The state of teamwork 2017

Great things in the world happen almost universally in teams. The Higgs boson bears the name of a single physicist, yet it took many teams—and 3,800 scientists at CERN—to discover. In the business world, companies are increasingly comprised of teams orchestrating the work of other problem-solving teams. The modern workplace values teamwork, but how we think about teams is now outpacing the org chart.

To understand the current state of teamwork, our design researchers surveyed more than 2,000 full-time employed and self-employed knowledge workers in the US who self-identify as belonging to one or more teams. The sample contains an equal number of people who use Dropbox and people that don’t. It’s significant that even among these types of knowledge workers, 36% don’t consider themselves to be a member of any team. Teamwork may be the leading workplace trend of the 21st century, but not all workers think of themselves as belonging to a team. We predict this is going to change.

Across all the attributes of teamwork—high levels of coordination, communication, interdependence, and feedback—participation is stronger among Dropbox users, and stronger still for paid Dropbox users. And it’s no surprise, as the percentage of people that don’t consider themselves part of a team drops by almost half—to 20%—when we look at Dropbox users. Small, collaborative teams empowered by the cloud and their choice of personal technologies are now able to accomplish what used to require an army. They can also coordinate the work of teammates with diverse skills across time zones. And we are more likely to find these teams in certain industries and also within certain functions within companies. Here’s what we predict for the state of teamwork in 2017:

(Illustration) Number of teams (Non-Dropbox user): 5+: 11% | 4: 5% | 3: 14% | 2: 28% | 1: 42% / Number of teams (Dropbox user): 5+: 27% | 4: 10% | 3: 25% | 2: 21% | 1: 17%

People will work on more and smaller teams

For people who work in teams, it’s striking how many are on multiple teams even though their companies are not explicitly organized that way. In our survey data, the majority of all users are on two or more teams, spiking to 83% for Dropbox users. The largest category among non-Dropbox users is single team membership (42%) in contrast to five or more teams among Dropbox users (27%). Most people are on teams of fewer than 10, but Dropbox users are more likely to be on teams of half that size. And our research shows that across a wide range of collaborative characteristics, smaller teams score the highest. In 2017, we expect to see the size of teams within companies continue to decrease as they become both more internally collaborative and their networks of external collaborators grow.

Teams will become more fluid and dispersed

Collaborative teams increasingly manage collections of specialists and other external collaborators. As technology reduces the friction of this coordination, effective teams will diversify. Our survey shows that more collaborative teams are also more diverse in geography and skill set. And they are more likely to include external collaborators. Dropbox users are six times more likely to be part of teams with people from outside their organization, twice as likely to work with teammates in different geographic locations, and 50% more likely to work on teams with a high mix of skills. These trends show a movement from static hierarchical organization to more fluid informal teams. In 2017 we expect the trend towards fluid teams to become more visible in larger companies as multiple team membership increases.

Collaborative teams will remain unevenly distributed

Dropbox users in our survey are more likely to work in collaboration-intensive sectors like technology, professional services, media, and education. They also cluster within certain roles inside companies as well. Dropbox users are more likely to be in art, design, or creative roles, and also more likely to be in executive or upper management roles. These roles and industries are all on the content-heavy side of the knowledge work spectrum, and in 2017, we expect them to be at the forefront of collaborative teamwork. We also expect their influence to spread to adjacent teams within companies and to inspire more flexible work styles.

Smaller, more diverse and collaborative teamwork is the way of the future. These changes are happening, but they will not be uniform across all companies and industries. We believe that the teams within companies leading the charge will be design, marketing, and the C-suite itself, and that other teams will soon follow. As science fiction writer William Gibson has written, “the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”