Teamworking improves productivity and employee satisfaction?

New research findings on teamworking in the UK and North America suggest that more "advanced" systems of teamworking may raise levels of worker job satisfaction and labour productivity. However, there is little evidence that teamworking brings about high-trust management-worker relations, or high-commitment work orientations.

Teamwork is one of the "buzzwords" of the 1990s. Debates on the subject usually take one of two positions - its effects are advantageous for all concerned or it has a wholly detrimental impact upon employees. New collaborative research conducted in Britain and North America by theIndustrial Relations Research Unit, University of Warwick and by the Département des Relations Industrielles, Université Laval, Canada, highlights for the first time the complexities of the effects of teamwork. Below we summarise the findings of this research.

Teamwork

"Teamworking" has for a number of years been debated by management and trade unionists, in academic journals and in the news media. Popularly, the term has been applied to any situation in which a number of job tasks are routinely, collectively performed by a work group. There is frequently little new about these arrangements, under which management continues to exercise direct control of the work process. A number of studies suggest that such changes amount to little more than a relabelling of the pre-existing structure of management dominance.

More "advanced" forms of teamworking comprise a number of features. First, a measure of decision-making autonomy is located within the work group. This degree of control may span fairly trivial issues, such as the rostering of personnel or the scheduling of holidays. It may extend to "middle-range" matters, such as the authority to summon craftworkers, or to determine the pace or the organisation of work. Finally, decision-making autonomy may range over areas of traditional managerial authority, such as control over budgets for new machinery, or the selection of new recruits.

A second feature of more advanced forms of teamworking, is the combination of multi-skilling and job rotation. Under more sophisticated systems, each member of the work group is trained in each of the major tasks performed by that group, and rotation between the different job tasks occurs regularly. The group or a designated member may coordinate training of new group members or of existing members in new job tasks. The third component of teamworking is the communications system. Typically, there may be an arrangement for regular team briefing at the level of the work group. This may be supplemented by a works council at the level of the establishment or organisation, which may meet on a less frequent monthly or quarterly basis.

Employee attitudes

Numerous studies suggest that the implementation of these teamworking arrangements may, under certain conditions, induce more positive employee attitudes to work and raise levels of business performance. A number of the above arrangements were introduced at the Alcan aluminium smelter in Lynemouth, in 1991. Direct supervision was removed from production areas, teams were granted a measure of autonomy over work and over the scheduling of training, and team leaders were selected, by management, from among existing work team members. Both quantitative survey and qualitative interview evidence suggest a broadly positive employee response to the initiative. Previously, workers resented the close supervision and direct control of their work. Now, for long periods of the day, work is not directly monitored by management, and at nights and weekends, there is only a minimal management presence on site. Workers report that their level of ability to take decisions has increased and that their relations with their work peers has improved. A very large majority of workers (71%) considered their influence over work planning and organisation to be "moderate" or "high/very high".

Effects on performance

Work performance has also improved at Lynemouth. Since the introduction of teamworking, labour productivity, defined as output of aluminium divided by number of staff hours worked, has increased. Absence rates have fallen, as has overtime and the number of reported accidents. At the Alcan smelter at Isle Maligne Quebec, Canada, teamworking was progressively implemented from 1988 onwards. The system has a number of features in common with Lynemouth, although the degree of job rotation is less extensive and there is a greater supervisory presence. This is reported to have been associated with an improvement in labour productivity and process quality and, for a time, a thawing in management-union relations. Preliminary findings from the recently built Laterriere smelter in Quebec also appear to point to a positive employee response to the advanced teamworking system at that site.

Studies in the USA also suggest a link between advanced teamworking systems and improved employee job satisfaction and performance outcomes. At the much-cited NUUMI joint venture between General Motors and Toyota in Freemont, California, work was reorganised according to a team-based model, in which individual job classifications and traditional work rules were abandoned. From what had been a poor performer, this plant claimed to have achieved the highest levels of labour productivity and process quality of any North American assembly plant. A recent review of the evidence in the United States suggests a further six case studies with production system characteristics and performance outcomes similar, in certain respects, to those cited above.

Commentary

It must be stressed that the research studies are few in number and confined to a small number of industrial settings. Any conclusions that are drawn from them must be considered preliminary. First, most of the research has been undertaken in manufacturing establishments. Little is known about the possible application of teamworking in white-collar industries and service occupations. Second, while employees in each of the studies mentioned indicated a positive response to teamworking, this was limited in scope. At Alcan's Lynemouth smelter, there were no signs that employees had come to trust management or to identify with the employing organisation. Loyalty to the trade union remained strong, and there was, at times, continued frustration with the application of disciplinary power by management. Third, while employees indicate a greater degree of job satisfaction, they also report higher levels of work effort and job stress, which may become a future source of discontent. Fourth, teamworking in a number of studies has been introduced against a backdrop of economic crisis and depressed labour market circumstances. At Lynemouth, approaching half the workforce were made redundant shortly after the introduction of teams. How sustainable teamworking will prove to be under conditions of tightening labour markets and recovering product market demand remains to be seen. (M Wright, IRRU)

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