How university group work prepares you for your career

A lot of people dread group assignments at university. It’s not hard to see why - in a group of five people, you might have two people who never show up to anything, one person who does the bare minimum, and one other useful group member to help you out. On top of that, you all get the same grade in the end.

On the other hand, these experiences can be some of the most valuable opportunities you get in your whole university career. Working in a team isn’t easy, but it’s increasingly one of the most in-demand skills employers are looking for in the workplace.

So-called ‘collaborative skills’ are commonly identified in management and employment spheres as one of the most important skills for the 21st century. So, what are these skills, and why is uni group work so good at developing them?

Employers value the ability to work in a team

Work isn’t what it used to be. Some decades ago, managers preferred the “one employee, one project” kind of approach. Now, as research has turned these traditional views on their heads, managers know that the way to maximise productivity is to utilise the collaborative skills of their employees.

So, what are collaborative skills? If you guessed, you’d probably be on the right track. They are simply behaviours that help two or more people to work together to accomplish a task effectively and efficiently. Some of these include:

  • Recognising each person’s strengths and weaknesses.
  •  Breaking down the task into components and delegating them to team members.
  • Communicating effectively as a group.

A good manager knows how to facilitate their employees to maximise these group work skills, but you will be tremendously valuable in the workplace if you come well-practised in this domain. The opportunity to work on group projects in university is one of the best opportunities you have to do this.

What does valuable group work look like?

It may seem obvious to say that working in a group teaches you to work in a group. However, it isn’t quite so simple. Working in a dysfunctional team won’t teach you much at all except how to be irritated at people.

Management and collaboration experts Heather Caruso and Anita Woolley have developed widely-accepted frameworks for effective group work. The most important thing is to foster a kind of interdependence within the team - setting the parameters of the project so that the group members end up needing everyone to contribute their part in order to achieve the desired outcome.

Most of the time, your university professors will have received professional training as to how to set good, effective group projects that will develop your collaborative skills. In your student job, you may work in a team but never develop these skills properly due to ineffective management or a lack of group synergy. So, it is important to take advantage of these opportunities in class to develop your skills.

Why does university group work prepare you for the workplace?

When you work on group projects at university, you will be solving similar problems to those you’ll encounter in your field of work. Whether you study science, business, law, or anything else, you’ll be asked to work on these kinds of projects.

That’s important because the precise skills required in each discipline can vary. In the laboratory, teams must divide up the work to get all the required tasks done in the allotted time. Teams must communicate technical details effectively and work together so that everyone stays safe around laboratory hazards.

Over in the marketing department, students in groups are worried less about safety and physical tasks, and more about effective communication and development of ideas. In these groups, problems include making sure everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas, communicating to select the best ideas presented and delegating follow up tasks.

When you look at it like that, you’re much more likely to develop effective and transferable teamwork skills at university than you are at your part-time study job. That’s not to disparage the skills you can learn at work, which are valuable too, but more to say that these group work opportunities are valuable and you should seize these opportunities to develop your skills.

What happens when group projects go sour?

It all sounds good in theory, but what happens when you get to your group project and it’s just a mess? We all know the deal: group members miss meetings, don’t contribute anything, or maybe they’re so absent you’re not even sure that they exist.

Some people find that group work is infinitely easier in the workplace, and that makes sense. At work, you have to perform to keep your job - at university, some people view group work as a free ride to a passing grade on the backs of everyone in the group who is taking it seriously.

If you’re serious about developing your group work skills, it’s a good idea to take on the role of group leader yourself. In this role, you’ll find that tricky team members become good learning opportunities. If you really get stuck with unresponsive and unmotivated group members, you can always go to your professor - but they will be looking for you to work out these issues yourselves. That’s how these tasks are designed.

How can you make your team work effectively?
Whether you’re the team leader or not, you can suggest several ways to keep the team working well together. Here are some great tips to help your group work effectively:

  • Assign clear roles from the outset of the project. Instead of handing out individual tasks one at a time, make sure each group member knows clearly what their role is.
  • Create a series of checkpoints that require each group member to turn in work at points throughout the process.
  •  Use a tool dedicated to group work rather than relying on texting, Facebook, or e-mail. The easiest option is Google Docs, which has the bonus of being free to use.

One of the most important collaborative skills is being able to work with a variety of personality types. You will always encounter different people to yourself when working in a team, especially once you leave university and everyone isn’t in your age range anymore.

For this reason, it’s important to learn how to work through personality clashes, disagreements, and competing ideas.

The in-demand skill

Everyone’s looking for team players these days. The nature of work is shifting; projects are becoming more team-based and modular. The ideal employee, in the eyes of the modern manager, can adapt quickly to work in any team and work through problems as they arise.

University group work is your greatest opportunity to learn these skills before you begin your career in earnest. Teamwork is present in all areas of life, but not all group work is equal. University group work has the benefits of being run by professors who are professionally trained to make it a valuable learning experience, who are versed in the exact kind of skills employers are looking for and how to develop them in students.

What you need to do is take advantage of these opportunities in earnest. You won’t learn anything without committing fully to the project - and if you do, you will reap the rewards.

Written by Jack Buckley, Wellington