The impact of temporary employees on team effectiveness

The adaptation that contributed most to human survival and flourishing was not individual prowess but the ability to work closely together and co-operate as a group                                                                        Karol Wasylyshyn & Frank Masterpasqua,                                           International Coaching Psychology Review, Issue 13, Spring 2018

With so many organisations, across different sectors, hiring temporary workers it’s important to understand what impact this might have on performance and team dynamics. The use of temps and interim workers tends to be short-term in focus, to cover a gap in roles or skills. The focus is often on ‘getting someone in quickly’ with little, if any, thought given to the potential downsides of this.

Research published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology looked at the impact of temporary workers on team effectiveness, exploring factors such as relationship building and knowledge sharing.

The research

The researchers conducted two studies in order to test in-team differences by comparing social networks; and to examine how contract differences influenced team effectiveness.

Study one had 312 participants from 70 teams, across 12 organisations in three countries (Bulgaria, Holland and Romania). All participants answered a questionnaire which looked at their contract type and social network in their team.

Study two was a subset of study one, with 240 people from 58 teams, with 58 leaders. This questionnaire focused on contract differences; commitment to the team leader; the level of inter-group competition; team effectiveness; and the density of advice/friendship networks.

Underpinning both of these studies were three key theories and concepts:

  • Similarity-Attraction Theory: We like other people who have similar attitudes and values to us.
  • Social Identity Theory: We tend to behave more positively to those in our group than to outsiders.
  • Intergroup Competition: When different teams have goals that are dependent but when one achieves their goal it’s at the expense of the other team’s ability to achieve their respective goal.

The findings

STUDY ONE

Temporary workers have sparser social networks than their permanent colleagues. In addition, permanent employees are less likely to ask for advice and support from a temporary colleague. The researchers suggest this is due to the status afforded to temporary workers compared to permanent, with the former being seen as lower status due to their lack of knowledge and time with the organisation.

STUDY TWO

Team effectiveness was likely to be better in mixed teams (permanent and temps) where knowledge sharing was the norm and where commitment to the leader was strong. However, the researchers found no significance in terms of intergroup competition. This suggests that threats from outside (i.e. other teams) were not enough to overcome in-team differences created by permanent and temp employees working together.

In summary, the researchers state, “The results imply that temporary workers have detrimental consequences for team effectiveness…” 

Implications and solutions

The main weaknesses of this study include it’s cross-sectional design, offering a snapshot of time. A longitudinal study would enable us to see the impact of longer temporary workers and to test whether the effects would be different. For example, some organisations have temps who have been in their role for over six months. And finally, the research doesn’t look at the different types of temporary workers, such as independent specialist contractors.

Nonetheless, this research offers us an interesting insight into an aspect of team effectiveness and team dynamics that hasn’t been explored that much. The lack of information and advice sharing is one of the main things to stand out from this research. This has potentially severe implications for many kinds of organisations but particularly those where there are literally life and death situations, such as hospitals where temps are often used.

The researchers suggest that contract differences in a team negatively impact the building of relationships due to status. For example, training opportunities not being offered to temp workers because they are not permanent and hence, shouldn’t receive investment. With this in mind, here are three things you can do to ensure better team working when you have a mix of permanent and temporary employees:

#1 LEADERSHIP Look at your leadership style and measure the extent to which you have high levels of commitment and engagement from your team. At the heart of this is your empathy for and understanding of the needs and motivations of different team members, be they permanent or temporary. As Haynie, Baur & Harris said in their research on caring leaders and employee effort,

“Employees overall do view empathy as a means for bonding team members together, which serves as an important signal of leader effectiveness”

#2 INDUCTION: Make sure induction and introductions for temporary staff are as high quality as for your permanent staff. In my experience, temporary and interim workers are lucky if they even get an hour on their first day. More often than not, it’s a perfunctory show of where the kitchen, toilets and intranet are. By spending a bit more time on helping temp workers understand more about the organisation and the team, the more likely they are to integrate.

“…a need to belong is a fundamental human motivation…and much of what human beings do is in the service of belongingness”   – Daniel Pink in his book ‘When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing’ citing Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary and their work on ‘Belongingness Theory’

In addition, take the time to introduce temp workers to the rest of the team. One tactic I’ve seen work well is to buddy a new temp worker up with an experienced and respected permanent team member.

#3 TEAM-BUILDING. Ensure team-building and team development opportunities include temporary staff. More often than not, when I facilitate team-builds, a team manager will say they are leaving out the temps and interims. My advice is to always include them, even if only for part of a team-building day (or half-day). You can’t expect to have a fully-functioning, high-performing team if you leave out part of that team.

“Managers should focus on what unites team members rather than what divides them” – Steve J Martin, Noah J Goldstein & Robert B Cialdini in their book, ‘The small B!g: Small changes that spark big influence’

Also think about including longer-term temps and interim workers in training opportunities. This helps them build better networks which, in turn, is more likely to help them do their job more effectively.

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Research reference: 

Wilkin, C.L., de Jong, J.P. & Rubino, C. (2018). Teaming up with temps: The impact of temporary workers on team social networks and effectiveness. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 27(2), 204-218.

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