Employee Teams

Understanding the Types of Employee Teams

During the past decade perhaps one of the more radical changes to how work is done is the introduction of organization teams. Jim Barksdale, president and CEO of Netscape Communications, states, “These days it seems as if every time a task needs to be accomplished within an organization, a team is formed to do it.” This statement simply emphasizes the increasing importance of teams to organizational success in an ever-dynamic business climate.

Employee Teams are an improve contributions technique whereby work functions are structured for groups rather than for individuals and team members are given discretion in matters traditionally considered management prerogatives, such as process improvements, product or service development, and individual work assignments.

At such diverse organizations as Federal Express Opens in new window, Trek Bicycles Opens in new window, Calvin Klein Opens in new window, and LucasFilm Opens in new window, producer of the Star Wars  Opens in new window and Indiana Jones Opens in new window films, the benefits of employee teams have included more integration of individual skills, better performance in terms of quality and quantity, solutions to unique and complex problems, reduced delivery time, reduced turnover and absenteeism, and accomplishments among team members.

Employee teams are a logical outgrowth of employee involvement Opens in new window and the philosophy of empowerment. Although many definitions of teams exist, for purpose of this discussion,

  • we define a work team as a group of individuals working together toward a common purpose, in which members have complementary skills, members’ work is mutually dependent, and the group has discretion over tasks performed. Furthermore, teams seek to make members of the work group share responsibility and accountability for their group’s performance.

Inherent in the concept of employee teams is that employees, not managers, are in the best position to contribute to workplace performance. With work teams, managers accept the notion that the group is the logical work unit for applying resources to resolve organizational problems and concerns.

Teamwork also embraces the concept of synergy. Synergy Opens in new window occurs when the interaction and outcome of team members is greater than the sum of their individual efforts. Unfortunately, synergy may not automatically happen, but rather, it must be nurtured within the team environment. Exhibit I lists the factors contributing to a synergistic team setting.

Exhibit I: Synergistic Team Characteristics
    Team synergy is heightened when team members engage in these positive behaviors.
  • Support
    The team exhibits an atmosphere of inclusion. All team members speak up and feel free to offer constructive comments.
  • Listening and Clarification
    Active listening is practiced. Members honestly listen to others and seek clarification on discussion points. Team members summarize discussions held.
  • Disagreement
    Disagreement is seen as natural and is expected. Member comments are nonjudgmental and focus on factual issues rather than personality conflicts.
  • Consensus
    Team members reach agreements through consensus decision-making. Consensus decisions require finding a proposal that is acceptable to all team members, even if not the first choice of individual members. Common ground among ideas is sought.
  • Acceptance
    Team members are valued as individuals, recognizing that each person brings a valuable variety of skills and abilities to team operations.
  • Quality
    Each team member is committed to excellent performance. There is emphasis on continuous improvement and attention to detail.

Teams can operate in a variety of structures, each with different strategic purposes or functional activities. Exhibit II describes common team forms. One form, self-directed teams, is often championed as being the highest form of team structure.

Self-directed teams, also called autonomous work groups, self-managed teams, or high-performance teams, are groups of employees who are accountable for a “whole” work process or segment that delivers a product or service to an internal or external customer.

For example, in a manufacturing environment, a team might be responsible for a whole product (i.e., a computer screen) or a clearly defined segment of the production process, such as the building of an engine for a passenger car.

Similarly, in a service environment, a team is usually responsible for entire groupings of products and services, often serving clients in a designated geographical area. Typical team functions include setting work schedules, dealing directly with external customers, training team members, setting performance targets, budgeting, inventory management, and purchasing equipment or services. To operate efficiently, team members acquire multiple skills enabling them to perform a variety of job tasks.

Exhibit II: Forms of Employee Teams
  • Cross-Functional Teams
    A group staffed with a variety of specialists (e.g., marketing, production, engineering) and formed to accomplish a specific objective. Cross-functional teams are based on assigned rather than voluntary membership.
  • Project Teams
    A group formed specifically to design a new product or service. Members are assigned by management on the basis of their ability to contribute to success. The group normally disbands after task completion.
  • Self-Directed Teams
    Groups of highly trained individuals performing a set of interdependent job tasks within a natural work unit. Team members use consensus decision-making to perform work duties, solve problems, or deal with internal or external customers.
  • Task Force Teams
    A task force is formed by management to immediately resolve a major problem. The group is responsible for developing a long-term plan for problem resolution that may include a charge for implementing the solution proposed.
  • Process-Improvement Teams
    A group made up of experienced people from different departments or functions and charged with improving quality, decreasing waste, or enhancing productivity in processes that affect all departments or functions involved. Team members are normally appointed by management.

To compete in today’s national and international markets, managers increasingly form virtual teams. virtual team is a team with widely dispersed members linked together through computer and telecommunications technology. Virtual teams use advanced computer and telecommunications technology to link team members who are geographically dispersed—often world-wide.

Management may form a project team (see Exhibit II) to develop a new pharmaceutical drug and have the team operate in a virtual environment to achieve its goal. For a major U.S. telecommunication client, IBM used a global team to develop a Web-based tool for launching new services. The team included members from Japan, Brazil, and Britain and delivered a finished product in two months, a considerable reduction in product delivery time.

Although virtual teams have many benefits, they are not without their problem. Paulette Tichenor, president of Organizational Renaissance, a team training organization, notes these concerns with virtual teams: language and cultural barriers, unclear objectives, time conflicts due to diverse geographical locations, and selecting people who can work in a collaborative setting.

Navi Radjou Opens in new window, an expert in network innovations, notes, “One problem with distributing work is that you lose the intimacy of talking things through at the local café.” To reduce this problem, companies such as Nokia are careful to select people who have a collaborative mindset. At Nokia Opens in new window, team members are encouraged to network online and to share pictures and personal biographies.

In another example, Accenture Opens in new window, a worldwide consulting organization, yearly involves 400 managers in virtual team leadership training. The goal is to create team effectiveness and to promote understanding of cross-cultural differences.

Regardless of the structure or purpose of the team, the following characteristics have been identified with successful teams:

  • Commitment to shared goals and objectives
  • Motivated and energetic team members
  • Open and honest communication
  • Shared leadership
  • Clear role assignments
  • Climate of cooperation, collaboration, trust, and accountability
  • Recognition of conflict and its positive resolution

Unfortunately, not all teams succeed or operate to their full potential. Therefore, in adopting the work team concept, organizations must address several issues that could present obstacles to effective team function, including overly high expectations group compensation, specialized team training, career movement, and conflict resolution. For example, new team members must be retrained to work outside their primary functional areas, and compensation systems must be constructed to reward individuals for team accomplishments. Importantly, research shows that teams achieve greater effectiveness when team members initially establish team ground rules, or team norms, for operational and behavioral success.

Another difficulty with work teams is that they alter the traditional manager-employee relationship. Managers often find it hard to adapt to the role of leader rather than supervisor and sometimes feel threatened by the growing power of the team and the reduced power of management. Furthermore, some employees may also have difficulty adapting to a role that includes traditional supervisory responsibilities.

Therefore, from our experience in working with teams, extensive attention must be given to training team members as they move through the four stages of team development Opens in new window—forming, storming, norming, and performing. Complete training would cover the importance of skills in (1) team leadership, (2) mission/goal setting, (3) conduct of meetings, (4) team decision-making, (5) conflict resolution, (6) effective communication, and (7) diversity awareness.