Why modern-day work is all about teamwork

Work is increasingly morphing into being a ‘teams-based’ activity now – as Peter Crush finds out.

When staff at outsourced receptionist service, Moneypenny, turn up for work at its purpose-built £15 million head office, the first thing they do is divide up into teams comprising half a dozen or so similar people that are specifically dedicated to a particular client.

As well as it being an efficient way to match people best suited to the client they’re supporting, it also drives employee engagement and has become a customer service USP. “We also take great care bringing teams together for our clients,” says people director Charlotte Ashdown. “We identify and match the skills and interests of our PAs to our clients’ business. If someone has an interest in property, they may be best suited to answering property calls. If someone previously ran their own small business, they may be able to better support a small business client as they can empathise with their needs.” She adds: “For us, work is all about putting together a team of people with differing strengths and weaknesses to create abetter whole.”

If all this teams-based approach to structuring work sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s now (increasingly) the dominant model many organisations have begun to follow.

The fact is, work has become much more ‘teamwork’ orientated.

The gradual transition to teamwork

That work is increasingly ‘teamwork’ is a reality that’s been developing gradually over time, and for many reasons.Broadly though, there are a number of key trends at play.

On the one hand, more workers nowadays see themselves as having a portfolio of different skills – skills that are much more useful than what a rather limiting job description that might describe them as being capable of on their business card.

In particular, research finds Generations Y and Z most covet being given new opportunities. They want to shine and be given wider tasks and responsibilities. They don’t want to see themselves shackled to a very narrow job. Google has – for a long time played to these wants. It famously didn’t hire people for hard-and-fast job descriptions, because it knew the tasks it would initially want people for would likely transform into something else within a few years. In other words it was malleability that they needed most.  

In the academic world, these changing dynamics saw the creation of the concept of holacracy – a system of work characterised by the formation of independent teams and their interconnectedness. Here teams form and then disband just as quickly, as projects emerge or end. Teams self-create according to who might have the best skills to lend – whether it’s the quiet person in accounts to the outspoken sales manager. Job roles, not job descriptions dominate.

There are other reasons at play too. Consciously or not, organisations are likely to be responding to the increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex &ambiguous) world we now live in. Uncertainty needs a multi-disciplined, many-minds approach. As a recent study from Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, Duncan Watts, found, nowadays it’s only simple tasks that are best carried out by individuals. The harder tasks get, Watts surmises, the more suited teams are to working on them. Teams“are as fast as the fastest individual and more efficient than the most efficient individual when the task is complex,” found the research. Watts adds:“Teams generated faster solutions, and they explored the space of possibilities more broadly.”

So what does all of this mean?

The result of the teamification of work is responsible for creating some truly stunning statistics. Data collected by Harvard Business Review finds that in the last 20 years, the time spent by managers and employees in ‘collaborative activities’ has grown by more than 50%.Meanwhile, latest research (by McIntire professors Rob Cross and Peter Gray),suggests knowledge workers now spend 70-85% of their time attending collaboration-related work and tasks.

It’s not hard to see why. As business becomes more global, and silos are breaking down, connectivity is seen as the key to organisational success. As Cal Newport, an associate professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, observes, ‘deep thought’ is now such a competitive advantage for organisations that getting the best out of teams is now considered an emerging science in its own right(see next article).

Is management keeping pace?

The bad news, is that while teamwork has been growing, managers and leaders haven’t necessarily kept pace with understanding what good team dynamics are, and what’s needed to make good teamwork happen.

An HBR study of 14 teams comprising 283 employees in four Fortune 500 companies recently found that many managers are not actually familiar with what their teams even do. It found that, on average, they either did not know or could not remember 60% of the work their teams were doing. In one extreme case, a manager could describe only4% of their team’s work. In the paper ‘Collaborative Overload’ it was also revealed 20-35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. It also found that there was an overlap of only 50%between teams’ top collaborative contributors and those deemed to be the top performers. “Leaders must learn to recognise, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work,” it concluded – a clear nod to the fact that as work becomes more teams-structured, understanding how to get good results from different groups of people working together will be the key task ahead.

What makes teams tick will be the next big management challenge.

Working out how teams create better, more predictable outcomes is the challenge all companies now face.

“It’s clear organisations are refocusing their efforts and rethinking how work gets done,” says Oli Meager, co-founder of organisational capability consultancy, Skill Collective. Adds: Meager’s co-founder, Karl Weston: “We’ve just gone through the world’s largest human crisis. The world of work looks different. As economic factors like layoffs and a recession loom, teams are likely to be asked to do even more with less, including team members, It all means further understanding into what translates into work that gets done is needed.”

To rise to this challenge, firms will first have to acknowledge that team dynamics matter, and insight into their performance and productivity (including what it is that makes teams ‘great’),will be essential. “As organisations become less hierarchical with flatter structures and more fluid and informal relationships, teams will become ever-more important,” argues Liz Sebag-Montefiore, co-founder of team engagement consultancy, 10Eighty. “There is a tendency now to work on a ‘tour of duty’ basis, with people sourced and teams formed for specific projects and disbanded and reconfigured for the next project. But this also means teams are more fragile. They can easily bede-railed with micromanagement. What all teams really need is clarity and mutual understanding around team and organisational vision and goals. Then they need to leverage people’s strengths – this is very empowering.”

This is one part of the approach that Stephanie Hague-Evans, people director at experiences company, Fizzbox, says guides her. In addition to this, she says her priority is also trying to identify the things that stop teams functioning:

“We focus a lot of our thinking around the work of business management author Patrick Lencioni,” [who wrote best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team - and posits the view that conflict shouldn’t be removed as long as there is trust. She adds: ”We believe most issues in teams can be brought back to one of his five dysfunctions and when you understand what might be breaking down, it’s possible to delve into it and improve it.” Hague-Evans adds: “The pandemic presented huge challenges for the events industry and our backs were up against the wall for over two years - but those times of adversity and business fragility highlighted the power of a small team to pull together, towards a common cause.”

This is one thing Moneypenny says it's also makes sure it does. “Every individual is unique and has unique talents, skills and experiences,” says Moneypenny’s Ashdown. She adds: “We do not take anything for granted and have very regular check ins with our people which have replaced the traditional annual reviews.” Do this well though, and she says the results can be stunning. “Bring them all together, give them a common goal and, and what’s when you have an effective team.”

Here’s to more good teams, and more good teamwork.


Photo by Lars Bo Nielsen on Unsplash

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