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'Diverse, unstable, and complex': a Q&A on teams in the modern workplace

Date:16 August 2019
"Today’s teams are markedly more diverse, unstable, and complex than ever before." Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash
"Today’s teams are markedly more diverse, unstable, and complex than ever before." Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

A paper on team membership dynamics in the workplace by a group of researchers from the Faculty of Economics and Business was recently named "one of the three best papers published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior last year". The paper explored how in the modern workplace, employees often work in multiple teams at the same time, and how this relates to job performance. Here is a Q&A with author Joost van de Brake, who wrote the paper along with Frank Walter, Floor Rink, Peter Essens, and Gerben van der Vegt.

What are the most important findings of your paper?

This study investigated whether a within‐person change in multiple team membership (MTM) may precede and may be predicted by changes in an employee's overall job performance. We examined this reciprocal relationship using longitudinal archival data from a large knowledge‐intensive organization, comprising 1,875 employees and spanning 5 consecutive years. A latent change score model demonstrated that an increase in an employee's MTM was associated with a subsequent decrease in his or her overall job performance evaluations. By contrast, an increase in job performance was associated with a subsequent increase in an employee's MTM. Moreover, our results indicated that although an increase in an individual employee's MTM initially decreases his or her job performance, in the long run, this increase in MTM was associated with higher job performance. Together, these results suggest a dynamic association between an individual employee's MTM and his or her overall job performance, such that these variables are mutually connected in a highly complex manner over time.

Why is this an important area of study?

Today’s teams are markedly more diverse, unstable, and complex than ever before. A central assumption of most team studies to date has been that, at any given point in time, individual employees work in a single team. In contemporary jobs, by contrast, employees often work in multiple teams at the same time. Prior research has largely ignored the causes and consequences of individuals’ MTM, and it remains unclear whether MTM is a useful and efficient work practice. Multi-teamers can only spend a limited amount of time within each of their teams, for example, and they frequently need to move from one team to another to streamline competing demands on their time. MTM may thus significantly complicate an employee’s work schedule and task requirements. On a more positive note, MTM may also allow individual employees to develop and express themselves in unique and meaningful ways. Consequently, there is a real need for insights into the benefits and detriments of MTM, thus helping organizations and individual employees to manage the challenges and opportunities of contemporary teamwork.

What are the societal implications?

Based on our findings, managing employees' MTM to achieve optimal performance appears as a challenging task that requires considerable resource investments from both individual employees and the organization. Increasing an employee's MTM is likely to initially trigger substantial performance detriments. Consequently, employees and organizations may be tempted to shy away from such changes, retaining or even reducing an employee's MTM to yield short‐term performance benefits. However, increasing MTM may, in the long run, induce pronounced performance gains that may outweigh initial downsides. Hence, it seems worthwhile to consider increasing MTM as a resource investment that, eventually, result in important performance advantages. Both employees and their organization may benefit from accepting the costs of developing an employee to increasingly work in MTM settings, enabling them to reap the longer‐term advantages higher MTM levels entail.

How did you land on this topic as the subject for your research?

My PhD research was funded by a large knowledge organization in the Netherlands, and in this organization, employees work in multiple project teams at the same time. An important challenge for the organization was how to optimally manage the number of simultaneous project teams in which employees are involved. Hence, we landed on this subject because (a) an organization directly asked us to examine this issue (further highlighting the practical importance of our research), and (b) there was virtually no existing research on individual MTM.

What surprised you most during the research?

As described in the paper, we expected that increased MTM either increased or decreased an employees subsequent performance. Surprisingly, we found that the costs and benefits of MTM hinge on the time frame under consideration. Whereas the process of increasing an employee's MTM may initially harm his or her job performance, high MTM levels may eventually enable substantive performance improvements.

What's next?

We did not examine potential boundary conditions for the present relationships (beyond the time frame under consideration), and this may be a worthwhile subject for future research. Specific features of the work situation, such as support from colleagues and/or supervisors, or personality traits such as proactivity may enable employees to address the challenges and utilize the opportunities associated with increasing MTM. Relatedly, it may be useful to study the mediating mechanisms that explain how employees respond to increased MTM. Research on employees' coping with stressful work events points to personal growth and resource accumulation as potentially relevant mediator variables. Investigating such moderating and mediating factors may add more context‐ and person‐specific richness to the longitudinal dynamics examined in our study.

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