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5 ways to improve your matrixed organization

Posted by Hannah Price in Culture, Clarity
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Matrixed teams are more prevalent than ever before. Gallup has found that a whopping 84% of employees are matrixed to some extent. This means fewer teams are structured traditionally (a group of people reporting up to just one individual) and less work is being done in a “traditional” way. If you want to keep your employees supported and productivity high, it’s time to get a handle on how to assist and assess matrixed teams.

Erm… what exactly is a matrixed employee? A matrixed employee is someone who works on multiple teams, and often has more than one reporting line. Gallup has separated matrixed employees into three buckets:
  • Slightly matrixed: Employees who sometimes work on multiple teams with people who may or may not report to the same manager.
  • Manager-matrixed: Employees who work on multiple teams every day with different people but most team members report to the same manager.
  • Highly matrixed: Employees who work on multiple teams every day with different people who report to different managers.

 

Why is there more matrixing?

According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace 2017 study, matrixed teams are growing because of the high pressure organizations are under to meet customers’ needs in a quickly evolving market. In theory, a matrixed team is more nimble and can react quickly to market changes and customer needs. The simultaneous increase in knowledge-workers and decrease in skilled labour jobs is also leading to more cross-team collaboration and breaking-down of silos.

The advantages of matrixed teams

Matrixed teams have a greater level of flexibility and higher levels of connectivity. As mentioned above, in theory this means they’re able to react quickly to buying trends and respond to the evolving needs of an organization and/or customer.

A matrixed structure can also lead to stronger working relationships, higher levels of engagement, a feeling of democracy, shared learning, and a final product that benefits from the influence and critique of many people.

Interestingly, highly matrixed employees are also more engaged. Employee engagement seems to be the holy grail of the modern workplace.  This isn’t surprising when you consider businesses with engaged employees have 51% higher productivity.

So, it’s reassuring to discover that highly matrixed employees have higher levels of engagement. “Highly matrixed employees experience a 22% rise in engagement over non-matrixed employees, a 16% increase over slightly matrixed employees and an 8% increase over manager-matrixed employees.”

What’s different about a matrixed employee?

Highly matrixed people work in a different way. The more matrixed someone is, the less time they have for actually working on their work. A matrixed employee is often busy communicating - they’re in meetings or responding to coworkers. The more teams they’re on, the more collaboration and communication they have to field. Also, because there are so many more projects and people in their day-to-day work, prioritization takes longer.

This doesn’t mean that matrixed employees are less productive, but their productivity takes a different shape. Connecting with people, collaborating on work, and navigating projects is necessary and productive. It keeps people on the same page, the project on point, and gives the company “outcomes that provide the competitive edge.”

Just don’t expect a highly matrixed person’s day to look like that of a non-matrixed employee. Assessing their work and productivity requires a different approach. “Managers may also need to adjust and assess performance outcomes differently for matrixed employees, emphasizing quality over quantity and focusing on team contributions rather than solely on individual contributions.”

The disadvantages of matrixed teams

Although there are many advantages to a matrixed team, there can also be downfalls. Due to the extent of collaboration and flexibility, it’s often hard for matrixed employees to know what their exact roles and responsibilities are. “Gallup has found that one of the greatest pain points for employees is a lack of clarity.”

  • What this means for the individual: “As team members move from team to team or project to project more frequently, they easily can lose sight of their job expectations.” Poorly defined expectations can lead to reduced job performance as individuals don’t have a clear understanding of what’s needed from them. It can also lead to a lack of motivation, as individuals lose a sense of “why” they’re responsible for tasks and objectives.
  • What this means for the the group: Have you ever worked on a team with someone and thought “what does he DO all day?”. Lack of clarity often leads to lack of trust. If someone is working on multiple teams, fielding communication, and not producing the same amount of “work” as a non-matrixed employee, it’s easy to doubt their capability and efficiency.

