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A peek at Workday's roadmap for Flex Teams to assemble and manage cross-functional project teams

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright January 5, 2024
As enterprises turn more towards organizing work in cross-functional project teams rather than traditional functional roles, we look at the roadmap for how Workday helps customers assemble and manage these teams.

Business woman in virtual meeting with a large distributed team © AndreyPopov via
(© AndreyPopov via

In the modern enterprise, people are no longer restricted to working solely within narrow functional roles. Digital connection makes it possible to collaborate on projects that cut across traditional functional boundaries. But this new freedom creates a new challenge — how to assemble the best collection of skills and resources for each project as it arises? In theory, distributed working makes it possible to connect people wherever they are based throughout a global enterprise. In practice, it depends on mapping skills and competencies across the global workforce so they can be found when needed — and once a team has been assembled, having the right tools, routines and management to ensure a distributed team can work effectively.

The tools for finding the right team members have been evolving over the past decade, as various vendors in the HCM field have built up skills taxonomies and AI tools to identify suitable candidates for specific roles. While the initial goal was to help fill open positions, vendors quickly realized the technology could also be used to assemble project teams, serving a growing need among customers. With the upsurge in distributed working at the onset of the pandemic, such tools were suddenly in demand, and have helped foster a new approach to teamwork. David Somers, Group General Manager of Product for the Office of the CHRO at Workday, says:

I think the hybrid model has taught managers ... that my team doesn't literally all physically sit with me at all times. A tool like this, they can see, there's a lot of benefits. I actually can grab a resource with the right skill set, and they don't have to sit in the same building as me.

The origins of Flex Teams

This experience has led to Workday introducing Flex Teams, announced at its annual Rising conference in September. This started out several years ago as a facility within its Talent Marketplace product for offering what were then described as gig working opportunities — where people with various skills could be brought together as a team to fulfil a short-term project. Employees could also use the marketplace to seek out these opportunities, as a way to improve skills they felt were important for their career development. Over time and in response to customer feedback, the product has evolved from a simple shopping list of team skills to allow for much more detailed specification of what's needed. Somers explains:

I need a group of people and I need role one, role two, role three, and they have very different requirements in terms of skill set. You can do that now. You can even create sub-teams of the team ...

A lot of the feedback we got from our customers, which is, 'Hey, this thing is great. It allows us to move quickly, it allows us to see people we didn't even know existed, that have a particular skill. But we needed another level of granularity here, to really pull the right team together.'

The management capabilities built into the tool have also evolved. In the original concept, a 'gig host' would set up the team and recruit people, but there was very little scope to give any feedback afterwards. Customers wanted the team leader to be able to act more like a manager, giving and getting feedback at any time and with visibility into calendars and so on. This will continue to develop in future iterations of the product. Somers says:

Think about everything that you can do in Workday as a manager, including responsibilities around things like a formal review, any of those types of things. You could see a Flex Team owner having access to be able to do that.

The change management aspect

These cross-functional teams cut across the traditional hierarchical management structures of the typical enterprise, and so introducing the capability isn't just a matter of enabling the technology — there's a change management aspect too. Somers explains:

You're moving from a formal hierarchy [of] 'I'm the manager, you're my employee, and you work for me' to 'Now you may actually work for somebody else in the company for a period of time.' That's a very big shift, in terms of how people work and how they think about it. I think a lot of the early folks who moved in and adopted that, a lot of feedback they would get from managers is, 'Wait a minute. You're taking my resource.' And it's like, 'No, this is the company's resource. And by the way, you can, too.'

Once managers understand the potential benefits, they become more welcoming, he adds. This is borne out by the experience at global snack food giant Mondelez International, which rolled out its internal talent marketplace in 2022. Volker Schrank, Senior Director, HR Technology & Employee Experience, says that the HR team had concerns that managers might want to be compensated for 'lending' resources to other teams. But these fears were allayed once managers recognized that they were equally able to 'borrow' resources from elsewhere — which might save them the cost of sourcing externally. He says:

Working cross-functional, it's, 'Hey, I'm paying for you, but you work for someone else.' Which is a big thing for us — in the industry we are in, every euro counts. But actually, it never came to that. We were thinking, how do we get ready for managers asking us, 'Hey, my team member wants to work with someone else. So where do I get additional capacity to compensate for that?' ... But we never had those discussions. It's really organically growing nicely ...

