Maryland Smith Research / September 14, 2023

The Way People Work in Teams Is Changing. Here’s What That Means for You.

The Way People Work in Teams Is Changing

If you work with teams of people, there’s no doubt you’ve seen some changes in recent years. Virtual meetings have become commonplace – whether colleagues are working down the hall, from home in the same region, or several time zones away. Organizations often rely on global teams. And new technology, including artificial intelligence, is changing the way teams operate. The Smith School’s Gilad Chen has advice for how organizations and individuals can make the most of the changes.

Chen, associate dean for research and the Robert H. Smith Chair in Organizational Behavior, and his co-authors published research in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior.

He says there are ample practical implications – for everyone from new career entrants, to people who work in teams currently, to those who run organizations that rely on well-functioning teams.

Big changes, big opportunities

There is now a greater variety in team structures than ever before, says Chen, and the pandemic has been a major accelerator of these trends. Hybrid work environments existed before, but the pandemic made a lot of companies realize that work can get done innovatively when people work remotely. And technological changes, like the use of Zoom, took off during the pandemic.

New AI technology and applications such as ChatGPT are also creating opportunities, Chen says. “AI can help you get more work done – whether that’s helping you organize your day more efficiently at the individual level, or working with an AI team member that can process information quickly to help the team succeed more. AI is already being used in health care teams – for patient diagnosis, for example – and I think you’ll see many more applications and uses of it in different industries as we move forward.”

Other changes to teams comes from big issues – what the University of Maryland calls grand challenges – like climate change and economic turmoil, he says. “They are harder for individuals and better-suited for larger teams and team systems to address. You see large multi-team structures (teams of teams), similar to what militaries use, employed to address big issues such as responses to extreme climate events.”

Then there are workers who are working on more than one team at a time.

“The more knowledge-based work that you do, the more likely you are to be assigned to multiple teams simultaneously,” Chen says. “Now you have to navigate your work as an individual across multiple teams. That can potentially create greater access to talent worldwide for companies and greater sharing of information. But it also requires the people working on those teams to navigate their work effectively across increasing work demands.”

For organizations: How to make new teams thrive

  • Don’t be constrained by geography. With technological changes and more distributed work, companies can attract customers and tap talent anywhere in the world, says Chen. Seek team members with the most knowledge and talent to drive innovation.
  • Make sure the best leaders touch multiple teams. Prior research finds that when employees work on multiple project teams, having even just one really motivating leader on one team has a cascading effect across teams, says Chen. “Not every leader needs to be the same level of effectiveness, but you can strategically seed leaders to have greater reach if people cycle through their teams.”
  • Create accountable work environments. Some companies struggle with the notion of hybrid work, says Chen, especially when managers want to see their employees and micromanage them. He says companies should adopt a strategic system of managing employees, where team members can work remotely but not take advantage of the flexibility.

For individuals: How to thrive on new teams

  • Show your adaptability. As organizations try to figure out how to best motivate members of teams, individuals can set themselves apart by showing how well they adapt to working on new types of teams, says Chen. “If you’re really good at it, there could be opportunities for status gain and promotions.”
  • Be a self manager. If you work in a complex team or teams of teams, where members are from different parts of the world and work at different times or on different projects, make sure you are self-managing your day-to-day work, says Chen. “Show your supervisor how well you balance work and life if you work in another location from the rest of the team, or demonstrate how you are meeting demands across multiple teams.”
  • Be culturally adept at working with others. “You can no longer expect to have one type of teammate that you work well with. You need to work well with people who think differently from you, who have different habits, different styles than you, and you need to learn to adapt.”
  • Seek opportunities to work in different team environments. Chen encourages his students to participate in teams through in-class group projects, internships, volunteer positions, student clubs, sports teams, or music groups.
  • Highlight your successes. If you are looking for a new job or angling for a promotion, draw examples from experiences working with different teams and show how you effectively navigated team dynamics to work with different people and accomplish things successfully, Chen says. “Be able to speak to the different challenges you faced, the different people you worked with, and ideally, show that you were able to accomplish some nice outcomes and the results you were able to achieve.”

These days, workers rarely stay at one organization for their entire career, so they constantly have to recreate themselves within different team structures, says Chen.

“Teams are changing. To be successful, you have to be adaptable, and you have to create opportunities to learn to work under different conditions with different members more effectively. Seek those challenges.”

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