We love teams. We really do. Between the two of us, we’ve spent more than 40 years studying, teaching about, and coaching teams in organizations — which is why we’re surprised to find ourselves writing an article in which we question whether teams are as practical or as necessary to knowledge work as they once were.
Our thinking is driven by the many conversations we’ve had lately with employees at all levels, from summer interns to CEOs. In every echelon, we hear worries about work-life balance, burnout, employee disconnection, and turnover. For those who work on or lead teams, the strain seems to be even greater — and we think we know why.
When Teams Work
First, let’s take a step back to remember why we started using so many teams in knowledge work in the first place, because they’re relatively new.
White-collar teams rose to become the prominent organizational paradigm in the early 1980s as a response to technological advances and the globalization of the economy. The reason teams became so popular is because when they work, they really work. Great teams can generate creative solutions to complex problems, as well as offer rewarding experiences of camaraderie and challenge for employees. Indeed, high-performing teams go beyond just excellent work products — they also create growth opportunities for members and the kind of culture that people can’t wait to join.
When Teams Don’t Work
Unfortunately, even high-performing 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 underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination and typically chip away at 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 team stressors. As we look ahead to the post-pandemic future, we foresee these stressors continuing to mount, 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 once more to make sure the benefits outweigh the costs. Unfortunately, hybrid work may tip the balance in the wrong direction.
Teams have always had to expend a significant amount of time, energy, and attention on coordination tasks like disseminating and directing information, resources, and work; establishing healthy norms and resolving conflicts; aligning motivations and efforts; integrating disparate personalities; and putting together combined deliverables. Working globally adds time zone, cultural, and linguistic differences to the mix as the basis for subgroups or misunderstandings. For these reasons, collaboration overload has been a risk for some time.
The widespread increase in hybrid work has massively multiplied that complexity. Keeping in mind that all the costs outlined above still exist, team members have dispersed further — at times working in the office and at others remotely and at varying locations, each offering different resources and forces. It’s important to keep in mind that leaders shouldn’t think about team members independently, because where each individual sits also affects the configuration of the whole team — creating new subgroups, majorities, minorities, and isolates — to significant effect.
As if coordinating across these locations wasn’t complex enough, employees are more autonomy over when demanding they work in the office, which means trying to align shifting schedules as well. Even these patterns are a moving target: A 2022 global study finds that more than half the workforce is considering their increasing level of hybridity in the future. All of this coordination adds to the complexity of the tasks teams must undertake — and to the cost in time, effort, and energy to do so.
This level of variance that hybrid teamwork creates has never been seen before in organizational life and is bringing many managers to the breaking point. In that same recent study, 74% of global managers reported they don’t currently have the resources or influence needed to run their hybrid workforce well.
In addition to rising coordination costs, contemporary teams are experiencing reduced benefits. Research has found that team collaboration has been especially impaired in terms of creative work, visioning, and decision-making outcomes since the pandemic began.
Remote and hybrid teams are also suffering from a lack of social connection and belonging. We’ve seen in our own research that global executives are feeling less connected than ever before, despite being on an average of three work teams. In fact, being on a team can make people feel more lonely because it sets up a contrast effect. If employees are expecting to experience strong relationships with their teammates and they do not, they often feel the acute disappointment and loneliness morely.
What If the Math Doesn’t Work?
New advice for reducing some of those costs and creating more bonded, close-knit teams across remote/office boundaries is emerging — for example, empowering smaller groups to make decisions and fostering psychological safety. If those team intervention steps don’t move the needle, it’s time to think about team alternatives.
One choice is to disband or significantly reduce teams in favor of a higher proportion of individual contributors. Some are even calling for reducing jobs down to tasks to disaggregate the work further.
A less radical solution is to step down from “true teams” to the use of “co-acting groups.” As we’ve stated in past research, true teams have a shared mindset, a compelling joint mission, defined roles, stable membership, high interdependence, and clear norms. Co-acting groups represent a loose confederation of employees who dip in and out of collaborative interactions as a project or initiative unfolds.
In this configuration, there is still plenty of coordination work to do — perhaps even more so. 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 touching base with each group member individually. Because one-on-one interactions require the combination of just two calendars and are easier to accomplish both synchronously and asynchronously, they’re likely to result in a reduction in coordination costs as compared to hybrid teams.
There is also some potential for co-acting groups to result in reduced benefits as compared to best-case hybrid teams, particularly for creativity, collaboration, and camaraderie. We believe this downside can be mitigated (and the upside increased) by following some principles for effective co-acting groups:
- Design projects to include a few “big bang” moments of joint brainstorming, decision making, and socializing. This will help build morale as well as generate some of the synergies that teams can provide.
- Recruit employees with qualities such as self-direction, flexibility, and cooperativeness. Clarify the expectation that they’ll need to be able to switch gears between independent and collaborative work on a regular basis.
- Creates and reward structures that reinforce incentive cooperation and minimize competition among group members.
- Use dashboards and other transparent monitoring systems to help the whole group keep track of workstreams and progress.
- Create standardized onboarding and integration protocols to minimize disruptions as workers join and leave groups.
- Develop cross-training programs and provide more opportunities for professional development to give employees more flexibility in how they can contribute.
- Stop calling groups “teams” and avoid overpromising the degree of cohesion and belonging expected to come from them.
In addition, organizations should continue to seek ways to replace the gains once driven 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, company retreats).
So, Is This the Death of Teamwork?
To repeat, we are not anti-team. In their full glory, teams are worth the investment, even today. Yet we know as well as anyone how challenging it can be to execute them successfully. All 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.