You call that a team???

Great teamwork wasn’t all that easy to come by even when everyone worked together in one place.

When the pandemic hit, with people scattering to work from wherever, it took a while for teams to regain their stride, and some never really did.

Some teams grew closer as they commiserated from the relative safety and isolation via video meetings. Other teams, especially those whose leaders had a hard time grappling with the uncertainty and ambiguity of an on-again, off-again remote workplace, tended to grow apart.

Eventually, many teams adopted operating norms, cadences and new technologies for working remotely. It wasn’t perfect, but things settled into a new kind of normal.

That is, until workers began returning to the office. Even the teams that eventually regained their mojo in a virtual world have been knocked off-kilter as they struggle to adjust to a world of hybrid work. Even the most resilient, empathetic, forward-thinking leaders are still trying to regain their footing in a constant state of ambiguity and rapid change. While some leaders have tried wishing away the last three years by insisting that everything “can now get back to how it was,” their employees aren’t as easily fooled. There’s no turning back, and they know it.

But even if they could wave a magic wand to turn back time, should they? What if the so-called teams we imagined were working well back then really weren’t as effective as we’d remembered them to be?

What if the real problem with teamwork was the same back then as it is today:  Most people are not part of real teams, even though they’re expected to behave as though they are

In their article in Strategy and Business, authors Benjamin Tarshis and Jonathan Roberts of PwC point out that a team doesn’t exist just because people’s names are in some org chart with one leader at the top. A real team is a small group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a shared purpose, who succeed or fail together, and who hold one another accountable, and may work for different leaders, according to their colleague Jon Katzenbach.

So what do you call the organizational units you’re part of?

  • Real teams are all about solving the hardest, most complex problems. Members trust one another and work together toward a shared goal. They discuss, they argue, and they challenge each another to do better. To be effective, they require flexible, resilient, empathetic leaders who prioritize building connections within the team. They create clear boundaries and norms that reinforce a strong sense of trust. They produce a collective output, instead of a series of disconnected deliverables.
  • Working groups, where most people tend to spend most of their time, have members who may all work in the same function or department and report to the same leader. Working groups are mostly about people getting tasks and deliverables completed efficiently, but not necessarily in collaboration with each other. Managers of working groups focus on making communication and collaboration easier, faster and more efficient. Individuals are accountable for completing their tasks, and emotional commitment and a sense of shared purpose tend to be relatively low.
  • Teams in name only not only lack the emotional commitment and a sense of collective purpose of a real team, but they also typically lack the efficient processes and sense of individual accountability of working groups. Leaders, if there is one, tend to have minimal leadership skills. Team meetings are often nothing more than a series of one-on-one conversations between managers and employees, rather than group conversations about how people work, their shared objectives and their commitments to the people they work with. In essence, teams in name only are typically the least satisfying and productive, and most frustrating, working groups.

 

Work feels harder today because it is

It’s not just because organizations are still experimenting with different hybrid models or keep rolling out change after change at breakneck speed until something (they hope) finally sticks, though that’s certainly part of it. I think there are two other contributing factors:

  • Organizations insist on force-fitting their pre-pandemic business practices, processes and policies on employees who have proven that there are different and better ways of communicating, collaborating and getting work done. The frequent result: Frustration, disengagement and low morale, leading to costly project delays and higher rates of attrition.
  • A sense of true “teamness” is often missing. And this is not because many workers aren’t in the office at the same time. (In fact, many working groups never felt closer than when they all sat across from each other at one big virtual table during the height of the pandemic.) It’s more that working groups are teams in name only, without a real shared sense of purpose or emotional commitment to a unifying goal. (And no, increasing productivity by X% or profitability by Y% is not the kind of unifying goal that inspires emotional commitment!)

 

What can organizations to make working relationships more rewarding and productive and less frustrating?

  • Determine whether you need to function as a working group or a real team. One way of working is not inherently better than another, and it’s possible to switch between the two models. But it’s important to be clear how you’re operating at any given time, and why. Are the challenges important and complex enough for people to invest emotional energy in producing a collective effort that could not have been accomplished by people working independently? Or is a high-performing, efficient working group enough?
  • Find ways to unify your working groups. Let’s say you lead the organization’s marketing department, with multiple functions reporting to you: Creative, Production, Finance, IT and HR. How might you help them create shared goals that can inspire emotional commitment across the department? Such goals might pertain to the work of marketing or something entirely different, like leading the organization in raising funds and orchestrating resources to create affordable housing units in your community.
  • Skinny down your meetings. True teams work best with the fewest number of people needed in any given conversation; try for three to six people. Not only is it easier to schedule time for real-time meetings (yes, teams really do need them!), but each person can contribute ideas more freely and at a deeper level. Effective working group meetings can accommodate more people (up to eight to 10), but only if the purpose is clear and everyone has a role that advances the meeting objectives.
  • Create and reinforce norms out loud and in writing. Regardless of the working model, members need to create shared principles and operating norms about how they will communicate and collaborate. Working groups might create norms that emphasize efficiency, while teams might highlight norms that address mutual dependencies. As a group, talk through what each principle and norm looks and sounds like in practice, and codify it in writing, both for current and future members. Agree how you will hold each other accountable for upholding norms. Download our principles primer here.
  • Give leaders the skills and tools to shine. Leading a team whose members are working intensively to solve complex challenges isn’t the same as leading a working group comprising people from different functions, with different goals. Leading people in person isn’t the same as leading people when all or some are remote, or when the team leader is working from afar. Consider what skills each leader most needs at any given time to motivate, engage and mobilize their members, and make it easy to access them. Download our Essential Skills for Hybrid Leaders report here. 

 

Mandating a return to the office won’t automatically make your workers suddenly feel like a team. If only it were that easy! Determine what kind of group you’re leading. Is it a real team (defined as “a small group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a shared purpose, who succeed or fail together, and who hold one another accountable”)? Is it a collection of such teams? Is it a working group? Regardless, work with members to create shared principles and norms to help them do their best work, whether together or apart.

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