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Teams have evolved to become virtual, global and cross-functional, often working across matrix structures. Aditi Sharma Kalra speaks to HR leaders to find out how they are creating the right conditions for success.

In today’s uncertain global economy, achieving organisational targets is a task that even the most Herculean leader will find daunting. Prospects of growth are shaky at best, and success in this scenario cannot be achieved without team support.

In Ernst & Young’s 2013 research, an overwhelming majority of senior executives surveyed agreed that teams were the best way to address today’s increasingly complex business problems. In fact, more than 80% were of the view their organisations’ ability to develop and manage teams would be essential for their future competitiveness.

Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt recently voiced his opinion on the topic by posting an African proverb on his Twitter stream: “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”

However, the word “team” no longer refers to employees who simply work in the same department, doing similar kind of work and reporting to a single manager. Teams have changed – drastically.

Teeming with changes

Teams today are virtual, global and cross-functional. They work across matrix structures, and often have more than one reporting manager. They thrive on collaboration, be it remote or on-ground.

CCL’s research on the state of teams found that 95% of employees today participate on more than one team at a time. Team members are geographically dispersed in two out of three instances, and 87% agree that collaborating with other teams is essential for their success.

So, how have organisational structures changed as a result of this evolution in teams? Francis Lua, human resources lead at Microsoft Singapore, says this trend prompted the company to move to a “new world of work” (NWOW) nearly three years ago.

This change takes place in three areas – people, place and technology – he says. The first aspect, people, was addressed by empowering employees to take control of their schedules and workloads, enabling them to have a virtual presence and encouraging a “family friendly” workplace.

“Post-NWOW, an internal survey revealed that 54% of employees reported an increase in productivity levels, 49% confirmed they collaborate more with their colleagues and 77% reported an improvement in their working environment over the previous one,” he says.

Place, the second aspect, ensures Microsoft employees are increasingly working on the move, be it from airports, other offices or home.

“We have become more fluid in terms of our physical presence. Our Singapore office has no assigned desks or private offices for managers.”

Finally, the aspect of technology has played its role in blurring the lines between home and work. “The idea of the office as the primary work location is being challenged as we evolve the idea of being able to work any time, any place and anywhere.”

Another impact of the evolution of teams has been on the rising numbers of “informal” teams versus traditional “formal” teams. In many cases, these informal teams come together for time-bound specific projects and are often tasked with a greater number of expectations than formal teams.

In the healthcare industry, for example, 70% of companies (with yearly revenues of more than $10 billion) say that M&A remains squarely on their agenda, and that they plan to undertake M&A activity in the lead-up to 2017, as per a recent Deloitte report.

The planning and implementation of such integration activity is usually placed in the hands of project teams that are put together to seal the deal, explains Yuen Keng Au, director for human resources at BD for Central Asia.

“In many cases, project teams have to very quickly determine all the goals they want to achieve, and where the resources that they need are placed across different departments. Then, they need to figure out how to put everyone together. It is all about collaboration,” she says.

“If you bring in people with the right core values, meaning those who feel accountable and responsible for delivery, then you get a great team. That would be an ideal situation.”

Nobody wants to work with you if you are not interested in developing your people.
– Yuen Keng Au, director for human resources at BD for Central Asia.

A leader to lead them all

Earlier this month, researchers from Columbia Business School and INSEAD analysed all Himalayan expeditions over the past 100 years (that’s 30,625 mountain climbers from 56 countries on more than 5,000 expeditions). The objective? To assess the impact of hierarchy on high-pressure group situations.

The researchers found that clear hierarchies can help groups achieve the best outcomes by offering co-ordination, organisation and less conflict during high-pressure situations, be it in mountains or meeting rooms. Roderick Swaab, of INSEAD, described this phenomenon as “the symphonic movement of a beehive”, saying that hierarchy helps the group become “more than the sum of its parts”.

And the importance of leadership in today’s teams cannot be emphasised enough. Research by Hay Group shows leadership accounts for about 70% of the variance in a team’s working climate. A positive climate can increase bottom-line performance measures by up to 30%.

“Leaders at Microsoft are expected to be, at the very least, role models of our values and our core competencies. This will in turn be reflected in their leadership styles,” Lua says.

He adds all leaders need to create people and team plans that assess strengths, development opportunities, retention risk, career aspirations and next roles. This then translates to clear actions for each individual.

“Managers should also define how they see their team becoming a higher performing team, and specific team interventions that are initiated to drive those outcomes.”

Keng echoes this sentiment: “Nobody wants to work with you if you are not interested in developing your people.”

BD has created a leadership standard that it encourages all of its managers to practise, where talent development is a key area of focus.

