Teams – a tool for complexity
Widespread hybrid work arrangements compel a rethink about teams in the hybrid workplace. It’s now widely accepted that a single individual, working alone, no matter how clever they are, is very unlikely to be able to tackle the complex, multi-dimensional challenges that characterise most professional workplaces today. For that you’ll need a team. As Scott Page has persuasively argued, a team, especially a diverse one, outperforms a talented individual, when there’s a tough problem to solve.
But traditional, pre-COVID models of teams and teamwork assumed stable membership, a fixed identity and clear boundaries sustained over time. A team often had their own allocated space in the office – and sometimes in the tea room as well! Team members generally interacted in a steady flow throughout the day, with incidental, informal ‘water cooler’ conversations supporting coordination, monitoring and progress management.
But this isn’t true anymore. New ways of operating were already in evidence before the pandemic hit us but COVID has undoubtedly accelerated those trends. In particular, COVID-driven lockdowns and restrictions have transformed long-held notions of what a ‘workplace’ is and how team members contribute a coordinated effort towards shared goals.
Almost overnight, it seems, we went from asking if we could work in a remote or hybrid way, to questioning if we’d ever want to return to the old, ‘office-only’ style. And the answer seems to be a resounding ‘no’. Yet there are implications and the Productivity Commission report on ‘Working from Home’ (released at the end of September 2021) flags these, especially where new coordination demands are concerned.
The hybrid workplace – new opportunities but new challenges as well
Working in a hybrid way (at times in the office but often, virtually, from home) delivers a significant bonus by way of flexibility and agility. A ‘team’ is no longer a fixed entity that you ‘join’ at the point of induction or onboarding. Now teams can be fluid and responsive. You may have a substantive or core team membership, with a particular manager responsible for your overall performance and career progression.
But ad hoc teams might be formed to drive a particular project to its conclusion. You could be in teams with partners, customers, government or community representatives, as well as colleagues from other divisions within the business. Membership will tend to fluctuate, depending on expertise requirements and the demand for innovation or creative, cross-functional solutions. The hybrid workplace makes all this team agility possible. Unlocking the talent of teams helps to support innovation.
It also raises new challenges. One, for example, is that many people now work, in effect, for more than a single ‘manager’ and have a wide range of ‘colleagues’, who may not share their professional background. In what way do we ‘belong’? What’s our team identity? How can we build trust and rapport rapidly amid all this change? How can we most appropriately coordinate effort and what are the ‘increased costs’ of these new coordination needs? Leading and managing are evolving to keep pace, as research by Deborah Ancona of MIT demonstrates.
Complementary skills for managers and their people
As many organisations are realising, there are particular skill needs for managers and others for team members. These skills are complementary and, in that sense, mesh with each other, reflecting the different roles and responsibilities of each side. For instance, a manager of a hybrid team needs to become skilful at checking-in with each team member to understand how best they can support their team member’s progress, and also their well-being. In a complementary way, a member of a hybrid team needs the skills (and the psychologically safe environment) that will enable them to reach out for the support they need, both to other colleagues and to their manager.
‘Checking in’ and ‘reaching out’ are two examples of skills that are not new, by any means. But they have now become essential, where before they might have been ‘optional extras’ in a teamwork toolkit. They are also now nuanced in order to be exercised virtually, not face-to face. The hybrid workplace needs intentional effort and deliberate strategies to realise the new dividends it brings. Great teams pay off as they always have – but these days certain skills have become vital.
More robust Team Agreements
A similar ‘old but new’ element is the Team Agreement. In the pre-COVID face-to-face world of teamwork, a team agreement tended to be a slight thing, if one existed at all. It generally sketched some fairly bland, high-level statements that reflected an organisation’s espoused values, as outlined on their public website. In other words, a team agreement wasn’t typically a functional, everyday document underpinning ‘how we work and how we relate’.
In contrast, a team agreement in the hybrid workplace is created by team members themselves and details those precise ways of working and communicating (usually virtual) that will best support connection, collaboration, alignment and productivity. It is, therefore, detailed but also straightforward and is regularly adjusted as the context shifts. It’s a live resource.
When organisations get teams and teamwork right, much else that matters for delivering outcomes flows from there. The following checklist of seven questions provides a useful conversation focus to support debate in your organisation. Debate is essential because, when it comes to teams, there isn’t a single approach that will work whatever your sector, whatever your challenges. Instead, use the questions below to direct attention to the key elements you and your colleagues might benefit from considering about teams and teamwork in your context.
PRACTICAL IDEAS TO APPLY IN YOUR BUSINESS
Supporting teams in the hybrid workplace
- What skills do your hybrid teams currently have to help them work in this new way, and what skills are either weak or missing?
- How might you design teams and tasks to take advantage of the flexibility and capacity for innovation of the hybrid workplace?
- What kind of Team Agreements would best support your teams to perform at their best and also foster well-being?
- How can you ensure inclusion and fairness, given much work is now virtual?
- What steps can you take to promote team identity and a sense of belonging in this new hybrid landscape?
- When so many people belong to multiple teams, how can competing demands and heavy workloads be avoided?
- What are some ways you could actively support career progression in this more distributed, more loosely configured way of working?