Collaboration conundrum: understanding the changing nature of teams

As the modern workplace evolves, how can we rethink the changing nature of teams? Arraz Makhzani of UnWork weighs up the mounting evidence…

For all the interest in collaboration and its benefits, rarely do we talk about one of the fundamental building blocks of collaboration: the team. There has been much talk about getting people in different teams to collaborate more with one another, but it’s also important to recognise how the nature of teams have changed and how this affects their ability to collaborate within and between their teams. Now, researchers have begun to examine how teams have changed, with some notable changes to their structure, communications practices.

Dynamic Composition

In the past, teams have been fairly stable apart from turnover related changes. People join a company, are placed in a team and work in that team. Driven in part by increasing specialism in the workplace but also by research on the benefits of collaboration across different teams and disciplines, more and more people belong to multiple teams or teams only exist for specific situations. A project team is an example of this, as is a flash team that responds to emergencies. Teams are also more commonly a mixture of employment types and support: with a core of full-time employees focused on an objective and a peripheral shell of staff from other teams, consultants and contractors who may assist with specific duties or increases in workload. The peripheral team members generally make specialised contributions or are only part of the team for short periods.  In this way employees can belong to multiple teams, with a primary and any number of secondary or tertiary teams that they work in dependent on circumstances.

‘Dynamic teams improve knowledge-sharing’

This change to the composition of teams has been found to have numerous benefits. Firstly, it greatly aids knowledge transfer throughout an organisation, as well as other useful resource transfer. It also helps better alignment with a changing environment, enabling teams to better respond to changes in what is required of them. These benefits are consistently considered to make the case for having teams in these configurations. Flexibility and wide knowledge transfer are some of the benefits of smaller companies, which more and more larger companies are desperately trying to mimic.

There are a lot of other points that should be carefully considered, however, in determining when best to form this type of team. Some research has shown that splitting time between too many different teams can be detrimental. One study showed that teams made up of members who committed a higher proportion of their time to the team performed much better relative to other teams.  For example, someone might spend 50 per cent of their time in one team and the other 50 per cent split equally between five other teams. If we assume that the first team has the same proportion of time spent on it by all members, that team will perform a lot better than the five other teams. It is therefore important to understand which teams are most necessary for success and allocate resources accordingly.

Shrinking Distance

A key marker of work in the 21st Century is the ubiquity of digital systems that allow us to communicate easily across vast distances. While telephony has existed for a lot longer, without the internet it was rare to have remote team members as they would often be unable to complete and submit their work in an acceptable timeframe to contribute effectively. With the internet, staff can work on the company’s servers remotely, submit their work instantly and be kept abreast of all key developments in the team. This has effectively shrunken the distance between team members, letting teams become a lot more geographically distributed. Many companies now have teams with members across the globe.

While there is a dearth of research on the subject, there is some evidence that there may be aspects of virtual teams that make them function less effectively than physical teams. One such piece of evidence comes from the work on knowledge integration, which is the extent to which individual team members are able to synthesise their information and expertise through social interactions. This is a critical ingredient in collaboration and forms the basis for all human interactions that are directed at problem-solving or achieving an end goal. By conducting experiments that compare the results of virtual and physical teams, it has been found that in virtual teams, this knowledge integration process is markedly less efficient and less accurate than in physical teams. This means that virtual teams may be less cohesive in their understanding of objectives and less able to meet their goal in a way that effectively utilises all of their skills and expertise.

Team Autonomy

Another important trend in teams is the tendency for companies to be increasingly interested in the idea of teams managing themselves. Rather than having layer upon layer of bureaucracy and management, many companies have now decided that the people best able to manage teams are the ones who know and understand the team’s work and how it fits in with the company. This has led to organisations giving teams various extra levels of control, ranging from managing their own workload all the way to complete autonomy including strategy, salaries and recruitment. This has often been found to work well, promoting a sense of engagement and additional productivity within teams as they become stakeholders rather than mere employees.

‘Increased autonomy is a double-edged sword…’

When you give a team (or an individual) enhanced autonomy, you are giving them more power over their own working lives, but also more responsibility. The research literature shows that increasing autonomy can be a double-edged sword because of these two factors. Studies have shown that letting teams make their own decisions increases the level of individual empowerment experienced by employees (a generally positive psychological concept that describes the capacity for taking control of one’s own circumstances and exercising power) and that this can produce benefits in team performance, member commitment and development. While the bulk of research focuses on the positive benefits, there are also potential downsides to this increased autonomy. When layers of management are removed, it can be perceived by employees as a cost-cutting exercise whereby they are given more work and more responsibility with no benefit; just picking up the slack of others. The team will also experience even more pressure to evaluate themselves; with nobody left to guide them or direct them, they may find it difficult to develop in a way that benefits them and the company.

This article has presented three major ways that the way we work in teams have changed and are continuing to do so in the modern workplace. None of these are intended to be warnings or prescriptive. The purpose of this article is rather to stimulate thought around how teams work, how they have changed and how best to balance corollaries of the changing ways we work. For example, consider the extent to which a team should be composed dynamically or autonomously: for some types of work or some teams, perhaps they should be more towards one side of the spectrum or the other. Understanding these dynamics are one of the keys to success in the changing world of work.

Arraz Makhzani is a workplace analyst at UnWork
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