“Not everyone who walks into your organisation is classified as a high potential. Sometimes you hire a person because you think they can do a particular job, and after a couple of years, you give them an opportunity to move – whether laterally, zig zag or upwards, the last of which is harder these days because the organisation is so flat.”

Clearly, investment of time and effort in talent development is in the best interests of the team leader. However, the amount of time managers spend on it can vary, depending on the size, function, responsibilities and seniority of the team.

“Depending on the state of evolution of the team, different amounts of time will need to be spent building, correcting and sustaining team performance,” Lua says.

“For example, new managers and teams with new members will always need to spend more time building relationships, defining team fundamentals and determining team norms, compared to a team that’s been working together over a period of time and are already high performing.”

In the Ernst & Young survey, respondents globally reported to spending more than half their time on team-related activities, with variances depending on culture. Respondents from China were spending the most time on team activities at 65%, followed by those from India and Germany.

Depending on the state of evolution of the team, different amounts of time will need to be spent building, correcting and sustaining team performance.
– Francis Lua, human resources lead at Microsoft Singapore

A cause for collaboration

In addition to leadership, a lot of team performance boils down to collaboration. This is not just about a periodic team meeting, but rather about how well the team members work with each other and with colleagues and partners outside of their team.

In a Randstad Workmonitor survey released last year, more than 80% of employees across Singapore and Malaysia called for their organisations to spend more time promoting collaboration – in essence, ensuring they are prepared and excited to work well together.

This was especially significant given that more than two in every three employees across both countries said they performed better in teams, rather than individually.

Microsoft has actually instituted collaboration indicators as part of its employees’ performance metrics.

“Explicitly stated in our performance system is the requirement for all employees to leverage others for impact and to contribute to the impact of others,” Lua says.

This results in teams who are not just focused on improving their own effectiveness and performance, but also actively working across functions with other teams to ensure the larger organisation is delivering results.

“Additionally, ensuring various teams are aware of what each other are doing is critical to enabling effective collaboration as teams will know who to turn to and for what purpose.”

A global, collaborative mindset is also a big part of BD’s leadership standard framework.

“Having a global mindset means to really understand what is happening in different parts of the world, and how economic and political situations can affect your business,” Keng says.

“One also needs the ability to translate that global mindset into local impact. If you don’t know how to apply that learning locally, you are going to lose credibility.”

Measuring what gets managed

The research by Ernst & Young shows that high-performance teams are identified most of all by their clear and achievable goals. This is followed by a shared commitment towards the team, and clarity in their roles and responsibilities.

Over at Microsoft, Lua explains it has specific formal training on things such as collaborating for success and team leadership for the employees. “However, we put in place strong support structures such as mentors, coaches, learning circles and communities to help employees and managers learn and grow.”

Having such strong systems and metrics makes for a transparent measure of team performance.

“We measure team performance in terms of the impact that is being delivered to our customers and partners. This is reflected by key metrics such as revenue or scorecard numbers, not only for the team itself, but also the larger organisation,” Lua says.

It also benchmarks, both internally and regionally, against other countries and teams in a particular region, as well as globally across organisations of a similar size operating in a similar market maturity.

“We also have an employee engagement survey that is conducted every year that reflects critical aspects of employee and team engagement that contribute to team performance.”

If you bring in people with the right core values, meaning those who feel accountable and responsible for delivery, then you get a great team.
– Yuen Keng Au, director for human resources at BD for Central Asia.

In cases where the performance of a team has not been up to par, Lua’s advice is to start with the leader to determine if this is a leadership issue or something else (along the lines of structure, process, team members, strategy and direction, or rewards).

And, why not? DDI’s study in 2010 of frontline leaders found that only about two in five of them found a transition to being a first-time leader “easy”.

Research by Ernst & Young also had half the respondents reporting an insufficiency of leaders with the ability to manage and motivate teams.

Besides leadership, Lua affirms the need to have the right people in the team.

“The leader will need to define the skills and competencies that are required to make up a high performing team.”

Related to this is ensuring clear direction, without which, one cannot determine, “the need for a team versus being just a group of individuals”.

With all of this in place, next comes the fundamentals such as relationships, trust, individual and mutual accountability, and ways of working; which are backed by sustainable systems and processes to drive the desired behaviours.

The next step, he says, is to build an external network for the team, finally followed by putting all of this into a plan that is executed well, in order to turn around an ineffective team.

It is evident that across industries and functions, both leadership and collaboration are the two key factors which can make the difference between success and failure when it comes to teams delivering results. Managing a high-performing team has never been uncomplicated, and increasingly team leaders will be expected to wear different hats in order to keep pace.

Image: Shutterstock

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