Successful Team Dynamics: Do Team Workspace Tools Help Get Work Done?

One of the core topics we will cover today at Enterprise Connect 2017 in the session, "Cisco vs. Microsoft: Titans Clash on New Terrain" (1:45 p.m. to 3 p.m. in Sun A), is the aspect of shared workspaces -- contrasting and comparing the team workspace offerings from these two companies. My research into Cisco Spark and Microsoft Teams has required that I become familiar with similar offerings from other providers. A key question going through my mind regarding the use of these tools is: "Are the people using them to do things, or are they getting things done?" There is a fundamental difference between the two.

In the 2009 book "Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results," author Morten Hansen, founder of the Center for Corporate Transformation, shared one of the startling results of his research: Bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration at all. He also suggested the possibility of there being too much collaboration.

The implication is important for executive consideration given that team workspaces seem to be on every communications vendor's go-to-market strategy this year. Any organization considering deploying such a tool should do so in the context of how it will make its people perform better while interfacing to business processes. The point I'm making is that organizations should consider Spark or Teams or Skype for Business or Slack or HipChat or Circuit or any of the numerous other communications and contextual collaboration tools within the context of how great teams really function and how they accomplish the overall mission.

Which brings me to some research Google did on teamwork. Researchers set out to answer the question, "What makes a Google team effective?" This is a question we would all do well to ask within our own organizations.

The hypothesis Google's People Operations group had formed prior to this research was that stellar teams comprise a group of people with a perfect mix of individual traits and skillsets. This means that if you could get a diverse set of smart, capable people together, you would have formed a successful team.

However, this hypothesis proved dead wrong, Google learned. Instead, the research showed that "who was on the team mattered less than how the team members interacted, structured their work, and viewed their contributions."

In its research, Google identified five key team dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans clear to everybody on this team?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we're doing matters?

These dynamics of successful teams make no mention of technology as a fundamental enabler for successful teams; rather, all five key dynamics relate to human factors and/or business process.

Organizational leaders should ask themselves what makes teams successful in their own areas of responsibility. If not these five dynamics specifically, then what are the dynamics at work in your organization that are in play for successful teams to emerge? As an organization rolls out technology, particularly team workspace or communications and collaboration tools, executives would do well to question how a particular software program or element will support the key dynamics that make teams in his or her specific organization productive. Does team workspace software have a role in a successful team, and if so, what should it be? How can team workspace solutions foster development of one or more of the organization's own key team dynamics?

If we consider the five key dynamics at Google, team workspaces can foster productivity and success in several areas:

  1. A team workspace can be a safe place to work in emotionally and psychologically... as long as the members of the team respect and behave accordingly. The social aspects of some team workspaces can really help people feel connected and fulfilled. Besides the standard interaction mechanisms of text chat, voice, video, and screen sharing, some team workspaces offer some fun and interesting twists on interacting. For example, Microsoft Teams lets team members supplement their workspace conversations with animated Giphy images and customizable stickers, both of which can express emotion. Spark also has access to these through a bot mechanism.

    But, team spaces can turn destructive when participants insert snide comments or rude or inappropriate remarks into a workflow stream. Teams should have some clear rules on what can and cannot be part of a workspace exchange or posting. These may follow some guidelines that would be available from an HR department.

  2. The constant flow of consciousness (primarily through messaging) that can exist in a team workspace can be highly encouraging and supportive to team members as they contribute to the conversation. And, it can provide a place where colleagues can give instant feedback to creative ideas. However, it is also possible for team members to lose focus and initiative when too much messaging or inappropriate messaging occurs. Most of the team workspace solutions support the notion of notifications or badges that appear when a new message has arrived or when a person has been specifically mentioned. These are important because trying to keep up with the stream of consciousness that can flow in a team workspace -- some of which is extraneous to getting the job done -- can be overwhelming. This point relates to Hansen's conclusions about bad collaboration being worse than no collaboration and how there can be too much collaboration.
  3. One of the things I do like about some of the team workspace offerings is the capability to task people with assignments and to make project delivery schedules available to everyone. This can help people get their work done as well as assure that goals, roles, and execution plans are clear. Some structured team workspaces are emerging that help guide teams toward project or task completion with specific notifications on documents that need to be viewed, documents or plans that need signing off on, and a host of other business process-related tasks that are important along the way toward getting things done.
  4. I do not believe team workspaces can help give people a deep sense of the meaning and impact of their work. There may be some validation, however, through some of the social interactions people get just in being part of a team, which a team workspace can potentially enhance.

So, back to the question posed at the start of this post: Do team workspaces really improve team productivity and effectiveness? Are they even important?

Google's research results on effective teams did not indicate that technology was a key dynamic to a successful team. However, if a team workspace supports the key dynamics that do exist to make teams in an organization successful, which are primarily the human factors and business processes, then they certainly can play a very helpful role. Leaders deciding to implement a team workspace solution must assure that a broad team workspace rollout has governance that will cause it to support those factors and processes. Given the importance of the non-technical aspects that make teams successful, perhaps involving the HR group in a team workspace deployment will be a novel and very helpful beginning.