  • What this means for the project: If you’ve got several highly-matrixed people on the same teams, then conflicts can arise. Roles and work can be duplicated or conflicted. What’s considered a “top priority” differs from one person to the next. The result? Slower progress and lower productivity - the exact opposite of the reason for matrixed teams.

The solution? Organizations need to be clearer about expectations and structure to non-matrixed and matrixed employees. By being more communicative and transparent, employees will have a better understanding of their own role and others’. This leads to a greater sense of purpose, higher levels of trust, better alignment on projects, less duplicated work, and less conflict on what’s considered the ‘top priority project’.

How to improve communication: Management needs to be clear. “A well-written job description can help to identify responsibilities, but managers of matrixed employees must frequently meet with these individuals to re-establish goals and priorities and to ensure that they remain realistic, attainable and fair as the employees shift from project to project.”

Be wary of the “muddled middle”

Here’s a concerning stat. “Slightly matrixed employees make up the largest percentage of matrixed employees and account for nearly half of the workforce. Of all matrixed employees, they are the least engaged at 29%.”

This means that the largest portion of your matrixed workforce is also the least engaged. Why? It could be because they can’t clearly see the benefit of matrixed work and it seems to act only as a distraction or impediment to their work. “They have one foot in and one foot out of a matrixed team environment, and that inconsistency could be causing them greater confusion in their day-to-day priorities.”

Furthermore, because they’re only slightly matrixed, it’s likely they spend less time conversing with their manager and discussing goals and priorities. Only 51% strongly agree that their manager incorporates feedback from their project leaders, meaning there’s an even larger disconnect between guidance and feedback for their roles and responsibilities.

The solution? Project leaders and managers need to step up their game. They need to be organized, thorough, performance oriented, and communicative. “Less than 20% of matrixed employees say that their projects are always well-managed.”

Project leaders are on the front lines of work with a large number of employees, so it’s essential they communicate effectively with their teams as well as managers. They’re often responsible for closing the communication loop: they should inform managers of the performance of matrixed employees so those employees receive fully-formed feedback and are given realistic goals.

Moreover, project leaders need to bring their soft skills to the table. “Gallup’s research shows that successful project leaders bring positivity and reliability to their teams.” Project leaders should be relationship builders and build rapport with their teams. This will “close the gap” in communication, which will go some way to building better teamwork in the workplace, resolving issues with clarity, and establishing trust between team members.

Next steps?

Now you’ve got a good handle of the advantages and disadvantages of matrixed teams, it’s time to put your knowledge to good use. Check out these five tips for matrixed organizations from Gallup:

  1. Leaders: Establish a strong foundation. To reap the benefits of a matrixed organization, leaders need to create an environment that supports matrixed teams. Develop the managers who oversee matrixed teams - ensure they have the skills to effectively communicate, support, and evaluate matrixed employees.  
  2. Managers: Help employees do what they do best. Match the right people to the right projects. This will result in higher levels of focus from the individual, leading to higher levels of engagement and productivity.
  3. Managers and project leaders: Stay connected. In matrixed organizations, employees are at a risk of losing sight of what’s expected of them. Lack of clarity fuels mistrust throughout the team and wipes out collaboration. Communicate role expectations with individuals, the team, and the project leaders/managers to grow trust and measure productivity.
  4. Project leaders: Make meetings meaningful. Matrixed employees spend more time in meetings than other employees. Be clear on the purpose of every meeting and, before a meeting ends, ensure every person knows the actions they need to take next.
  5. Employees: Prioritize requests. Matrixed employees should take a triage approach to communication - identify and reply to the most urgent messages first. This doesn’t mean other communication should be dropped or ignored - let coworkers know where you’re at in your current projects and that you’ll follow up with their request as soon as possible.

Given the rise in the number of matrixed employees, it’s important to adapt the way in which we work to support employees and track productivity. As the Gallup report states: “The one thing leaders cannot do is nothing.” Hopefully you’ve found this article helpful and are well on your way to implementing any necessary changes.

Please note - all quotes in this article are from Gallup's report, unless stated otherwise.

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