Flexible Work Teams Become the Norm

Wooden mannequins pushing puzzle pieces into the right place

What is a flexible work team? The term makes enough sense, but how many of us have personally experienced this dramatic change in work practices? Flexible work teams are becoming more the norm than the exception in today’s office or plant environment. As consumer demands for higher quality and quicker turnaround become standard practice, corporations look for new ways to shorten production time and heighten efficiency.

Often what prevents a company from responding to consumer demands is the traditional structure most of us are familiar with. The “top down” organization develops narrow, vertically oriented departments based on functional skills and responsibilities. This “silo” structure contributes to a lack of communication and isolation between departments, often resulting in duplicate or conflicting actions and strategic direction. Worse yet are the gaps which occur between each “silo”, preventing smooth and efficient hand-offs. How often have you heard the phrase, “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing?”

Enter the flexible work team or cross-functional team. The concept itself is simple. Teams of workers are assigned to projects based on their functional skills. For example: an engineer, technician, artist, product manager, analyst, marketer and merchandising professional may make up one team. They combine their expertise for the period of time necessary to design, develop, manufacture and deliver a particular product or service. Teams may be grouped in “pods” rather than traditional offices. They are assigned to the project for a limited timeframe and leadership may come from within the team with one project manager providing guidance across occupational boundaries.

As a comparison, mixing up teams is similar to the change in structure experienced when we moved from grammar school to high school. In grammar school you were assigned to one teacher for the entire year (usually the one you didn’t want!) and classmates remained the same for each class. Yet in high school, classes moved between different teachers and the mix of classmates changed as well.

Organizations may find it difficult, however, to adjust from a traditional structure to this approach, often advocated as a ”one size fits all” result of re-engineering. Just because the concept is simple, doesn’t make it easy to implement or negate the impact on workers. By nature, human beings do not like change – we prefer a predictable environment. Since reorganization consultants report a 55-70 percent implementation failure rate, successful organizations ease into cross-functional teams in stages over a period of time rather than dramatic and immediate about-face.

Veterans of the process recommend starting out by establishing teams dedicated to solving one specific problem at a time. When multifunctional participants come together to analyze a problem, it often leads to breakthroughs in understanding and communication. Dissecting a process, piece by piece as it touches each department often identifies why it is being done in the first place and determines if it is still necessary or how it can be changed for the better. It also gets key people from the impacted departments talking to one another, interacting, asking questions and gaining a wider view of how the company runs.

Even the smallest of organizations benefit from this exercise. Too often we fall into the trap of focusing solely on the responsibilities for which we are held accountable. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the process of getting our work done that we lose perspective on how those functions impact other departments, divisions, vendors, etc.

The key question addressed by cross-functional teams is, does this process ultimately benefit the customer? After all, isn’t this the main reason for being in business? Walking backwards through each step, beginning with the first moment of customer contact, is an effective way to evaluate the necessity and effectiveness of the process.

Cross-functional teams, when implemented with care and over time, bring a significant value to all concerned. Quality improves, production time decreases, employees gain a better understanding of the role each other plays in the product development cycle. Team building increases through meaningful exercise, rather than an artificially constructed scenario. Problem solving strategies contribute to improved critical thinking skills and employees gain a more global understanding of their purpose.