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How to build the best teams? Slack research highlights the top five work personas

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 8, 2023
New research commissioned by digital teamwork platform Slack highlights five personas in the modern office - what are the takeaways for business leaders and policy makers?

Toy crane building the word team with letter blocks - © Jirsak via
(© Jirsak via

Do you often find it hard to figure out where some of your co-workers are coming from? Maybe that's because they have a different work persona than you. New research published today by digital teamwork platform Slack suggests there are five distinct work personas in the workforce, and some of them are on a completely different wavelength from each other. Slack argues that this means they all need digital teamwork tools to help them do their best work, but other takeaways may prove more significant. For example, the research flags up some striking regional differences that may give fast-growing Asian economies a decisive advantage in technology adoption, while there are important team-building implications for managers and HR leaders everywhere.

The five personas — and their percentage make-up of the global desk-based workforce — are, according to a survey of over 15,000 workers around the world carried out by market research firm YouGov:

  • The Detective — 30% — a self-sufficient self-starter who loves digging around to find information and answers. Always reliably in the know and laser-focused on results, these workers love sharing their knowledge with colleagues.
  • The Road Warrior — 22% — able to work from anywhere, anytime, these workers are highly adaptable. Affable and outgoing, they're skilled at developing connections remotely and virtually.
  • The Networker — 22% — all-in on connection and communication, this is someone who is constantly having multiple conversations and loves to connect in person. Highly collaborative, they want to keep everyone in the know.
  • The Problem Solver — 16% — with an aversion to repetitive tasks, these workers are obsessed with saving time and being more productive. They're evangelists for new technologies, including AI, and the work hacks they enable.
  • The Expressionist — 10% — an outgoing, fun-loving individual with a visual communication style. These workers are big users of emojis, gifs and memes to get their point across in business communications.

Can we all just get along?

So who are you least likely to get on with? According to Dr Lynda Shaw, a cognitive neuroscientist and business psychologist who has been helping Slack to interpret the findings, road warriors don't always see eye-to-eye with problem solvers. She says:

The detective would get on rather well with a problem solver. But when it comes to the road warrior [and a problem solver], the road warrior will probably glaze over and think, 'Oh my god, is he ever going to stop telling me all these details?'

But rather than stirring up divisions in the office, the point of understanding these personas is to recognize the different qualities each individual brings to the joint effort of a team or broader organization. She explains:

There are differences that we need to be aware of. And we need to be aware of it in the way that we communicate out and also perceive that information ...

I think probably the biggest message out of this data is that it is okay to be different. It is absolutely okay to be part of a team that might be not like you ... These personality types are so valuable in understanding one another — and knowing how to communicate with them better.

India leads on expressionists and problem solvers

One intriguing aspect of the survey findings, which spoke to workers in nine countries on four continents across the world, is the huge variation between regions. Asian countries have twice as many problem solvers (20-23% across Japan, Singapore, South Korea and India) as the US (10%) and UK (11%), while India has three times as many expressionists (21%) as the UK (7%), France (7%), Germany (6%) and Japan (6%), and twice as many as the US (9%) and Australia (10%).

But the data doesn't tell us whether these variations are due to cultural differences or other factors. Shaw points out, for example, that respondents in India and Singapore skew to younger age ranges than in other countries, while the proportion of managers in the survey sample for these two countries is higher than elsewhere.

That's significant because she believes that, based on her experience, successful leaders are more likely to be expressionists or networkers. She says:

Why would a CEO be a detective? They can hire a detective ... I would suggest, out of all the CEOs I know, and I know quite a lot, I would suggest that the most successful are the networkers and the expressionists, because they know how to work their people.

Have empathy, be kind

But on the other hand, leaders — and everyone else — also have to work with all sorts, so having empathy for each of the distinct personas is crucial for effective teamwork. To some extent, we all have to adopt each of these personas at different times in our working routine — some weeks we're on the road, other times we need to search for a solution, build our network, or devise a workaround for a repetitive task, and all of us are having to learn to use emojis and gifs whether we like it or not. Isn't it incumbent on each of us to become better at all of these different styles? Shaw cautions:

That's always a good idea, but be mindful of trying to be all things to all people ... Improving your weaknesses is a good plan. But it is a better plan to improve your strengths, because you will shine. You will actually enjoy work more, you will enjoy the process more, people will enjoy working with you more.

In other words, don't go against the grain of who you are, but still be aware that others aren't like you. She goes on:

Don't be an extreme version of something. You have to be versatile, you have to work with people, we have to collaborate ... Be kind and appreciate their value.

And for those that aspire to become leaders, there's an advantage to building up all of these diverse qualities. In this case, she recommends a mix:

Expressionist, networker, detective, a bit of all of them. You can't separate them, you've got to be a bit of everything.

My take

You don't need a global survey and a new set of work personas to figure out that everyone's different and we each bring our own mix of skills and styles to our work. Nevertheless I think there are a couple of important takeaways from this survey.

First of all, the survey highlights the need to have some kind of framework or taxonomy for understanding what each individual brings to a team and which qualities need to be represented to have a fully rounded team. There's a lot of work going on at the moment to build skills taxonomies and get the right balance in terms of knowledge, skillsets and diversity when building a new team. But what about personas, which may be equally important to whether a team succeeds or fails? There's a point at which 'What type of work persona am I?' stops being a fun quiz you do out of interest and starts becoming a serious factor in who gets what work opportunities. But without proper grounding in validated research and an ethical framework, there's a risk of poor or inequitable choices being made.

Secondly, there are those differences between regions and countries, where India in particular stands out as having a distinctly separate make-up to its workforce, whether due to demographics or other factors. Global enterprises will want to take such differences into account when building teams. Politicians in the US, Europe and Asia respectively may want to reflect on what this could mean for the future path of their national economies.

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