Do we still need teams?

We love teams. We really do. Between the two of us, we’ve spent over 40 years studying, teaching and coaching teams in organizations – which is why we’re surprised to find ourselves writing an article in which we wonder if teams are as practical or necessary. to the work of knowledge as they once were.

Our thinking is guided by the many conversations we’ve had recently with employees at all levels, from summer interns to CEOs. At all levels, we hear concerns about work-life balance, burnout, employee disconnection and turnover. For those working or leading teams, the pressure seems to be even greater – and we think we know why.

When teams work

First, let’s backtrack a bit to remember why we started using so many teams in knowledge work, because they’re relatively new.

White-collar teams became the leading organizational paradigm in the early 1980s in response to technological advances and the globalization of the economy. The reason teams have become so popular is that when they work, they really work. Great teams can generate creative solutions to complex problems, as well as provide rewarding experiences of camaraderie and challenge for employees. Indeed, high-performing teams go beyond great work products – they also create growth opportunities for members and the kind of culture people look forward to joining.

When Teams Don’t Work

Unfortunately, even the most successful teams incur costs. These costs have been well known for decades. In a 2009 interview with HBR titled “Why Teams Don’t Work,” our late mentor, J. Richard Hackman, said, “Research consistently shows that teams are underperforming, despite all the extra resources they have. . Indeed, coordination and motivation problems generally reduce the benefits of collaboration. »

We raised our own concerns about the sustainability of teamwork in an article we wrote at the start of the pandemic, where we advised managers to take a triage approach to identifying and managing workplace stressors. ‘team. As we look to the post-pandemic future, we anticipate that these stressors will continue to increase, which means it’s time to reassess when and how to use Teams in organizations.

Are teams still worth it?

Before rushing to replicate team structures or investing in team support technology, we urge managers to do the math one more time to ensure the benefits outweigh the costs. Unfortunately, hybrid working can tip the scales in the wrong direction.

Cost increase

Teams have always had to devote a great deal of time, energy and attention to coordination tasks such as distributing and directing information, resources and work; setting healthy norms and resolving conflict; align motivations and efforts; integrate disparate personalities; and setting up combined deliverables. Working globally adds time zone, cultural, and linguistic differences to the mix as a basis for subgroups or misunderstandings. For these reasons, collaboration overload has been a risk for some time.

The widespread increase in hybrid working has massively multiplied this complexity. Keeping in mind that all of the costs described above still exist, team members have become more dispersed – sometimes working in the office and others remotely and in different locations, each offering resources and different distractions. It’s important to keep in mind that leaders shouldn’t think of team members independently, because each individual’s position also affects the configuration of the whole team – creating new sub-teams. groups, majorities, minorities and isolates – with a significant effect.

As if coordinating between these locations wasn’t complex enough, employees are demanding more autonomy when working in the office, which also means trying to align changing schedules. Even these models are a moving target: a 2022 global study reveals that more than half of the workforce plan to increase their level of hybridity in the future. All of this adds significantly to the complexity of the coordination tasks that teams must undertake – and to the cost in time, effort and energy to do so.

This level of variance created by hybrid teamwork has never been seen before in organizational life and brings many managers to the breaking point. In that same recent study, 74% of global managers said they currently don’t have the resources or influence to successfully manage their hybrid workforce.

Reduced benefits

In addition to increasing coordination costs, contemporary teams are experiencing reduced benefits. The research found that team collaboration has been particularly impaired in terms of creative work, vision, and decision-making outcomes since the pandemic began.

Remote and hybrid teams also suffer from a lack of social connection and belonging. We’ve seen in our own research that global executives feel less connected than ever, despite being part of an average of three work teams. In fact, being part of a team can make people feel After solitary because it creates an effect of contrast. If employees expect to have strong relationships with their teammates and they don’t, they often experience disappointment and loneliness more acutely.

What if the math doesn’t work?

New tips for reducing some of these costs and creating tighter, more cohesive teams across remote office boundaries are emerging — for example, empowering small groups to make decisions and fostering psychological safety. If these team response steps don’t move the needle, it’s time to think about team alternatives.

One choice is to disband or drastically reduce teams in favor of a higher proportion of individual contributors. Some are even calling for reducing jobs to tasks to further disaggregate work.

A less drastic solution is to move from “real teams” to using “co-acting groups”. As we’ve noted in previous research, true teams have a shared mindset, a compelling joint mission, defined roles, stable composition, high interdependence, and clear standards. Co-action groups represent a loose confederation of employees who dive in and out of collaborative interactions as a project or initiative unfolds.

In this configuration, there is still a lot of coordination work to be done, maybe even more. Yet the process becomes more streamlined and controllable. For example, rather than orchestrating team meetings on a daily or weekly basis, managers can focus on contacting each member of the group individually. Since one-to-one interactions require the combination of only two calendars and are easier to perform synchronously and asynchronously, they are likely to result in reduced coordination costs compared to hybrid teams.

There is also some potential for co-acting groups to result in reduced advantages over top hybrid teams, especially for creativity, collaboration, and camaraderie. We believe this disadvantage can be mitigated (and the advantage increased) by following certain principles for effective co-action groups:

  • Design projects to include some “big bang” moments of brainstorming, decision-making, and socializing. This will help boost morale and generate some of the synergies that teams can provide.
  • Recruit employees with qualities such as autonomy, flexibility and cooperation. Clarify the expectation that they will be able to regularly transition from independent to collaborative work.
  • Create incentives and reward structures that enhance cooperation and minimize competition among group members.
  • Use dashboards and other transparent monitoring systems to help the entire group track workflows and progress.
  • Create standardized onboarding and onboarding protocols to minimize disruption as workers join and leave groups.
  • Expand cross-training programs and provide more professional development opportunities to give employees more flexibility in how they can contribute.
  • Stop calling groups “teams” and avoid over-promising the degree of cohesiveness and belonging expected of them.

Additionally, organizations must continue to look for ways to replace the gains once generated by teams. For example, they can create social support mechanisms for employees (eg, employee resource groups), open brainstorming opportunities (eg, hackathons), and compelling culture-building activities (eg. example, company pensions).

So is this the death of teamwork?

I repeat, we are not anti-team. In all their glory, the teams are worth the investment, even today. Yet we know as well as anyone how difficult it can be to execute them successfully. Too often, teams fall below their potential. If this is the case in your organization, it’s time to think more seriously about new ways of working.

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