November 12, 2015

Teams Types 3: The Teaming Workgroup (TWG)

Team Types and their Characteristics

There are four principal team types to be found in most organisations. Whilst they share many characteristics and challenges, each is unique in terms of how they interact with their environment and they each have unique challenges and characteristics. Developing a team and maximising its effectiveness requires an understanding and recognition of its particular characteristics and challenges. The figure below broadly describes the four types. This article considers the Teaming Work Group in more depth.

Team Types

The Teaming Work Group:

The teaming work group [TWG] is a growing phenomenon in organisations today. It is essentially a traditional "Intact" team, a functional team (never a project or virtual team) with the all-important difference being its composition. Based around shifts, the team is never comprised of the same people, two shifts running. This team type is to be found in organisations such as hospitals, airlines, call centres, retail (shop floor) and hotels.

The concept has developed in response to shift patterns and in particular to zero hour contracts and growing flexibility demands from employees in terms of hours worked. In the airline industry for example, keeping the same flight crew (team) together is not financially practical. Algorithms are therefore used to maximise utilisation of both employees and aircraft where each is perceived as an individual unit. The net result is that employees seldom work with the same colleague. In fact, it has been reported that where two colleagues are assigned to work on a trip or flight in a major airline, it could be as much a five years before it would happen again.

Many organisations today maintain a pool of people that they draw from to generate a shift or to meet the demands of a 24/7 operation. In effect, the 'team' for a particular function can be 100 people or more with possibly only 15 of that pool actually working on any given shift or in any given period.

This type of team is becoming more common. There are substantial advantages to this type of team, but also enormous challenges. This type of grouping still needs to exhibit teaming behaviours and particularly so given the constant change in composition.

Developing and maintaining robust team standards and protocols is difficult with the teaming work group.

Research by the USA National Transport Safety Board relating to airline crews, found that 73% of incidents in its database happened on a crew's first day of flying together—before they had an opportunity to learn as a new grouping—and 44% of those incidents took place on their very first flight. NASA found in a study that fatigued crews with a history of flying together made 50% fewer errors as crews composed of rested pilots who had not flown with each other before.

It stands to reason that a team with a stable composition will learn together, develop protocols together over time, deal with their mistakes collectively and, in effect, develop a history that informs further actions. This is not available to the teaming work group in the same manner. It is not possible to develop this type of group in a traditional team development paradigm. Intervention is not possible in the same manner when a problem arises. The more an organisation depends on this type of team—and use of such teams is growing exponentially—the more it is exposed to errors and mistakes. How does one support this type of organisation and ensure that the teaming work group is as effective as any other form of team?

This type of team has many strengths:

  1. This team type does provide a financial advantage in respect of labour costs, both in terms of unitisation and in terms of the nature of zero hour contracts that often accompany this team structure.
  2. Drawing from a large pool of workers increases the variation of skill sets and perspectives and, if properly captured, can create a valuable base of knowledge and experience beyond that of more traditional team structures.
  3. It delivers a flexibility to employees that would otherwise not be available in traditional contracts or team delineation in terms of hours worked.
  4. It enables a more effective delivery of a 24/7 operation, ensuring that a full complement of staff is always available.

With the strengths of this team type go challenges:

  1. Maintaining standards of performance is more difficult in this team structure. Even delivering an appropriate leadership style is challenging for team leaders as they never work with the same team two shifts running. The mix of personalities, levels of skills and competencies continually fluctuates and puts considerable pressure on the team leader in leading the team.
  2. Error rates and mistakes are higher.
  3. Team or collective training is difficult as the continuous shuffling of team composition makes it difficult to recognise a specific issue that requires an intervention. What is a problem for one combination of people may never appear again unless the exact group is by chance scheduled again. Individual training is possible but can only address common features such as rules, regulations and health and safety procedures. The more traditional team can address the implications for their operation of these standard procedures and deal with and improve them- the teaming work group cannot do so.
  4. The constant change in composition impacts the ability of team members to develop closer working relationships and to build on each other's strengths and weaknesses. This also impacts the team member's sense of engagement, ownership and belongingness, ultimately resulting in greater attrition and turnover and lower levels of morale and motivation. The sense of esprit de corps is always less in this team structure.
  5. High staff turnover results in a range of significant costs for the organisation.

The Imperatives

Teaming Work Groups are becoming more common, but many organisations have not developed effective strategies to fully support such a team type and mitigate the negatives associated with them. In many cases the traditional approach to team development will not work for a TWG. Even identifying the issues that should be addressed can be difficult. Leadership is more challenging in this structure and this has implications for how leaders are developed.

Very large pool sizes make it extremely difficult to bring the entire complement together to discuss issues and maintain the sense of team spirit that encourages commitment. These barriers ultimately impact innovation, drive and even passion for the work to be done in the most effective manner.

To maximise the potential from this type of team, the organisation and the leader should pay attention to the following:

  1. Leadership development must take account of the continuing change in composition. The TWG leader must adopt a flexible leadership style to meet the needs of team members on a continuous basis that involves being directive, supportive and encouraging as well as being effective at delegating.
  2. Leaders must come to terms with the understanding of leadership style matched to subordinate readiness and capability. It is assuredly not an environment where one style fits all. This is not something that most leaders can do naturally. They need to help to develop introspection and understand their preferred style and learn to flex.
  3. The organisation must build an understanding of the challenges that emerge for this type of team. Take the hospital ward and a continuous shift cycle. Are the challenges the same on the night shift as they are on the day or evening shift? What kind of issues are emerging that the overall group need to be aware off? One approach is to use a team development instrument to capture team member's experiences as they come off a shift. A picture can then be built up over a period (such as a quarter) enabling the leader and the organisation to identify and understand issues and patterns that emerge in relation to the different shifts. If this is then correlated, for example, with ongoing patient feedback a comprehensive picture can be established of typical challenges faced by the group overall. While this may not necessarily feed into a training intervention, it is will more than likely feed into briefing sessions for the team members as they rotate through their shifts. It provides data and information for the team members from themselves and allows them over time to develop strategies to address the issues.
  4. Consideration should be given to bringing the extended group together on a regular basis. This is challenging and will often be determined by operational demands and constraints. Failing that, a regular quarterly session should be made available for team members to attend to discuss the challenges of working in this environment. This does not need to be the entire pool but one would hope that over a twelve month period the vast majority will have been included and have been afforded the opportunity to air their views.
  5. Roles and goals should be reinforced on a regular basis for all members of the group/pool.  

In a final consideration one must bear in mind that a teaming work group is for all intents and purposes a traditional team and the strengths and weaknesses of that team type apply, albeit with the complication of the ever changing composition. All teams have common attributes and all teams can be considered unique. For the organisation deploying this team type they must develop a strategy for support that reflects the needs of their Teaming Work Groups.

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