Research shows that when employees are more familiar with each other, they perform better. But how does that apply when a team is made up of many constantly rotating roles? In her latest paper, “Learning in Temporary Teams: The Varying Effects of Partner Exposure by Team Member Role,” Wharton professor of operations, information, and decisions Hummy Song and two co-authors used the often chaotic high-turnover, high-stakes setting of a hospital emergency room to study how team members can benefit from many new partners.

A male medical professional with a mask on, a stethoscope around his neck, and his arms crossed.The Problem

Hospital emergency rooms are often staffed based on availability, which leads to shifts in which the team members barely know each other. What happens when attending doctors, residents, and nurses —  colleagues with differing skills and authority — are thrown together to accomplish a task?

The Study

Song and her co-authors analyzed three years’ worth of patient discharge data from the emergency department of a metro hospital, collected between 2008 and 2011, for a final sample of

One hundred eleven thousand four hundred ninety-one.
visits with physicians and nurses who worked in 4,572 unique teams.

A female medical professional wearing a mask with a stethoscope around her neck and a syringe that she is preparing in her hands.The Results

Song’s data analysis suggests that prior interactions with employees in decision-executing roles (nurses) are a critical and perhaps overlooked aspect of successful team building, which sometimes focuses more on the employees in decision-making roles (doctors).

She also sees applications far beyond team building for ERs alone: “I expect a lot of these findings to generalize to any setting where there’s a strict hierarchy among team members and the roles are defined,” Song says.


  • Balancing authority and skill level when composing teams can improve employees’ learning and performance over time.
  • A standardized workflow can reduce the negative effects of an ill-matched team thanks to more structure and less ambiguity.
  • Assign employees to a team based on efficiency instead of availability. Scheduling software can help.


Published as “Is There a Better Way to Staff Temporary Teams?” in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Wharton Magazine.