3 lessons from my first year in People Operations

3 lessons from my first year in People Operations

Hey folks. Quick scene-set: Been at my role as a People Associate at Prolific for a year and a half. I’ve made a ton of lateral moves to get to this point. And I was sitting at my desk typing out notes on a diversity and inclusion audit when a thought dawned on me.

I’m not a rookie any more.

This was groundbreaking. When I was leaving Monzo I set an intention: I want to be a people person. My goal was to learn as much as I could about the people operations (human resources for non-startup/scale-up folks) world. So I set out to soak it all up like a sponge.

Being at Prolific has been an epic education for me, with a ton of lessons, mistakes, lightbulb moments. But it’s time for something new. I’m leaving Prolific for a new and exciting opportunity, which I’ll reveal at the bottom of this post.

There is still a universe of things I don’t know about this world, but that’s the beauty of it. Having said that, these are things I know now.

You needed a strong internal communications strategy… yesterday 🗣️

The assumption I had moving from a large company (1,500+ people) to a smaller one (80+) was internal comms would be a walk in the park in comparison. I was wrong. In reality, companies experience communication issues as early as when they grow beyond being able to fit into one rented co-working office. This compounds if you have remote employees.

Folks at Prolific experienced change fatigue. We experienced strategic (re)direction, listened to tough decisions, saw very respected colleagues leave. There were absolutely good times too. Even changes that are objectively ‘good’ can be marred by folks not trusting a piece of comms to be the case. Working on comms at Prolific taught me:

  • Reverse engineer from potential questions. When you consider the whats, whys, whos, whens, and hows of a situation, it not only helps you structure the message, but it gets you in the mindset of your audience. Speaking of…
  • Consider the audience by writing with their emotions in mind. Anticipate what’ll come up for them, empathise with their feelings. It might also be helpful to run through a new change or a draft piece by someone you trust first to see how something might land.
  • Don’t underestimate how important it is to tap into your humanness, your vulnerability. Leaders, when things go wrong or not to plan, when you don’t hit the targets you thought you might, or you make a strategic misstep, it’s not the OKRs or the goals people look to, it’s you. Your employees need to understand your motivations, your fears, and, on occasion, what makes you happy outside of work. People believe in people.

In the end, internal comms isn’t about building some sexy tools stack, or creating a sprawling communications architecture, at least, not at the beginning.

It’s about owning up to a f*ck-up. Knowing when to say something publicly and when just to have a one-to-one conversation. Opening up a tough message to being a conversation or a thread, even when it’s scary. Internal comms often is, after all.

Knowledge management is the secret superpower of successful scale-ups 📚

Companies that want to grow quickly make this specific mistake all the time. They hire a new joiner giddily excited to start making an impact. This poor new person logs onto Slack or Notion, or Confluence, and then finds a mess of old documentation, with no source of truth. Not a great way to set someone up for success.

The thing that astounded me about Prolific was how people are genuinely dedicated to writing great, regularly updated docs. I came into a really detailed employee handbook, a robust onboarding checklist, and through my time here my manager kept meticulous notes of all of our progress as a team, data analysis of employee engagement scores, goals reports. It’s one of the magical things about working here.

  • Make knowledge management a habit. Things will go out of date if you don’t build it into your work rhythms. It’s also not enough to do it on an individual level: managers and team leads need to weave this into sprints to avoid any build-up of knowledge management debt. Calendar invites and Slack reminders are your friend here.
  • Actively show your team what great documentation looks like, for you. Create templates people can duplicate, highlight a particularly well structured Notion page, share resources on writing and project management with your employees to help them build the skill.
  • Archive everything, and if you can, add change logs. We keep our old policies and clearly mark them as ‘🚫Do Not Use’, and note down when things change, just like an app release on a phone. It helps folks keep up with what has been updated.

It seems like a dull thing to care about. But allowing people to softly land, and have their curiosity sated with the information they want and need at their fingertips will do absolute wonders for your organisation.

A photo of three women (left to right: Brenda, Charlotte, and Amy) smiling in front of a sign that says 'Culturevist'. This is them at the Culturevist Conference in 2022 at Kew Gardens, and they are smiling widely at the camera.

It’s impossible to make everyone happy, but you can create an environment for them to ‘just work’ 🤝

There’s a book by Radical Candor writer Kim Scott called “Just Work“. I read it at the start of my journey at Prolific, and it’s been something I’ve been thinking about now I’m at the end of my tenure. This is a large part of what People Operations is about: creating an inclusive workplace free of injustice, so people can show up as their authentic selves and ‘just work’.

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) can’t just be ‘hot topics’. You can’t just do work in these areas because it’ll look good on LinkedIn. You do it because it’s the right thing to do, and you do it even when it’s really hard. It’s also important to recognise the commercial limits in place where you work, and prioritise what is immediately possible. The journey is just as important as the destination.

  • In my opinion, starting with inclusion and belonging will often organically lead to better improvements in diversity and equity. It’s about building spaces where people feel safe to be themselves, and therefore safe to demand more from their work environments.
  • Having said that, you can’t just ‘let DEIB happen’. We’ve seen the incredible impact talking about tough topics like privilege, unconscious bias, and micro-aggression can be if you talk about it openly. Never be afraid of bringing in experts to talk about things: the return of investment (ROI) of a one hour learning session from someone with knowledge and authority can bear fruit for years to come.
  • People will ask for things you can’t do yet or ever as a company. You might not be able to do it because you can’t afford it, it doesn’t fit with the company’s direction, or some other key reason. Policies like the four-day-week or extra holidays or completely flexible work can work really well for some. It is deeply important to evaluate whether these trends work specifically for your company. That it can be applied universally and inclusively, that it’ll make the employee experience better, and that it’ll lead to a more harmonious working environment. “Happiness” isn’t the goal here, it’s about doing what fits, what’s just, and what works on a commercial and human level.

In the year-and-a-bit of learning stuff that’s new, there was one bonus lesson.

#4: The best thing you can be is kind. Not nice. Kind. This means giving the tough feedback while thinking about how the other person’s gonna feel. Considering how inclusive your meetings are for neuro-divergent folks if there’s no clear agenda. Asking… “how are you, no don’t you dare say ‘fine’. How are you really?”

When I’m stuck, frustrated, or when I simply don’t know the answer, lesson #4 is the North Star 🌟 I’m determined to make it so for as long as I’m able.

At Prolific, I’ve grown, I’ve stood up for my beliefs, I’ve been a shoulder to cry on. In turn, my teammates have supported me, guided me, and made me laugh more times than I can count. I’m very grateful to them, especially to these powerhouse women I’ve grown to respect very much: Allie, Charlotte, Rheanna, and Wahida.

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be joining Stotles as their new People and Operations Manager (and first HR hire.) Our mission is to unlock the potential of business and government working better, together. Super excited to join the team, who are hiring for a variety of positions 👀

Thanks for reading, you gems. I’d love to hear what you thought of these lessons so hit me up on Twitter or LinkedIn if you ever wanna reach me.