Hybrid team on video call
Future of Work

Goodbye hierarchy, hello hybrid teams

It’s become clear to everyone that digital business transformation involves far more than technology. It requires a complete rethink and restructuring of how we work. In 2020, people have shown enormous creativity and resilience in keeping work going without being told what to do. Under the most difficult circumstances, new companies were created, and they are rapidly adding employees without having ever brought them to the physical office. In fact, many companies go virtual from the start and never even hire a space: what’s the point if your employees live in 10 different countries?

Workforce structures as we know them still work in large entities, but companies large and small are discovering that they are becoming obsolete – it’s much quicker to organize organically than to work through the ranks. The pandemic has shown that quick thinking and action leads to survival, not long drawn out processes that move from approval to approval until they reach the board. Success depends on the freedom to network, the ability to involve skilled individuals regardless of their position, and the flexibility to keep building teams, businesses and careers.  What does that mean for the future of the company, and what kind of leaders do we need to successfully manage this paradigm shift?

Smart business leaders are lifting traditional barriers. Where we once all worked in an office, the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation and introduced us to the future of work. Employees are now scattered around the world, working virtually, collaborating online, only meeting as business or social needs require, if at all. We can do this, because as we hit the 2020s, next-gen workplace technologies are no longer next-gen. They’re reality and vendors are rolling out new features on a weekly base.

The greatest change lies in the structure of the workforce. Already we’re seeing the flattening of hierarchies. CEOs are no longer seated in the boardroom, but as likely to be in a video meeting or planning session as a project team member. Appraisals are more likely to be 360 degrees, requiring input from everyone you work with, instead of just from your manager. The focus is now on skills and collaboration capabilities. On mixed networks of internal and external resources, with hybrid teams combining people and robotics.

Flexible teams

These new, flexible teams reach out to talent on a temporary base to ensure best results for customers, the business and employees. This is the only way to remain top of the game in what is an extremely competitive, fast moving, digital world.

Teamwork: from hierarchy to lattice
From hierarchy to lattice

The definition of who an employee is, is evolving rapidly and management styles are changing as well. This all fits with the new, flexible team set-up. People no longer want to be role-oriented and stuck in a fixed position working towards next career steps that are years out. They want to be nimble, join different projects, gain different experiences, focus on outcomes and be recognized for their contributions. They want to be on a varied, fast-paced career trajectory and working for a single employer is not enough to get them there.

Unlike before, that career trajectory doesn’t have to be continuously upwards: careers look more like lattices, with people choosing jobs to fit today’s lifestyle. It’s something I wrote about in 2012, when I introduced the Consumerization of HR. It took us a bit longer than I expected, but we’re finally here.

The rise of skills frameworks

What we’re starting to see is a rise in skills frameworks. It’s been commonplace in the procurement world for a while and it’s spilling over into the world of work. Rather than working for a single employer, which might restrict the contribution individuals feel they can make, people are choosing who they want to work for, where and how, and market their hard-earned and unique skill sets. For many that is out of necessity, because they’ve lost their job and need to make ends meet. For others, it’s a way of living because their skills are in high demand.

Likewise, for a business, a ‘worker’ is hired to deliver a specific task. This might be a long-term assignment, or this could literally be one single deliverable. As example, M&As are increasingly common and require lots of specialist skills, but only for a set time. The same applies to major IT projects, real-estate developments or specialist R&D, for example. In doing so, the company can assemble high skilled teams while workers fulfill their need for variety. 

This approach can only succeed if there is a change from a pyramid to a more parallel workforce structure. It demands a lot from future leaders: they have to constantly move talents in and out of their teams. That requires them to be skilled in establishing clear guidelines, while communication and collaboration are key, especially when some workers only join for a very short time. Even so, the team needs to work well together. Everyone on the project is as vital as the next. Leaders need to adapt and encourage everyone to be a decision maker.

Diversity is key

Diversity in a team is essential. The more senior members can share their experience, while younger team members challenge the status quo with new ideas and inspiration. Cross-functional people bring value to each other’s specialisms. Openness and honest communication is important. Equally vital is someone capable of being the final decision maker to ensure projects move forward. Each peer group should reflect the diversity of their customer base; we need to continually adapt our external approach as well.

Future teams will see increased human-machine interaction. Automation will propel a new wave of efficiency and performance. It will allow highly skilled workers to remove repetitive activities and focus on the more professionally rewarding tasks. The business leader who smartly manages humans working side by side with ‘bots’ will thrive. She must continually assess if her people focus on what’s important and automate anything that isn’t.

Automation will inevitably lead to changes in team structures and redefine roles. It will change the existing hierarchy even more. That’s bound to be disruptive, and it’s up to business leaders to lead their teams through those changes. 

Getting change right

However, like all change, the move to a flat, network structure must be smartly managed. This move to flexible teams is working well when there has been a clear definition of the benefits. It’s hard to remove what’s hardwired in people, especially for those who expect a ‘career for life’. The reality of the digital world is that life is constantly changing and so a career will be too. As already mentioned, the traditional pyramid style of ‘manage or be managed’ no longer fits the skills needed to win in the digital world of work.

Last year, Professor Gianluca Carnabuci of the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin (ESMT Berlin), led a project to find out why people struggle to move to new ways of working. According to the findings, cognitive schemas (the pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships between these) make us see leaders and followers even if there are none defined.

As business leaders, managers and colleagues, we need to be conscientious in promoting team work. This does not devalue experience or remove career growth opportunities. Rather the opposite. By being open to other’s ideas we can actually be more successful. So how can you get the change right?

Ten steps to building teams for continuous business success

  1. Manage changes in workforce structure well
  2. Lead and keep leading your team into the digital world
  3. Review the skills you have in-house against existing and potential skills needs
  4. Build a skills framework / satellite teams
  5. Set-up the infrastructure to allow teams to work productively / remotely
  6. Provide strong communication and collaboration processes
  7. Develop a culture of continuous feedback
  8. Encourage employee engagement across all roles and departments
  9. Increase productivity through automation
  10. Encourage ideas and input from all

While these are good steps to take, alone they are not enough. It takes skilled leaders to build the consistently high-performing teams we need. Future leaders won’t follow the traditional career path. Where in the past the team expert often became the manager, that wasn’t always a successful career move. Being good at your job doesn’t mean you’re a natural leader.

Business leaders in the digital world are those who can look at the short and the long game, engage well with people and motivate their teams towards a common goal. They have a thorough understanding of managing humans and bots to deliver the best results. These leaders can equally make the difficult decisions needed to get there. The rise of the flexible team structure will go a long way to enabling this success. Business leaders with an eye for people, well-honed soft skills and a clear perspective on the nuances of digital transformation will be well positioned to thrive.