Both digital and physical workspaces are generally designed to help people who need to work together to do so. However, beyond this, much of their design tends to focus on the productivity and performance of individual employees. Given that the point of performance in organizations is increasingly the team, that individualistic focus is less and less appropriate.
In this article, I will review the opportunities for designing workspaces that will improve the performance of teams. I am focusing on what I call “real” teams. These are the teams that work horizontally across functions; examples include process, project, product, and Agile teams. The need for a team-focused workspace is not so great for functional groups, since they don’t work horizontally and so are not real teams. In functions, individuals work primarily on their own objectives, simply coordinating their work with functional colleagues. This is very different to a real team environment in which people focus mainly on the overall team objectives, and closely collaborate to achieve these.
Horizontal teams require high levels of trust among team members. According to research from Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy
, this is about showing competence, and warmth — or a level of personal affinity, as other models of trust show, too. In most relationships, warmth supercedes competence. However, as research from Jeffrey Pfeffer
, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, has shown, this depends on the nature of the relationship. Where someone’s own performance, and their pay, depends on the performance of another individual, that person’s competence becomes more important than their warmth. This is clearly the case in most horizontal teams.
However, performance in groups depends on more than trust between individual group members. It also requires that these individuals trust group norms or ways of working. The best-known example of this effect is psychological safety, researched by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson
, who suggests that group performance depends on people being able to contribute to the group without fear of being attacked for doing so. For example, a nurse needs to be able to speak up if they feel a doctor is making a mistake.
While psychological safety is receiving a lot of attention currently, its use is limited in two significant ways. The first is that while psychological safety is necessary, it is not sufficient. A bit like physical safety, it is important that it is in place, but no group is going to perform well just because it is there. Edmondson herself notes that psychological safety does not equate to the engine that powers a car, but to taking your foot off the brakes, allowing it to move.
The second issue is that nurses and doctors do not usually work in a horizontal team but in different functional groups coordinating their work to provide patient care (there are exceptions, such as the patient care pathway teams
at the Cleveland Clinic). Psychological safety is required within a function, but deeper alignment will be required in a horizontal team.
This sense of psychological alignment is about ensuring all team members have a shared understanding about what is important and that this applies to what they have to do, and how they will act together in doing it. This alignment makes sure that individual objectives can be subordinated to the overall objectives of the team.
These factors mean that while encouraging warmth is certainly helpful, the main focus of a team-oriented workspace should be on enabling a sense of mutual competence among team members, and on creating psychological alignment across the team.
The digital workspace therefore needs to make it easy for each team member to keep focused on the team’s objectives and working arrangements; to understand progress; and to stay informed about the role and activities of each other team member. It also needs to make it possible for team members to work flexibly and asynchronously, while providing a clear cadence of activities to enable the required collaboration. It should provide access to the team’s chosen tools, such as Asana, Basecamp, and Trello, and do this via a single platform, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, ensuring a positive experience for individual team members and the team as a whole.
The physical workspace also needs to support the role of teams, providing project or Agile “obeya” rooms with plenty of whiteboards, displays, and visual collaboration spaces. In 2021, these also need to be larger spaces, enabling team members to work together while keeping themselves appropriately distanced.
In many organizations, teams will be using their digital workspace as the main basis for their collaboration, visiting the office to maintain relationships and for more complex work. This means that the physical workspace needs to be very flexible, able to support a particular team on one day, and a different one on the next. It also means there needs to be even greater connection between digital and physical aspects of the workspace.
HR should focus on creating effective teams rather than just developing effective individuals. This means HR needs to build its processes around managing, developing, measuring, and rewarding team performance, not just individual performance. Note that it does need to do both. Focusing just on individuals means the required levels of collaboration never emerge. But focusing just on the team would encourage social loafing, where team members consciously or subconsciously rely on other members to provide the team performance. Of course, when all or even a proportion of team members do this, the team is in trouble.
Organizations that put all these different pieces together will find that they are able to develop a sense of competence among team members and create team norms emphasizing psychological alignment. Doing this will ensure that the connected workspace is able to optimize its impact on the performance of team-oriented organizations.