As the world changes, workplace teams need to change with it
In a business world where well-functioning teams are considered crucial to competitiveness, the leaders of many law firms should ensure they better understand the evolution of teams and how they can increase productivity, writes Keegan Luiters.
In 2013, accounting firm EY surveyed 821 executives from 14 countries, with 89 per cent of respondents agreeing that the problems confronting them were so complex that teams were essential to provide effective solutions. Eight-four per cent agreed that improving their organisation’s ability to develop and manage teams would be essential for future competitiveness.
EY’s competitors at Deloitte put out a report in 2019 on Human Capital Trends and the findings were similar. In the Deloitte report, 65 per cent of survey respondents viewed the shift from “functional hierarchy to team-centric and network-based organisational models” as important or very important, but only 7 per cent of respondents felt very ready to execute this shift. Only 6 per cent rated themselves as being very effective at managing cross-functional teams.
The gap between what is said to be important and what is done remains wide. Whenever this happens, it is worth considering what might be making those desired actions difficult to achieve. The way that most of us see teams in organisations needs to evolve.
In the late 19th Century, there were huge rises in productivity because companies viewed teams at work as the product of a series of tasks – where it was possible to get better results through breaking down the task into components. This view of teams places the greatest emphasis on each component (either the person or process) and very little on the connections or spaces between the components in a team. A hallmark of real teams in 2020 is that they are greater than the sum of their parts. Following that logic, simply focusing on the parts can’t be enough to achieve great team performance.
Teams in organisations are changing in many ways. Here are a few of the key ways in which they have shifted in a relatively short period of time.
1. From clear boundaries to fluid
Teams were typically seen as well-defined and distinct units that had distinct membership that was easily identifiable. Now, up to 95 per cent of knowledge workers are on more than one team at work and it’s not uncommon for individuals to be a part of a dozen separate teams professionally.
2. From stable to rapidly changing
Being a part of teams often felt like a High Court appointment – the members remained the same until they retired or died! Now, it is common for the team members to change rapidly as average tenure in organisations reduces and the skills required for different phases of work change.
3. From geographically co-located to partially or fully remote
No longer do teams need to be in the same place at the same time. While it is difficult to operate a factory or production line remotely, there are many teams that do most of their work either partially or fully remotely. The physical distancing and movement restrictions brought about in response to the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted to many people just what is possible without a physical hub.
4. From functionally distinct to distinctly cross-functional
In line with the view that the independent parts are more important for performance at team level, many organisations held the belief that maximising the performance of each part of their operation (sales, production, marketing, administration, etc) was more important than how those parts interacted. What is evident now is that there are more collaborative ways of working at all levels of organisations with cross-functional teams increasingly chosen as the way to achieve objectives.
5. From formally defined to informal alliances
It used to be easy to identify teams by looking at an organisational chart, but a report released by the ADP Research Institute in 2019 suggests that about half of the work done in organisations is through teams that are not captured in the company’s formal structure.
The implications of these changes for leaders in law firms are significant. The same research from ADP Research institute found that an employee who was part of a team was 2.3 times more likely to be engaged than those who were not. Within that, their relationship with their leader is central – a worker is 12 times more likely to be fully engaged if they trust their team leader.
As we are learning through 2020, the world is changing quickly. Leaders across industries and locations are realising that the problems we are facing are best addressed through teams (and networks of teams). Bringing this from theory to practice is challenging. It requires leaders to shift their view of teams and the role that they play. From knowing the right answers, to asking the right questions. From using authority through hierarchy to building engagement through trust.
These are not easy shifts, particularly in professional services firms and specifically law, where more traditional approaches are typical and have been successful. Firms and leaders that are able to do so will attract, retain and develop the best talent and will be best positioned to respond to rapidly changing market and environmental conditions.
Keegan Luiters is an independent consultant who works with leaders, teams and organisations to lift their performance. This article draws on content from his upcoming book, Team Up, which will be available for release in late 2020. Visit www.keeganluiters.com for more information or connect with him on LinkedIn.
ADP Research Institute, The Global Study of Engagement – Technical Report (2018/19)
EY Report, The Power of Many – How companies use teams to drive superior corporate performance (2013)
O’Leary, M.B., Mortensen, M. and Woolley, A.W., 2011. Multiple team membership: A theoretical model of its effects on productivity and learning for individuals and teams. Academy of Management Review, 36(3), pp.461-478.
Volini, E., Schwartz, J., Roy, I., Hauptmann, M., Van Durme, Y., Denny, B. and Bersin, J., 2019. Leading the Social Enterprise: Reinvent with a Human Focus.