The University Record, October 8, 1996

Staff Recognition: You Count at the U

The Value of Teams in the Workplace

Recently, I had the opportunity to respond to a colleague of mine, from another university, when he asked me, somewhat sarcastically, "How are those teams doing"? Sensing his sarcasm, I replied, "which teams are you referring to; the Bengals, Tigers, Wolverines?" He immediately replied, "you know the teams that I am asking about, you know, the so-called self-directed work teams."

It was quite obvious that my colleague and I shared some differences concerning the value of teams in the workplace. He had pointed out to me on numerous occasions that he thought that team building was a waste of valuable time, a futile exercise that would have marginal benefits, if any at all. In spite of all my efforts to convince him of the value of teams, I do not believe teams should be established or promoted in the workplace or organization for the sole purpose of boasting the number of teams, as did a number of major organizations in their efforts to perpetuate a Total Quality environment. I tend to support the argument that successful teams are born out of an empowered work force focused specifically on customer satisfaction. The organization, department, and all employees must focus themselves and their resources on continuous improvement in customer satisfaction. The enemy of the organization continues to be dissatisfied customers.

In October 1995, my colleague decided to visit us here at the University, in spite of his negativity concerning the value of teams and whether they can really work in an environment such as ours. He often referred to the fact that we are a public institution and unionized. My response: none of this should stand in the way of creating an empowering environment. According to Peter Block, "empowerment means that each member is responsible for creating the organizational culture, for delivering outcomes to its customers, and especially, for quality of their own experience. This is an adventure."

Just as trust is the cornerstone of empowerment, so is empowerment the cornerstone of team building. They are brought together for many different reasons. Here in Building Services, where we have nine organized teams, they exist only for the purpose of continuously improving customer service and satisfaction. My colleague was very impressed when several of the Building Services' teams did detailed presentations of the teams' creation and continuous development. Of the nine teams in Building Services established over the last two years, only four have reached what we have benchmarked as a level of maturity.

When team members were asked by our visitors about skepticism, "Would you like to go back to the more traditional way of accomplishing your job?" The answer by a team member was, "No way." Teams are most often empowered to seek solutions, give input and assess the output. The teams accept this responsibility willingly and the results have been surprisingly successful. What are some of the more positive outcomes?


Absenteeism has become less of a problem in a team environment.


Customer satisfaction has improved (survey-based).


Decisions are made much quicker.


Problems are resolved at the source.


Tasks are completed in a more harmonious manner.


Morale remains high.

One of the more difficult challenges to empowering the organization and establishing teams has been in management's willingness to "give up control." Both my colleague and I agree that it is hard. We agree that the traditional ways of managing the organization is much simpler. We tend to disagree on the results.

I feel that my colleague is coming around in his attitude toward empowerment and the value of teams. Whenever we talk, I find him constantly remarking on how things are changing.

By Nathan Norman,
Building Services