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The changes enforced by the pandemic have brought teams and teamwork to the fore. How do we manage our teams to collaborate more effectively in a largely virtual environment? What do we mean by “effectively”? Better business outcomes and getting more things done, of course. But what about innovation and creativity? How can we get better at those too?
For a start, what team size works best? Of course there is no one answer, because it depends on the what outcomes you are trying to achieve in what context. You may have heard of Dunbar’s number. In the 90s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar became convinced that there was a ratio between brain sizes and group sizes through his studies of non-human primates. He used historical, anthropological and contemporary psychological data. He found remarkable consistency around the number 150, but less well known is that he highlighted successive layers of connections – 5 intimate/close friends, 15 good friends, 50 friends, 150 meaningful contacts, 500 acquaintances and 1,500 people you can recognise. You’ll have seen those metrics in the size of task teams, work groups, and then departments, divisions and companies you’ve worked in yourself.
In today’s personal and business landscape Social Media networks might have an effect on the larger numbers of connections you can maintain, but the smaller groupings are still valid. You might wonder why these are always in multiples of five. Dunbar says, “this number five does seem to be fundamental to monkeys and apes in general”. So 5 to 15 people make a workgroup. Enough people to get sufficiently broad traction on solving a problem. 150 people is the largest size at which a business can operate at a personal level, before structure and systems need to come in to play.
This gives us a guide on the psychological basis of different team sizes for effectiveness, and the last 9 months have showed us all that teams don’t have to be in the same room, building or country to get work done. What we have seen, and highlighted, before is how the crisis has triggered smart companies to move to an outcome-based culture for their knowledge workers, working from home, that doesn’t rate performance based on presence at an office location or even on time spent. Such a change in culture demands a rethink of many aspects of how an organisation works. We’ve seen:
- 20th century business processes being rethought and redesigned around new digital workplaces supporting cross-functional teams and moving away from departmental siloes
- More co-authoring and faster sharing of information coming to the fore
- Innovation at scale to bring products and services to market faster
- Organisations designed with more distributed leadership so they are able to respond and adapt to rapid and unexpected external changes in ways that old-style command and control structures just couldn’t handle
- A resulting increase in employee empowerment, with decision making shifting from the centre to the edge, so that it’s closer to the customer
- The emerging issue of potential burnout for remote workers, which has made employee wellbeing a major concern for most organisations
- The recognition that working from home works, but not for all people or types of work – we still need real face to face discussion for certain tasks, and mustn’t lose the creative serendipity of those “water cooler” and “coffee machine”
Many organizations have tried to both address the burnout issue and recreate those serendipity moments with regular “check in” sessions, planned extra-curricular sessions, quizzes and the like. These can work, but as we come out of lockdown, there is no doubt we are experiencing a permanent change – most firms will allow more flexible working practices, and the nature and purpose of the office will change.
How does all of this inform how organisations approach to collaboration and productivity?
Successful collaboration comes from a combination of three ingredients – properly engaged cooperation, clear communication across the team, and coordination of the outputs and outcomes being created.
When the pandemic struck, many companies responded to lockdown by migrating to a routine of constant meetings with Zoom, Teams or their platform of choice. The smart organisations quickly realised that simply replicating meetings wasn’t the answer: multiple channels are required, both synchronous and asynchronous, to make teamwork and collaboration more effective. This meant multiple workspaces, conversation threads and message channels as well as video meetings. It means a robust document sharing approach away from classic email and trapping documents in the inbox, whether it be the using the Office365 family, G-Suite, Zoho, Dropbox, or Box, along with Google docs or wiki approaches where appropriate. Instant messaging, chat, polls and questionnaires all have a place in the communications mix too. There is consistent research from Gallup that shows the better engaged your employees are, the more productive the company, and that is all amplified in the new “working from home” environment.
However, collaboration is about much more than having a good platform or the right tools in place. The old principles still apply: making sure that everybody is included, everybody gets the chance to contribute, and ensuring that the loudest voice in the team isn’t allowed to take over. In a more remote, distributed environment, which has been accelerated by the pandemic but is here to stay, living by these principles places more and more emphasis on “soft skills” – analytical, communication, interpersonal and leadership. These are critical development priorities for individuals and organisations alike. One of our associates, David Tebbutt, has researched behaviour for more effective meetings and deploys two strands of behavioural analysis in his thinking. First Transactional Analysis (TA) and secondly the work done by psychologist Dr Peter Honey:
“Each gives us ways to observe and parse human interactions, one in a personal setting and the other in the context of the business meeting. The first focuses on five primary aspects of our personality and how we can shift between them. The other focuses on nine primary verbal behaviours (plus some wheel-oiling extras) and how you can achieve better outcomes by picking the right ones for any situation you find yourself in.”
The final big component in improving the effectiveness of team collaboration in the future world of work is trust: trust between team members, and trust in the team by the leaders who put it in place, empowering them to make decisions and get things done. As Steve Jobs said in an interview about teamwork at Apple:
“Teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with their part without watching them all the time”.
Teams, teamwork and the cross fertilisation of ideas have never been more important for organisations to succeed in today’s redrawn business and economic landscape. The underlying technology you use is important, but the soft skills of leadership, communications, trust, critical thinking and creativity combine with the selection of appropriate team sizes and KPIs for monitoring the achievement of better outcomes. They are essential ingredients if today’s organisations are to succeed.
But the real question is, how is this research applied to the increasingly virtual environment in which we operate? These two paragraphs don’t really answer this question, they just tell us that we need to do things differently.
This post is part of our Future of Work series. You can read the previous post or find them all in our Future of Work section. If you’d like to discuss how we can help get you prepared for the way work and business is changing, then please contact us.