Michael Boyer O’Leary (Boston College), Mark Mortensen (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Anita Williams Woolley (Carnegie Mellon University)
MIT Sloan, Research Paper No. 4752-09
Working in multiple teams within the same organization has become increasingly common for employees; some studies estimate that it is the norm for as many as 65 percent of white-collar workers in the United States and Europe. In areas as varied as consulting and software development, membership on multiple teams presents both opportunities and challenges for employees and managers. Companies can increase productivity by distributing employees’ knowledge, time, and attention more widely. But tension can arise if managers don’t keep tabs on which teams their employees join, and employees can become distracted when switching tasks too often. This paper is based on interviews and surveys with managers and employees whose environments feature participation in multiple teams, and it includes an in-depth review of surveys from past research. It provides valuable lessons for avoiding such conflicts.
The authors conclude that managers make all the difference. Some companies are successful with staff members assigned to two to six times as many teams as their competitors might assign because their managers do a good job of keeping their employees focused, organized, and appropriately positioned within teams. Managers must know all their employees’ team assignments and deadlines in order to prioritize, especially when deadlines conflict, and are most successful when they develop schedules and procedures to ensure that employees transition smoothly between different teams. It’s also imperative that employees’ roles on a team are well defined; is the employee merely a consultant, for example, or a core member?
Managers should look for individuals with the right aptitude for working on multiple teams; for instance, they should be self-disciplined and have a high tolerance for ambiguity. Voluntary joining of teams is also better for the workplace than mandatory assignments, the researchers say. But the ultimate secret to success on multiple teams is managers’ knowledge of individuals’ commitments; without it, managers can’t make reasonable decisions at the individual, team, and organization level.
As more businesses assign employees to work on multiple teams concurrently, managers must be aware of their employees’ commitments and deadlines across all the different teams they join. This reduces confusion and helps employees communicate their availability and priorities to their groups.