Do We Still Need Teams?

Constance Noonan Hadley and Mark Mortensen (@profmortensen)

April 26, 2022

The reason teams became so popular in the 1980s is that when they work, they really work. Great teams can generate creative solutions to complex problems as well as rewarding experiences of camaraderie and challenge for employees. Unfortunately, even high-performing teams incur costs. Looking ahead to the post-pandemic future, the authors foresee the stressors managers have faced since the beginning of the crisis continuing to mount, which means it’s time to reassess when and how to use teams in organizations. One solution is to step down from “true teams” to the use of “co-acting groups”: loose confederations of employees who dip in and out of collaborative interactions as a project or initiative unfolds. The authors discuss the upsides and downsides and present several principles for effective co-acting groups.

From hbr.org

We love teams. We really do. Between the two of us, weve spent more than 40 years studying, teaching about, and coaching teams in organizations — which is why were 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 weve 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, lets take a step back to remember why we started using so many teams in knowledge work in the first place, because theyre 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 cant wait to join.

When Teams Dont 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 Dont Work," our late mentor, J. Richard Hackman, said: "Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. Thats because problems with coordination and motivation 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 its 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.

Increased costs

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 distractions. Its important to keep in mind that leaders shouldnt 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 wasnt complex enough, employees are demanding more autonomy over when 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 increasing their level of hybridity in the future. All of this adds dramatically to the complexity of the coordination 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 dont currently have the resources or influence needed to run their hybrid workforce well.

Reduced benefits

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. Weve 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 disappointment and loneliness more acutely.

What If the Math Doesnt 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 dont move the needle, its 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 weve 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, theyre 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:

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 (e.g., employee resource groups), open brainstorming opportunities (e.g., hackathons), and compelling culture-building activities (e.g., 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, its time to think more seriously about new ways of working.

Constance Noonan Hadley is an organizational psychologist at the Boston University Questrom School of Business and founder of the Institute for Life at Work. She conducts research on the future of work, team dynamics, well-being, social connection, inclusion, and psychological safety. Her goal is to help organizations identify and address pain points so that work life can be improved for all employees. Mark Mortensen is an associate professor of Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD. He researches, teaches, and consults on issues of collaboration, organizational design and new ways of working, and leadership.