In 1924, the organisational psychologist Professor Elton Mayo, started a range of research studies at the Hawthorne Works factory to explore the impact that the working environment had on employees productivity (it’s where the term “The Hawthorne effect” comes from, which describes the tendency for people to alter their performance when they know they are being observed).

As part of the studies, which lasted until 1932, Mayo pulled together teams of workers who were observed over a period of time. The teams had various factors changed – such as the number, and duration of breaks – to see how this affected their output. But a huge discovery from the research was the positive effects the team reported as a result of working together. Whereas previous studies had focused only on the individual worker, Mayo’s research was the first to identify the relevance of teamwork in the workplace. And it changed management thinking.

So we’ve been thinking about teamwork for a long time – it’s certainly nothing new. But what is changing, is the way we now need to think about it. According to the EY report “The Power of Many”, 90% of our work is now done in teams. Research from The Centre for Creative Leadership takes it even further – in the knowledge industries, 95% of people are not just working in teams, but are working across multiple teams. This is what Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, calls “multi-teaming”.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Mortensen explains that the rise of multi-teaming is due to the increasing pace of change, global competition and a more interconnected world. Silos and hierarchies are no longer working, and we need to work in more fluid and dynamic ways to solve the challenges that business face.

This means a couple of things for us. Firstly, as individuals working across multiple projects and teams, we need to be great at managing our own time and productivity, coping with conflicting demands and communicating with others.

Secondly, as “multi-teaming” becomes the main way of getting work done, we need to know what makes teams effective and successful in building them, launching them and keeping them going. We’ll need to explore questions like: what’s the optimum team size? How do you build trust quickly in a new team? What are the best ways to keep a team engaged throughout a project?

Do the work up front, and see the rewards later

The late J. Richard Hackman spent years collating research from high-performing teams across many industries, from sports to aviation to business, and found that most of the impact that a leader has in building a successful team takes place before they even start working together. He attributes a massive 90% to this – 60% in the design of the team and creating the conditions for them to collaborate effectively, and 30% in the team launch. It’s only the remaining 10% that happens, through coaching, when the team are actually working together.

We may not all have influence over how and why a team comes together, but Hackman’s 60-30-10 rule demonstrates the importance of being intentional about the way that we approach teamwork.

There is no one size fits all

When a team comes together, the mix of skills, expertise and personalities will be unique. Each new project is an opportunity to build a new team culture. Even if a team has worked together before, the context of a new innovation challenge or creative brief will bring in different dynamics.

The project kickoff is a key part of all of this. Mortensen says that these sessions are an opportunity to 1) set ground rules about the way the team wants to function, 2) help people to understand why they’re there, and 3) have an agreement on what they are there to do. In the context of “multi-teaming” it’s also an opportunity for team members to share their other commitments and set clear expectations for how much they can contribute. This can form the basis of how a team will work together.

Related: how to kick off your team project: what research says

Creating a team rhythm

The conversation around ways of working continues after the project kickoff, and becomes an ongoing conversation. An effective team will experiment with different collaboration methods, and principles are likely to emerge as the team does the work. It’s easier to reflect and make changes when work is organised into short cycles, broken down into milestones and check-ins that keep everything moving. In The Progress Principle, Amabile and Kramer identified the importance of making small steps of progress as a key aspect of people being engaged in their work.

One area to make big impact is to improve the way a team meets. Unproductive meetings, and too many of them, cause so much frustration, but they’re an unavoidable part of teamwork. With design and consideration, meetings can become the heartbeat of a project, forming a rhythm to the way a team works. A team can explore when, why and how they need to meet, and run productive sessions that provide momentum to a project.

Related: 26 different ways to meet with your team

Finding the time

This all seems like a lot to think about alongside getting our actual work done. Do we all need to be teamwork experts? No, but we can definitely make a difference by being aware of the factors that have an impact and taking a proactive approach to the way we work together, especially as it’s such a big part of our working lives.

This could be as simple as starting with prompts that cover the basics. Using checklists can free up more headspace for complex tasks and problem-solving. I’ve written before about how Atul Gawande found that a medical team’s effectiveness improved when they were reminded to introduce themselves to each other before a surgery.

We’ve come a long way since Mayo’s discovery that work should be considered in a social context. But as the world changes, in the ways that Mortensen described, staying conscious of the factors that lead to effective teamwork will play a large part in creating and maintaining engaging, productive and happier workplaces.


Image credit: Asena Hatice Yildirim on Unsplash.