- People enjoy working in teams, so making teamwork enjoyable pays off.
- People learn in teams. so promoting knowledge sharing pays off.
- A more networked organization works better, so connecting people strategically through teams pays off.
Let's be clear about what teams are supposed to do for us. Students at the business school I work in get some training and a ton of experience working in teams, all to prepare them for a world of work that is increasingly collaborative and social. Over the past decades, companies have come to structure their work more and more around teams.
Teamwork brings coordination costs in time and money, though, so there’s got to be something valuable we’re getting out of all this teamwork. Still, most of us would find it hard to articulate what specific value our organizations get from working in teams.
I don’t think it’s just a fad. Teams are everywhere for good reasons, but we don’t think about enough of those reasons. “Synergy!” we say. Or “creativity!” I'm here to tell you that even if your teams don't boost sales, quality, or productivity, you might still consider them a success. Even if the task doesn’t require radically innovative solutions, you can benefit from working in teams. We know how to measure performance and it’s great if teamwork boosts productivity. But there are softer, longer-term benefits that smart leaders get out of building and deploying teams.
People like working in teams. That means structuring work around teams might make people more satisfied. One summer in college, my job was working on an assembly line. My work was loud and isolated, but just down the line from me were three workers boxing the product for delivery—together. Whether they worked as a team made no difference to the factory—that line moved at 64 cans per minute no matter what. They were mostly just chatting. But I saw them, and I knew I’d be a lot happier if we rotated jobs and I could spend three out of every four days with some social contact. Research backs this up: van der Vegt and his colleagues (2001) found that groups with more task interdependence were more satisfied with their jobs and their teams. Additional research suggests that happier workers quit less, work harder, learn more, and are more likely to go above and beyond their assigned duties. They also contribute to a reputation that can attract more and better new recruits.
Used well, team experiences contribute to the development and career preparation of its members. Watching others lead and follow, solve problems, and work together helps professionals prepare for their next job or leadership role. A retired executive friend recalls staffing every team he built with a member who probably couldn't add anything. It sounds backward, but this person would be chosen to get exposure to a problem, process, or challenge they might one day have to lead through. They learned from their more experienced teammates and were flattered to be recognized and included. Exposure to other functional areas also helped them see their work in the broader context of the company.
Teams build networks. Working together on projects or task forces connects people to colleagues they may not otherwise know. Aside from being inherently rewarding, these contacts can serve as sources of all kinds of resources. Working with colleagues from other functions, business units, or geographies gives everyone more personal contacts in the company to call for information, advice, or support. Research has shown that the professional network offers access to information and resources, as well as mentor relations that bring exposure, opportunity, and career coaching (Seibert et al., 2001).
Creating better, happier, and more connected teammates is a real advantage of structuring work in teams. Getting the most out of your teams requires a deliberate assessment of what your business needs, and what you expect to get out of teams. For instance, knowing you want to build community can help you staff teams strategically and not be disappointed when productivity doesn’t skyrocket. If you’re clear about what outcomes you're looking for, and what measures constitute success, using teams wisely can unlock tremendous value in the people you’re already investing in.
Seibert, S. E., Kraimer, M. L., & Liden, R. C. (2001). A social capital theory of career success. Academy of Management Journal, 44, 219–237. https://doi.org/10.5465/3069452
van der Vegt, G. S., Emans, B. J. M., & van De Vliert, E. (2001). Patterns of interdependence in work teams: A two-level investigation of the relations with job and team satisfaction. Personnel Psychology, 54, 51–69. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2001.tb00085.x