Office Hours: Michael O’Leary on Managing High-Performing Teams

Stock image from Exec Challenge to demonstrate multi-teaming
Photo taken before COVID-19

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Michael O'Leary headshot

As most companies continue to function virtually due to the pandemic, managers have been forced to reevaluate the organizational structure of their high-performing teams. Multi-teaming, which occurs when employees are active members of more than one team simultaneously, is one of the many processes that has been accelerated as a result of this shift. Michael O’Leary, teaching professor and senior associate dean for Custom Executive Education, discusses the complexities of these changes as well as their potential long-term effects on the organizational effectiveness of firms.  

What have been the most significant changes to the organizational structures of high-performing teams due to the virtual environment?

Estimates vary, but pre-pandemic about 75% of people spent at least some time working virtually. During the pandemic, 75% or more spend all of their time working virtually. That percentage will certainly come back down some, but the return-to-work process will be gradual, and the end result will likely be a hybrid form of work for many people. 

Decades of research on telework has shown that the best general mix is three days of shared collaboration time in the office and two days of more protected time for solo work (from home or other places/spaces where interruptions could be kept to a minimum). It now appears that such a 3-2 model might become the norm for many knowledge workers. 

What are the benefits of a multi-teaming organizational structure, where individuals work across different divisions? 

Multi-teaming (where employees are active members of more than one team at the same time) was a reality for at least 65% of knowledge workers pre-pandemic, but coronavirus has accelerated it. When organizations are more virtual and more geographically dispersed, leaders and managers have less direct visibility into people’s work. They often tap people to work on project teams without knowing the extent of their commitment. 

Organizations that reap the benefits and minimize the costs of multi-teaming tend to have high levels of transparency about what people are working on (and when), have open internal processes for the assignment and reassignment of people to teams, and have managers who pay careful attention to people’s project commitments — even when they don’t have direct, in-person windows into their work.

What is the effect of multi-teaming on productivity and learning for individuals, teams, and organizations? How does it affect people’s allocation of attention and the flow of information? 

Without getting too technical, multi-teaming has an inverted U-shaped effect. There comes a point when the benefits derived from multi-teaming tip over and become costs. For employees who need significant amounts of heads-down concentrated solo work, that tipping point is as low as two teams. For employees who rely heavily on broad collaboration and coordination, the tipping point can be as high as 7-8 teams simultaneously. 

Effective levels of multi-teaming provide people with more access to information and help them balance the ebbs and flows of project work loads. For teams, it can foster the sharing of best practices and increase the diversity of experiences on a team. For organizations, there are additional informational and coordination benefits, as well as better overall utilization of people’s time. However, too much multi-teaming can quickly undermine these benefits through the costs of switching your attention from one team to another, from the misalignment of deadlines and workloads, and from people being spread too thinly and overworked without effective oversight. 

How can managers increase organizational effectiveness and productivity within their virtual teams? 

Among other challenges of this transition, teams and their leaders will have to plan carefully to ensure that the time together is well used for the types of work that benefit most from close shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration; and that time apart is reserved for work that benefits most from concentration and focus. Of course, these decisions can’t be made in a vacuum — they must also account for coordination with clients and colleagues in other teams.