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One Bright Spot in COVID-19: The Rise of Self-Directed Teams

June 11,2020 Collaboration and Productivity
Laurence Lock Lee
By Laurence Lock Lee

Those of you struggling with working from home (WFH) may have some doubts about this, but bear with me. If I asked you “who is in your team?” could you answer easily? Or would your answer be “well that depends ... do you mean our whole department? The people I work with the most? Which team do you mean? I’m on multiple teams.”

Teams guru and former Harvard Professor J. Richard Hackman writes: “A great deal of organizational work is performed these days by sets of people who are called 'teams' but who really are co-acting groups. Managers in organizations where this is done may harbor the hope that they can harvest the widely touted benefits of teamwork while continuing to directly manage the behavior of individual members.” Hackman goes on to discuss the “real team,” where highly productive work happens. Incredibly Hackman identifies knowing “who is in the team and who is not” as a key trait of high-performing teams.

Has COVID-19 Changed Our Concept of Teams?

As COVID-19 forced us into full-time remote work, the predictable rush to collaboration sites like Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom and Workplace from Facebook had an unintended side benefit: digital teams force the membership to be encoded in digital spaces. We now know who is in the team and who isn't — or do we?

My firm Swoop's recent Microsoft Teams Benchmarking Report of over 5,300 teams found an average team size of more than 20 members, but an active membership of only around six members. Perhaps that vagueness on who the “real team” is still exists in the digital world. Digital however leaves a “digital exhaust” of real team member interactions. So that is one thing we can thank COVID-19 for.

The “Manager” that Hackman refers to is often those individuals who occupy coordinating roles on the formal hierarchy. You can easily find these line managers in the office. An effective office-based manager is adept at “managing by walking around,” a management technique involving random discussions with staff to both sense what is going on, but to also help build morale amongst shop floor level staff.

The physical office has historically been the symbol of authority for the line manager. Powerful companies looked to have their status embodied in their brand signage atop the tallest skyscrapers, with the most senior officers located as close to that sign as possible. 

While this image may have been somewhat superseded by the tech companies that now occupy the top of the Fortune 500, it is still rare to see their leaders voluntarily working from home. In fact, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer controversially ordered its remote workers back to the office. Even as WFH was becoming mandated, I was surprised at how often I would be on calls where the participants were WFH, but the most senior staff members were still in a mostly vacant office.

Yet when even the most senior officers were forced to work from home, managing by walking around was no longer an option. A lifetime of skills and habits for managing in the office became redundant nearly overnight. It is these leaders who are the most disrupted by COVID-19. They are being marginalized as teams move online.

Related Article: The State of Play With Microsoft Teams

Self-Directed Teams Move to the Fore

SWOOP has been monitoring the online collaboration habits of organizations moving onto Microsoft Teams during COVID-19. Over the past four months we have seen a rapid growth in Teams usage as well as growth in the proportion of “self-directed” online teams as working from home has taken hold:

teams covid

Our Microsoft Teams Benchmarking Report found that not all team spaces were being used by what we would observe as an office-based team. Using statistical clustering techniques on over 5,300 team, we were able to classify the different uses of team spaces as shown above. We have continued this analysis on over 2,000 very active teams through the transition to WFH. The aspirational “self-directed” team showed the greatest growth from 48% up to a current 67% of all active teams. We also saw a drop in the “non-team” uses of Community and Forums from 43% down to 27%.

Our comprehensive review of the academic literature on high-performing teams, reported in our Teams benchmarking report, identified self-directed teams  as the unanimous choice in the eyes of teaming academics and consultants. Our data suggests a boon for teaming and quite possibly for organizational productivity overall. Tech companies in particular have been very vocal in their support for the effectiveness of remote work, with Facebook, Twitter, Google and Spotify indicating that significant levels of remote work are here to stay.

Related Article: Why Are We Still Emailing if We're Using Microsoft Teams?

How Can Leaders Regain Their Initiative?

For those leaders feeling a little sidelined by their now virtual teams, or unable to impact team performance: there is light at the end of the tunnel. But it requires acquiring some new skills and adapting some old ones.

I recently had the good fortune to connect with virtual teaming guru Jessica Lipnack, who has been a virtual worker for nearly 40 years and cowrote the book on “Virtual Teams” way back in 1997. She spoke with me about a new role emerging from this COVID-19 period call the “Zoom Jockey” or ZJ. Like the disc jockey, the ZJ orchestrates an optimal experience, not by juggling music, but ZOOM meeting participants. This might sound a little flippant, but anyone who has experienced the disfunction of larger electronic team meetings appreciates the need for a JZ. Along with being competent with the technology being used, they need to:

  • Facilitate a clear purpose and objectives for the meeting.
  • Be able to orchestrate effective discussions (online and off), ensuring team members have an equitable opportunity to contribute.
  • Moderate conflicts that may arise and ensure discussions remain focused and aligned with the purpose.
  • Facilitate the group moving forward on an agreed suite of actions.
  • Both participate in and monitor the digital team space.
  • Ensure that team outcomes are aligned with the broader organizational objectives.

But this mostly is what good managers do anyway don’t they? Leaders and managers now need to develop the virtual working skills that enable them to do what they do best in the office equally as well remotely.

When we look back on this COVID-19 period, and see the huge growth in self-motivated and self-directed teams, facilitated by a cadre of managers comfortable both in the physical and virtual world, we can say that something very good has come out of this epic disruption.

About the Author

Laurence Lock Lee is the co-founder and chief scientist at Swoop Analytics, a firm specializing in online social networking analytics. He previously held senior positions in research, management and technology consulting at BHP Billiton, Computer Sciences Corporation and Optimice.

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