One of the things we know about performance at work is that talent flows from teams. How well a team communicates, collaborates, and supports the members on it has a massive effect on how well an individual performs. We’ve known this for some time now, but what may be surprising to most people is that this is true no matter the type of team people work on—including remote teams.
It may seem counterintuitive, especially during the Great “Work-From-Home” Experiment many of us are living through. But the success of individuals working remotely still relies on the success and support of the team working remotely with them. To take advantage of this truth, many of the most successful teams (colocated and remote) have found that the best way to establish the norms of communication and collaboration that fuel performance is by creating a working agreement for the team.
A Declaration of Interdependence.
A team working agreement is a living document drafted by a team that outlines the ground rules for communication and collaboration. It outlines how teammates will keep each other updated, how they’ll give each other feedback, and how they’ll communicate—both in what medium and with what frequency.
Creating a team working agreement—or at least the first draft of a team working agreement—is a simple activity that shouldn’t take an average-sized team more than an hour to create. But it will save hours of headache within the first few weeks of working together once the agreement is drafted.
So, in this article, we’re going to outline the steps needed to draft a team working agreement: how to prepare, what to discuss, and how to gain commitment. (And if you’d like a downloadable PDF discussion guide to review with your team, click here.)
How To Prepare
It goes without saying that you need the whole team to collaborate on the team working agreement—that means that the first step is calling a meeting. This works best when it is a one-off meeting dedicated just to this agreement. So, this is not the type of activity you just want to add on to the agenda of a normal weekly all-hands meeting. Nor do you want to attempt to add a couple quick items to the agenda of this meeting. The purpose of this meeting should just be to come up with this team working agreement. That’s it.
So, let your team know when you’re calling this meeting that creating this agreement is the focus. That way they can think, reflect, and prepare beforehand. And since the purpose of the meeting is to create a team working agreement, decide what tool you’ll want to use to keep a real-time record of what’s being discussed on the team—the virtual version of a whiteboard. Ideally, it’s a tool everyone can see and contribute to in real-time, and also see others updates in real-time. (If you want some great tool recommendations, click here.)
Ideally, complete these preparation items about a week before the schedule meeting. This helps ensure people have adequate time to prepare, but also that they don’t forget about the specific details they wanted to address during the meeting.
What To Discuss
Obviously, you don’t want to open a meeting like this with “Well, our communication is terrible…let’s fix it.” In fact, you don’t want to say that at any point in the meeting. You do want to open with a quick ice breaker. For remote teams, one icebreaker that will help set the tone for the rest of the meeting is a “virtual tour.” Each person takes 30-60 seconds, grabs their laptop or webcam and shows the team around the space they’ve been working in. That way everyone sees more of the environment they’re coworkers experience every day and builds a little more understanding. If you’ve already done that activity (or you’re working with a colocated team) you could have everyone take turns sharing their biggest “communication fails” (times they understood someone or were misunderstood).
Either activity helps get teammates used to talking and creates an easy connection to the real topic of discussion.
Once that connection is made, it’s time to get to work. The easiest framework for generating discussion and arriving at communication agreements is to cover a list of questions around communication and collaboration. Here’s a few questions that work in a variety of contexts:
- What information needs to be shared team wide?
- How might we communicate that information best?
- What response times are reasonable for each communication medium?
- How should we share what’s being worked on?
- How should we make requests for information or assistance?
- Do we need to find shared “core hours” of overlap in our work schedules?
The questions will obviously vary by team and, once you start discussing, more questions will arise. Just add those to the bottom of the list to review later on in the same meeting. If you’re already using a specific project management software, some of these questions will be already answered by the specifics of the software. But this would also be a time to talk about best practices and best ways to use that software. Don’t end the meeting until everyone on the team has answers to every one of the questions on the list. Because the answers are going to become the group norms.
How To Gain Commitment
With the questions reviewed and answers captured in a working document, it’s time to move toward commitment. But this stage is trickier than it looks. Don’t just say “okay, everyone good?” and sign off. Instead, focus first on transforming the captured answers into statements or declarations.
For example, a question like “What response times are reasonable for each communication medium?” might turn into a declaration like “We agree to 24 hours as a reasonable response time for email messages—both to try to respond in 24 hours and to wait 24 hours before demanding a response.”
Go question by question, answer by answer, until each answer has been transformed into a declarative statement. By the end of the process, everyone on the team should be looking at a bulleted list of agreements on how to communicate and collaborate best with each other. Now, it’s time to ask if everyone is comfortable committing to it. Instead of a generic call for commitment, go person-by-person until each person has had a chance to agree or speak up about a small tweak.
Once everyone has committed to work on it, you’ll want to make sure everyone still has easy access to the agreement. (You’ll also want to make sure that you’ve locked the document from further changes). You can review it six months or a year later and revise it, but until then you want it front and center to remind people of the new norms of how they’ll work together…and how they’ll do their best work ever.
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