At Hero Digital, we’ve seen how great things can and do happen when you gather together smart people with diverse skills and backgrounds to solve problems. And as the company has grown and evolved, we continue to believe in the deep value of coming to work—collaborating in person over working with disparate, distributed teams.
The onslaught of new communications technologies in recent years has allowed companies to build distributed organizational structures rapidly—accommodating employees working from home and hiring remote talent. With tools like Slack and cloud-based solutions like Box, people, files—entire project teams—are always just a click away. But just because team members don’t need to come to work, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. And as we celebrate the freedom and flexibility that these modern tech tools provide us, there are a distinct number of projects, products, and environments that benefit from teams who collaborate in person, day to day, and face-to-face.
At Hero, this often extends to embedding a team at our client’s offices for long-term projects, where we sit directly alongside the key stakeholders and cross-functional team members who compose larger organizations and complex product teams. This type of continuous delivery is invaluable for providing not only a seamless product experience, but also the intangible communications benefits that only come from in-person collaboration. As MIT professor Thomas J. Allen discovered nearly half a century ago, colleagues who are out of sight are almost literally out of mind. We’re social creatures and tend to associate and collaborate with those nearest us. In almost all cases, we’ve found this simply leads to better work.
Mid-to-large size organizations may be accustomed to working with agencies and consultants via the traditional structure—where work happens largely out of sight and only surfaces at key moments and deadlines throughout a project. But as the scale and time demands grow, it’s worth considering a move to an embedded team, where the tangible work benefits emanate from in-person communication and collaboration. But where does one begin analyzing the inflection points where such a move might be most beneficial and cost productive? After managing dozens of projects via embedded-team structures, we’ve identified a set of key markers that can help you understand when it’s worth considering an embedded team over the traditional, distributed models.
When Time is of the Essence
Large, complex, and diverse organizations move fast—often faster than even modern communications channels can support. Because it’s not just about the transaction that occurs over text, phone, video, or email—talking face-to-face with someone and looking at the same screen together is just more efficient than doing so virtually. And it’s not only at the desk—communication takes place informally around the office throughout the day. People share knowledge in hallways and through osmosis when groups gather in the same room. If decisions need to happen fast and products need to iterate and grow quickly, there’s no substitute for the focus in-personal collaboration affords. You also tend to break down the subconscious barriers to fast decision making when doing so in person.
A study published this year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and featured in the Harvard Business Review found that “people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.” The research found work requests made in person, as opposed to by email, were 34 times more effective. The reason? Nonverbal cues occurring during in-person interactions subconsciously helped respondents trust the legitimacy of the request.
When the Team Dynamic is Crucial
There comes a point where building something big and complicated becomes really hard. In those times, a strong team dynamic is invaluable. If a team can’t find chemistry, team members spend additional time and effort trying to get on the same page with expectations—this impacts delivery and eats into the budget. By sitting in the same office, team members get to know one another personally and professionally and can pick up on each other’s idiosyncrasies and work behavior. These nonverbal cues are almost impossible to pick up over the phone, video, or Slack but can impact the project significantly. This type of emotional contagion is unseen, but definitely felt in the brain. Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti called this idea “mirror neurons” where people see another person act in some way and their brain activates the neurons mirroring the same action. If you want, or need, a project lead to react emotionally to a design, for instance, you need to present in person rather than sending an email. This alone increases the likelihood they will respond in kind to your own excitement about the product.
When Transparency Drives Quality
When a distributed team is working from multiple locations and offices, it can feel like a lot of valuable work is happening behind the scenes. Teams don’t surface work until formal reviews and submissions—and the various, often valuable, iterations and working sessions go unnoticed. With an embedded team, nothing goes unseen. Work is exposed to the client at all times. This motivates people to strive for higher quality and efficiency on every deliverable, at every stage, every day. An embedded team is always “on,” which pushes everyone to do better.
When You Need a Fresh Perspective
For most companies, it’s important to promote employee growth and ensure a healthy work balance. Agency leadership keeps this squarely in mind when building embedded teams and can work with clients to build a structure that keeps employees motivated, focused, and balanced. A survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that a rich mix of benefits and advancement led to the happiest workers. Sounds obvious until you realize that benefits and advancement often mean skill training, exposure to new skills, and working on different types of projects over time.
A rotation structure can help monitor when it’s time to bring in a fresh perspective by bringing in new team members, and it also helps to ensure those teams are fulfilled and motivated. Agencies, whose job in large part is to keep employees motivated and fulfilled, will work with you to determine these logical break points and find ideal fits for skill and culture that don’t break the team dynamic or impact the project’s trajectory.
When Integration is Pivotal
By having the team present, every day, integrated with the various project teams, you’re regularly engaging with people and in the process and the product. If something isn’t working, a feature is broken, a team dynamic is suffering, you can address it immediately and the team can course correct. This continuous engagement helps engineer serendipity, which studies have shown can lead to better relationships and ultimately, happier employees, better products, and stellar customer experiences for your end users.
Technology Should Support, Not Dictate, Your Team’s Structure
Ultimately, choosing to invest in an embedded team is about leading with people instead of technology. While technology will still play a valuable role in managing and enhancing your project team, with embedded teams technology supports the team’s infrastructure, rather than guiding it. And by recognizing some of the key facets and project components where an embedded team can drive value, you can better make a decision about where to integrate it into your organizational structure and product-development process.
If you’d like to learn more about how Hero has helped clients establish and manage embedded teams, across industries, please contact us.