Hybrid works for teams, but not for cross-functional teamwork. Here’s what to do about it.


Cross-functional teams, such as project teams and work groups made up of members from different departments or functions, have long been critical to an organization’s success. But cross-functional teamwork often falls short of expectations. 75% of cross-functional teams are considered dysfunctional.

Recent research by Xinlan Emily Hu of the Wharton School, Professors Melissa Valentine and Michael Bernstein of Stanford University, and myself, to appear in CSCW 2022, found that hybrid working exacerbates work challenges cross-functional team. Our research in a large science organization identifies key ways you, as a leader, can more effectively empower your cross-functional teams to succeed.

Design your organization for cross-functional team success.

Organizations are designed to maximize the success of individual teams. Norms, routines and goals are established within individual teams and create boundaries between different teams. Our research found that these boundaries tighten in hybrid workplaces.

Indeed, when teams become hybrid, they retain this local-first approach and integrate it into the technology they use. They personalize new technologies, adopt specific features and infuse them into their daily practices in ways that perpetuate silos.

So, as a leader, if you want to break down team boundaries and reduce silos, while embracing hybrid working, what do you do? An important starting point is to create dedicated roles that are formally responsible for transitioning silos. We call these roles “bounding keys”.

Delimiters must bridge the boundaries between cross-functional teams, both from a social perspective and from a technology perspective. For example, your organization may need “Marketing-Sales” relays, who would be responsible for sharing information between the two teams, as well as creating a single “source of truth” describing the preferred methods of communication between the teams.

We found that teams that included dedicated delimiters whose job it was to bridge teams were much more effective at facilitating cross-functional teamwork.

Redesign your tool stack to support cross-functional work.

To support cross-functional work, you’ll also likely need to rethink your technology stack. We studied organizations that use over 300 different SaaS tools, many of which have overlapping purposes.

Unfortunately, the solution isn’t as simple as forcing each team to use a single technology to collaborate. It won’t work because teams won’t adopt it significantly – they will have already customized other systems to suit their routines and day-to-day work.

Instead, you should first perform a “tool audit” and weed out tools that aren’t widely used. Based on our research, here’s what we recommend you do:

  1. Starting at the bottom of your org chart, identify “splitting points” based on technology usage: e.g., this team uses Google Docs, this team uses Word.

  2. For each split, don’t just try to eliminate tools that aren’t widely adopted! Instead, ask yourself: what benefit does this customization bring to the local team? What harm is done to cross-functional teamwork, such as duplicating work or losing documents because teams can’t know where the information is?

  3. If the harm is worth the benefit, keep the customization. Otherwise, bring relevant stakeholders together and make a decision on standardization.

  4. Work your way up your chart.

Proactively identify “translation” issues.

Especially during hybrid working, there’s more opportunity for “translation” issues – where one team isn’t able to communicate something in a way the other teams understand. In our study, we found that the central IT team and local IT teams that were embedded in different functions were not communicating with each other. This perpetuated an “us” versus “them” mentality that undermined cross-functional teamwork.

As a leader, you need to proactively identify translation issues. We’ve found that a particularly common type of translation problem that organizations face involves performance metrics like “active users” or “ROI.” Teams often use different definitions of key metrics, which can lead to translation issues. In our research, we found that sales and marketing teams are especially likely to rely on different definitions of key metrics.

To minimize translation issues, you need to ensure that your cross-functional teams co-author, document, and widely share their definitions of metrics, as well as key terms like “hybrid working.” In our study, we found that different definitions of hybrid working often stifled communications and led to conflicts where team schedules became out of sync due to misaligned expectations. When groups aligned on the meaning of hybrid working, collaboration grew stronger and was less disrupted by translation issues.

Cross-functional collaboration is the future of hybrid working.

Cross-functional collaboration is essential to the success of your organization and is even more critical in a hybrid workplace. But it also becomes more difficult. You need to design your organization and technology stack to help cross-functional teamwork thrive. If you don’t, you’ll face a tough climb to set your teams up for success.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.


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