What leaders need to know about the future of teams

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Team leaders will need the ability to create teams, get them performing effectively and then disband them on a positive note

Teams are set to play a critical role in the organisations of the future.The hierarchical structures of the past are giving way to agile teams that can respond quickly to new challenges and innovate at speed. Our recent research shows that 69% of managers now work with five or more teams and that 88% were responsible for at least one team.

The emergence of working cultures where teams are increasingly virtual, and are formed and disbanded as priorities change, poses many challenges for team leaders, particularly those who have been used to working in more conventional environments. So how do managers need to respond to the changing nature of teams – and what can HR do to help equip them for the future?

The march of the Millennials

Generation Y employees will play a big part in the teams of the future, so it’s important for team leaders to understand how to get the best out of them. Our research shows that Millennials want challenging and interesting work, flexible working patterns and frequent praise. They want informal, friendly relationships with their managers, and for their bosses to share their knowledge and experience with them. They are digital natives who have grown up with technology, and expect to be able to use it to its fullest extent in the workplace. Much of this is alien to team leaders, who have grown up against a more hierarchical, slow-moving backdrop. HR needs to help line managers understand how they can maximise the potential of this key group of employees while at the same time integrating them successfully with the rest of the workforce.

Multi-generational teams

The typical team of the future will be made up not just of different cultures, but also different generations. Demographic changes, coupled with changes in pension legislation, mean that ‘Baby Boomer’ employees will be working well beyond traditional retirement age. The challenge for team leaders will be to get the generations working together harmoniously. Over-50s will need to adjust to new ways of working, embrace new technologies and come to terms with the fact they may be reporting to people from a less experienced, younger generation. Millennials will need to focus on developing relational and interpersonal skills so that they can work effectively with older colleagues and learn from their knowledge and experience. Developing strategies to help the generations learn from each other and finding ways to retain the skills of Baby Boomers, who often feel they lack voice and are overlooked in the workforce, will be a key task for HR going forward.

New ways of working

The world is changing too quickly for us to be able to ignore the collective intelligence of the team. What this means is that the way teams work together and are led is set to change radically in the future. Instead of teams having a single leader every team member will have to develop the ability to both lead and follow. Team leaders and team members will have to develop their skills in areas such as facilitation, motivation and managing change. The ability for teams to learn on their feet is vital. The environment is changing quickly and the capacity of teams to learn new skills and adapt needs to keep pace. HR will need to find new ways of supporting the development of employees so that they are equipped with the skills to work successfully in teams in the future.

Networks of teams

In the future it’s likely that everyone will have a network of teams to which they belong. Research suggests that already only 38% of companies are organised by function, so we will see more and more cross-functional, multi-cultural and virtual teams. Team leaders will have to develop the ability to create teams, get them performing effectively and then disband them on a positive note. They will also have to be skilful in their ability to collaborate, flex their style and relate to a wide range of people – and to equip their team members to do the same. Team-based rather than individual reward is also becoming more common. This is a highly emotional area that will demand a step change in attitude and approach and real skill on the part of the leader, as well as supportive development and reward strategies from HR.

Building engagement

Engaged teams work more effectively. Research by Gallup shows that engaged employees have 22% higher productivity, 65% lower turnover and 41% fewer defects. At a time when employee engagement is at an all-time low, the challenge for team leaders will be how to keep team members engaged. People need to understand why what they do matters, and how it fits into the bigger picture. Leaders also need to make sure people feel valued and appreciated for their efforts and to show an active interest in team members, their aspirations and what drives them. HR has a critical role to play in helping create cultures where people feel that what they do matters.

Fiona Dent is an adjunct professor and director of executive education at Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School

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