It might be that it helped that we started with the managers, giving them the vision that they can plan for specific activities, where they do not have to [recruit externally], and an opportunity to search within the company. And if you want to make use of this, you also need to allow for your people to do the same.

An additional benefit of having the AI make suggestions about suitable candidates is that it will include people that a human selector might not consider. Somers says:

The machine would have zero concern about the fact that this person works for whoever, meaning it would look and say, who's just the best group of people to work on this? And it would put that together for you. Versus when you put humans in that loop, that may not be optimal.

Understanding group dynamics

At the same time, human judgement is still important when it comes to understanding the group dynamics in a team — selecting purely on skillsets, for example, doesn't take into account the mix of personalities and their impact on team performance. Ultimately, it's up to the team leader to monitor how individuals are contributing and how well they work together — which underlines the importance of equipping them with the people management tools to do this. But as the product evolves, AI may come back into the frame once a project has been completed, to track how different teams have performed over time. Somers says:

Something that customers are already asking for, which I think is going to be the next evolution, is today, Flex Teams allows me to recruit a team based on skill set. I put that team together, and let's say they do a phenomenal job. Can I use that information to then potentially staff that team on other projects moving forward?

The way the system works today, it doesn't look at the team as a whole. It just looks at the individual and says, 'Okay, based on what you need, we believe this.'

I do think that is something that is probably not that far off — we'll have the data as people use the product to be able to say, when you put these six people together on this type of project, they're just really good at doing that.

Also on the roadmap is closer integration between Flex Teams and VNDLY, Workday's tool for contingent worker recruitment. Today, contingent workers that are already in the Workday system can be included as potential candidates for a Flex Team, but there's no capability to bring in a new contractor if a suitable resource can't be found within the existing workforce. That's because hiring contingent workers has traditionally been a sourcing exercise, managed by the procurement team from a cost perspective. This has kept it apart from HR's talent strategy. Somers believes Flex Teams can become a means of bridging this gap:

To me, it's like paving the last mile between you doing all of that work to save money and get, 'This is who we hire contingent workers from,' to 'Hey, I'm a manager and I actually need a capability for a project right now.' That is a completely separate process today.

What ends up happening is a lot of managers say, 'I don't know about this, I didn't know it existed. I'm going to go out here and hire somebody that I know or somebody who, whatever way.' They do that, and it's called spend leakage ... This is the piece that's missing, and I think we can fill it.

A closer tie-in with Workday's offering for Professional Services Automation (PSA) is also a future possibility. Staffing a professional services project has dimensions that go beyond skills alone, so the need here is for what Somers calls "Flex Teams on steroids." But there's a clear connection between the scheduling element of PSA and the skills component in Workday HCM. Somers says:

It's a little bit of taking what we're doing with Flex Teams and Scheduling and putting that together for a staffing professional, where they can actually look and say, 'I need to see what the optimized staffing looks like for these projects, and I can optimize it on different variables.' We can optimize it based on skill set, [we] can optimize it based on profitability. There's a lot of options and dials that they look at. We are well down the track of looking at that area.

My take

It's interesting to see all the dots gradually being connected as technology opens up the old functional hierarchies and job roles — so that instead of recruiting people to jobs, enterprises can help them match their various skill sets to roles and projects that cut across traditional boundaries. This opens up connections between traditionally separate applications, too, such as VMS and PSA, where talent and skills have either been ignored or managed entirely separately from HCM. This atomization and rebundling of components is a commonplace theme on the path to Frictionless Enterprise, and its impact on people and how they work is goes hand-in-hand with the transformation of the underlying technology.

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