%!
  • Creating and maintaining scalable guidelines and processes related to different people-related areas such as payroll, benefits, employee leave, travel and expenses, amongst many others. This ensures there is a solid operational foundation that supports the employee lifecycle and allows the business to operate smoothly.
  • Ensuring compliance with relevant legislation and regulations in order to minimize risks. This is especially challenging in a fully remote startup with people employed on several continents.
  • Using people analytics to quantify different people-related factors, from the success of our guidelines and processes to the engagement and happiness of our team, to encourage and enable data-driven decisions.
  • Perhaps most important: we are the main point of contact for our team on any and all issues related to their interactions with the company as a whole. This extends to providing guidance and advice to managers as well.

At Weaviate we go beyond the traditional HR approach by taking responsibility for each employee’s experience, engagement and well-being across the entire period that they’re with us, in a way that is consistent with our company values, which include kindness, transparency, and trust.

People Operations is especially important to Weaviate because we’re still in an early stage (thus without many established guidelines and processes), growing fast, and talent-dependent. My role is also shaped by the way our company was “born global” and fully remote.

Creating People Operations in an early stage

One way that Weaviate’s founders set their company on a path to success was by planning for growth rather than just letting it happen organically. They brought in my manager to be Head of People & Culture very early – when there were only about a dozen employees, and the first People Operations hire (myself), has come in shortly after. Companies that prioritize the early hiring of people-related roles demonstrate their belief that roles like ours contribute directly to the success of the business. This gives us the chance to shape and build our company culture, and to establish guidelines and processes early on in the company journey, rather than later falling into the trap of, “That’s just the way we’ve always done things,” a realization that often leads to the rueful realization, “We should’ve tackled this earlier”!

Weaviate’s success depends on being able to attract and hire uniquely talented people who are in high demand. Two ways we achieve this are by searching globally, and by giving employees the trust and freedom to work wherever they are in the world. Since a company of our size can’t create a legal entity in every country where we have employees, we sometimes rely on an “Employer Of Record”—a company that exists to solve this specific problem by having a legal entity in any country where we might hire someone.

Another important aspect to our success is the ability to engage and retain our people. Often, early-stage companies focus primarily on recruitment, and it's only after the team has expanded that retention becomes a priority. Unfortunately, by that point, it can sometimes be too late. This is where People Operations becomes key: by establishing people-focused guidelines and processes that support and enable people, we make a direct impact on employee performance, happiness and retention early on. Having a company culture focused on accountability and commitment, allows us to do so in a flexible way.

One example of this is establishing globally-adapted guidelines around paid time off (PTO), which vary a lot from country to country. At Weaviate we’ve decided to simplify our PTO policy by leaving it flexible: people can take the vacation time mandated in the country where they live and work, of course; but they can also take more days if they need them. Operationally, this allows us to scale PTO and ensure we are compliant in all locations, but our main motivation behind this decision is to give people freedom and flexibility based on trust, which is consistent with our company values.

People at Waviate travel frequently, which means another current priority within People Operations is to define an efficient and scalable travel & expenses policy that can support this now but also as the team grows, ensuring a good balance between allowing people to travel easily and comfortably, while also keeping business costs under control.

Being a fully remote company and following our value of transparency, documentation is also very relevant to us. For this reason, building an Employee Handbook that can act as a single source of truth (not only for people-related topics, but for all teams at Weaviate!) has also become a goal. This will allow people to easily access the information they need anytime.

Taking on the People Operations Manager role at a young company like Weaviate, means that I often have a blank canvas. Creating a set of flexible, scalable and well-understood People guidelines and processes is a challenging but satisfying task, because I know that once achieved, it will reduce uncertainty and time wasted by the rest of the team, and it will improve their experience at Weaviate.

Of course, it would be great to create a perfect guidelines and processes from scratch—one that addresses ever corner case—but the reality is that, it is fine to create them in a way that’s flexible, scalable, and ensures that we have good feedback loops so that employees can help us to iterate and improve it, just as we do our products. Instead of “minimum viable product”, think “minimum viable policy”. This approach is key to building People Operations in a way that can enable and support the business early on, and continue to grow and evolve with it.

Some of the challenges we have are not exactly textbook problems, especially taking into account we are a fully-remote company, a relatively new way of working. Luckily, although they might be new challenges, they are not unique to Weaviate. Those of us working in People Operations find support via peer groups on Slack and Linkedin, where all of us share solutions and best practices. Besides, there are also annual conferences such as “Running Remote”, held every spring in Lisbon, where inspiring ideas related to remote work are discussed.

People Operations is one of the few jobs in which going unnoticed is a compliment

My goal as a People Operations Manager is not only to ensure our team members are happy and have a great time working at Weaviate, but also to ensure they are free to be as productive and creative as possible in order to maintain our current intense pace of innovation. That means that sometimes, the performance of People Operations can be measured by things that are absent—problems, stresses, distractions, or intrusive processes that interfere with all the others’ ability to achieve their own goals. I also want to also ensure that everything we build is built with our company values at the core, so that our team never experiences any dissonance between their personal interactions with Weaviate and the values that matter to us as a company.

While I’m happy that you’re reading this blog post, I’ll be quite fine if, going forward, my teammates at Weaviate rarely feel that they need to contact me. Don’t get me wrong, I love solving problems, but something I love even more is providing guidance and solving those problems before they come up. So if I rarely get questions or have to deal with tricky employee issues, I’ll take that as an indication that I’m doing a good job!

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