Cross-functional teams -- like project teams and task forces with members from different departments or functions -- have long been critical to an organization's success. But cross-functional teamwork often falls short of expectations. An eye-popping 75 percent of cross-functional teams are considered to be dysfunctional. 

Recent research by Xinlan Emily Hu of the Wharton School, professors Melissa Valentine and Michael Bernstein of Stanford University, and myself, forthcoming in CSCW 2022, found that hybrid work exacerbates the challenges of cross-functional teamwork. Our research at a large scientific organization identifies key ways that you, as a leader, can more effectively empower your cross-functional teams for success.

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 become firmer in hybrid workplaces. 

This is because, when teams go hybrid, they keep this local-first approach and embed it in the technology that they use. They customize 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 span team boundaries and squash silos -- while also embracing hybrid work -- what do you do? An important starting point is to create dedicated roles that are formally responsible for bridging silos. We call these roles "boundary spanners." 

Boundary spanners need to bridge boundaries between cross-functional teams, both from a social perspective and from a technology perspective. For example, your organization may be in need of "Marketing-Sales" boundary spanners, which would be responsible for sharing information between the two teams, as well as creating a single "source of truth" that outlines the preferred methods of communication between the teams. 

We found that teams that included dedicated boundary spanners to bridge across teams were far 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 redesign your technology stack. We've studied organizations that use upwards of 300 different SaaS tools, many of which serve redundant purposes. 

Unfortunately, the solution isn't as easy as mandating that every team use a single technology to collaborate. That won't work, because teams won't meaningfully embrace it -- they'll already have customized other systems to their routines and day-to-day work. 

Instead, you should first conduct a "tool audit" and eliminate tools that are not widely used. Based on our research, here's what we recommend you do: 

  1. Starting at the bottom of your org chart, identify "split points" based on technology use -- for example, this team uses Google Docs, this team uses Word.

  2. For every split, don't just try to eliminate tools that aren't widely adopted! Instead, ask: How much benefit is this customization bringing to the local team? How much harm is being inflicted on cross-functional teamwork -- for example, by duplicating work or losing documents because teams can't keep track of where information lives? 

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

  4. Work your way all the way up to the top of your org chart. 

Proactively identify where "translation" issues exist. 

Particularly during hybrid work, there are more opportunities for "translation" issues -- where one team is not able to communicate something in a way that other teams understand. In our study, we found that the central IT team and the local IT teams that were embedded in different functions were not communicating with each other. This perpetuated an "us versus them" mentality, which impaired cross-functional teamwork.

As a leader, you should proactively identify where translation issues exist. We've found that an especially pervasive type of translation issue that organizations face relates to performance metrics like "active users" or "ROI." Teams often use different definitions of key metrics, which can lead to problems with translation. In our research, we've 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-create, document, and widely share their definitions of metrics, as well as key terms like "hybrid work." In our study, we found that different definitions of hybrid work often stifled communications and led to conflicts where teams' schedules became out-of-sync due to misaligned expectations. When groups aligned on the meaning of hybrid work, collaboration strengthened and was less disrupted by translation problems. 

Cross-functional collaboration is the future of hybrid work. 

Cross-functional collaboration is essential to your organization's success and is even more critical in a hybrid workplace. But it also becomes more challenging. You need to design your organization and technology stack to help cross-functional teamwork thrive. If you don't, you'll face an uphill climb in setting your teams up for success.