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Nov 1, 2017

Employee engagement, aligning talent and business strategies; these are perennial problems for HR professionals. Here in the United Kingdom, as far back as 2014 they were among the top three priorities for CHROs , according to an ADP survey.
How do we solve these problems? I increasingly think that one of the best ways is to refocus on teams within our organisations. But to do that we need to make sure we’re collecting standardised data and pushing it to the right people.

Individual Performance Is One Lens

One of the key ways we’ve tried to overcome our biggest challenges is by monitoring the effectiveness of individuals. Technology has given us the power to collect data on individual employees in real time. This kind of instant, fine-grained view of our organisations was not possible before.

We have introduced feedback apps which can now track the performance of individual employees amongst our thousands-strong workforces. These apps engage individuals with their performance and enable CHROs to spot any issues. We’ve also gone one step further, acted on this individual data and introduced workplace wellness and work-from-home programs, in an attempt to increase individual happiness and productivity. In fact, according to the SHRM, 59% of US employers now offer workplace wellness schemes.

But while CHROs recognise this has improved their organisations in many ways, some of the biggest problems still remain. “It (has become) ever-more difficult for HR professionals to identify, attract and retain the most talented team players. Those who are able to do this are worth their weight in gold,” says Doug Monro, co-founder of Adzuna, a UK job search engine.

In fact, some companies, like IBM, have recently started moving in the opposite direction calling employees back into the office after coming to the conclusion that it may be creating, rather than alleviating, problems.

Evaluate Team Performance

So, what has gone wrong here? The problem, I think, is that individual performance is just one lens. It is an important one, yes, but there’s a risk that by focusing only on individuals we miss the bigger picture. While a company is made up of individuals, it’s also composed of teams: small teams, big teams, departments, and whole offices.

The turning point for me was recognising that improving individual performance does not necessarily improve the performance of whole teams. Individual performance is vital, of course. Everyone must be engaged or the team will usually fail in any case. But better individuals do not necessarily lead to better teams.

This is because team performance also depends on members contributing different skills, approaches, and creating an environment where creativity can flourish. You may have 10 stellar individuals in a team, but if they’re all stars in the exactly same way, think the same way, and combative to boot, they’re unlikely to outperform a more cognitively diverse team.

This is compounded by the fact that dysfunctional teams are a problem many of us face. According to a 2013 study conducted by the University of Phoenix, 70% of respondents cite being part of a dysfunctional team. And yet well-managed work groups are on average 50% more productive and 44% more profitable than less well managed groups, according to Gallup.

We Need Standardised Measures

As HR leaders, we have to add the “team lens” to our management repertoire. As well as monitoring individuals, we need to make sure that these individuals are coming together to create strong, well-performing teams.

The problem though is that many organisations do not collect data and feedback at the team level. Companies have individual performance data, including annual reviews, going back decades; usually including feedback from subordinates, peers and managers. But this same level of data won’t exist for the new 10-person India design team or 20-person UK finance unit created three years ago.

What Data Do We Collect?

But if team performance is something different, what data should we be collecting? In my view, just like real-time feedback apps enable employees to rate and give feedback to other employees, companies should introduce similar tools for employees to do the same for other teams within their organisations. It would make sense to collect this data from clients and other external audiences too.

To work, this needs to be an industry task because whatever we collect should be standardised. Only then will we have the tools not only to measure and rank the performance of teams within our organisations, but benchmark our company’s teams against industry averages. This will help us understand if we have a problem – or not.

Feedback Must Get to the Team

It’s just as important to make sure this data is being pushed to the right places: the teams themselves. It’s useless if it’s only held on a server somewhere or restricted to management. Pushing this data down to employees is also one of the best ways to engage employees.

According to a survey by Clutch, millennials, now the largest demographic of American workforces, especially crave this kind of feedback. “Of the millennials whose managers do provide accurate and consistent feedback, 72% find their job fulfilling,” Clutch says.

This is even more important now that our organisations are becoming more dispersed. According to the latest statistics, more than half of the US workforce will do at least some freelance work by 2027. Many of these people will work outside conventional workplaces. This will add strain and may make it more difficult to create cohesive, strong and supportive teams. In the face of this trend, giving teams real-time performance data may well help them feel like a single unit, and engage them to improve their performance.

There is also an argument to be made for exploring the idea of tying the performance data to pay and incentive schemes. We already do this with individual performance via annual reviews and performance bonuses, so it would make sense to trial this with team data too. Some companies already offer team-based incentive pay as a way to encourage team members to work together effectively. But by using new real-time team feedback tools, we could develop bespoke incentives to target different aspects of performance, even cultural traits such as creativity, drive or competitiveness.

For many of our companies, the business environment has never been more difficult. The average lifespan of a NASDAQ-listed company is now shorter than ever before. At the same time we have technological forces stretching our companies in new and challenging ways. We need all the tools that we can to make our companies nimble, agile, top performers. Improving the performance of our teams is surely part of that mix.

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