T-shaped teams could be how we beat the ‘Great Resignation’

If one thing became strikingly apparent in the working world during the pandemic, it is perhaps that the extant hierarchical structure of work was in urgent need of reform. By overhauling the structure of teams and broadening the scope of recruitment, can companies overcome the 'Great Resignation' to attract and retain talented professionals?

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Photo by Anna Shvets

As memories of the Covid-induced recession slowly dissipate, the business world now finds itself facing a so-called ‘Great Resignation’. A recent worldwide McKinsey survey revealed 87 percent of businesses across sectors are facing or anticipating a talent shortage.

Factor in the pace of shifting technology and the polarisation of politics and society as compounded by the pandemic, and it seems we’re facing a perfect storm. However, if there’s anything recent years have taught us, it’s that the best businesses evolve. Overcoming this particular issue and winning the war for talent will be no different.


Meeting the challenges of adaptation at pace
Organisations face two interconnected challenges. The first is how to keep their people and culture moving at the pace of global change and manage a post-pandemic reality that remains highly stressful. In a world that still seems to be characterised by uncertainty and division, it’s no real surprise there is a gap between vacancies and available, suitably-skilled workers.

The second challenge is how businesses adapt their products and services, given the speed of culture change and consumer needs that also seem to shift every time you look away.

Speaking as part of the creative world, we love our buzzwords – and ‘T-shaped teams’ is very much in vogue right now when it comes to looking at how our own business is striving to meet both these challenges. It’s an idea that can work across industries, though, and is a good way for organisations in other sectors to future-proof themselves while also attracting and retaining high-quality talent.

The concept is simple – teams have broad consultative skills across the top, leading and shaping the knowledge and strategy they use with clients – the horizontal part of the T. In our specific case, this is supported by deep specialist and complementary skills in e-commerce, social media, analytics, and content to meet particular client needs.

This approach enables business agility, providing the right balance of leadership, management and specialisation to drive growth. It’s an easy model to digest and visually looks great in presentations and strategy sessions, though in reality it is much harder to deliver, manage and evolve.

To be successful, teams also need to be grounded in data and analytics. For example, at UM we’ve placed real-time analytics at the centre of every T-shaped team so all members can access the information they need at the right moment – from sales to media data to brand measures.


Look outside your traditional sector
We’ve found that locating fresh talent to make T-shaped teams work increasingly means looking beyond the confines of our own industry – as well as outside our immediate vicinity to other parts of the UK, Europe and around the globe.

Talented media people, we’ve found, don’t just come from media agencies. A myopic focus on sector-specific experience isn’t helping anyone fill the skills gap.

Instead, different interdisciplinary skill sets bring different and highly valuable perspectives – from anywhere from academia to architecture. Aligned to this, we’ve been looking to bring in more people from diverse backgrounds and provide them with opportunities to succeed. Again, they provide much-needed different perspectives.

These ‘hybrid’ teams with a matrix of specialists and outsourced resources create a heady cocktail of complexity. It’s a concept that’s counter-intuitive to the ‘one team’ principle and hierarchical structures that many organisations are more familiar with – even though they’re not necessarily happy with them either.

The key to success lies in ensuring people of disparate disciplinary and professional backgrounds are connected through data and share a common purpose.


An iterative approach
With the pace of change, getting this type of team structure right is an ongoing process. Finding, supporting and most importantly retaining the best staff isn’t necessarily cheap either, so it’s well worth investing in the resources to make it work.

Businesses should experiment and improve the critical pieces for success, ensuring the right processes and technologies are in place. Most typically that means budgeting for talent and training, as well as technologies to support collaborative ways of working across multiple locations.

The components may never stay still, so this approach needs structures for ongoing feedback loops to ensure things are working fluidly and that there aren’t certain parts of the process slowing things up.

Of course, what T-shaped teams are most reliant on is people being adaptive and open to different ways of working and thinking. What underpins and connects them will be common objectives and purpose.

Periods of change will be remembered either for great opportunity or characterised by stress and tension. It’s here that a business’s efforts in culture, training and recruitment become immediately apparent, because T-shaped teams enable companies to focus on the former and ease the latter – and that will help them attract and retain the diverse, skilled talent they need.