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Five Steps for Improving Team Communication with Working Agreements

Smooth teamwork and collaboration are key when working in Agile teams. However, getting started with a new team can be difficult, whether you’re colocated or working remotely, as so many teams are now. This is where working agreements can come in. At their core, working agreements are a set of statements that define how a team is going to work together and be the most effective team they can be. As you can imagine, each individual is different, and each team is different, so there’s no “one size fits all” working agreement. Here’s why they’re helpful and how to get started on creating one for your team.

Why working agreements are so important

Working agreements provide a common baseline of expectations for every team member, allowing for transparent communication, which is now more important than ever before with so many teams having become fully remote. Unclear expectations within a team can foster resentment if someone is not acting the way others expect, however, we can easily get a team on the same page with an hour-long discussion to create a set of working agreements. Another benefit is to foster empathy and build relationships between team members. If the team doesn’t know each other very well, talking about how they like to work, both individually and as a team, can help them get to know each other.

How to build a working agreement 

Working agreements are evolving documents and should be periodically revisited. To get started, all we need is an hour meeting and everybody on the team to be present and ready to participate. This isn’t the kind of meeting we want to schedule on a Friday afternoon after everyone is checked out for the week. These are the steps I recommend following when setting up a working agreement.

  1. Before the meeting, create a board in your team’s collaboration tool of choice. Any of them will work just fine. Physical sticky notes, Miro, stickies.io, and Trello all work very well. Bonus points if answers can be hidden during step two to more easily reveal common themes among team members.
  2. Start with a question or two to get the team thinking about teamwork and collaboration. Make a column or grouping on your board for each of the questions. Give the team 5-10 minutes to answer the questions. A few suggested questions to have the team answer individually are:
    • “I work best when…” ex. “I work best when I limit distractions”
    • “I value…” ex. “I value receiving feedback regularly”
    • “A high functioning team does…” ex. “A high functioning team is never afraid to ask for help”
  3. Go over the responses as a group. Group them into common themes if any arise. The team will likely think of more things they wish to add.
  4. Distill the previous groupings into a set of working agreement statements that everyone on the team is happy with. This might take some discussions or a few iterations of each statement to get things to a point everyone on the team is happy with. Try to limit the number of statements to fewer than 10 so they are easily remembered.
  5. You’re done! Make your working agreements visible and make a note to revisit your agreement in a few weeks or a month as the team uses it.

Atlassian has a great working agreement playbook that is another good place to start. Remember, a working agreement can and likely will change while a team is forming and finding its groove. Below is a sample board after a working agreement session to give you an idea of what the result might look like.

Differences in remote working agreements

Working remotely doesn’t change the process for building the working agreement besides the tooling you may use and the topics you may cover. With the tooling above, you can easily replicate a similar feel to all being in the same room with sticky notes on a whiteboard. A remote team’s working agreement may look similar to a colocated team’s working agreement, but likely with different topics covered.

Some important remote topics to cover may include:

  • Do we have core working hours where meetings should be scheduled?
  • What are our primary means of team communication? (Email vs chat software)
  • What is our response time on our chat software?
  • Do we expect cameras on during meetings?

So you made a working agreement, now what?

Use it! Find a place to display it near your working space or on the team’s issue tracking board. Over the next few weeks, pay attention to your team dynamics and communication. Is your team following the working agreement? Are they working better together? What could be changed to help us build better software? Use your team retrospective or schedule a meeting to adjust the working agreement to any new needs that have arisen. Continue reviewing and refining it once a quarter or every six months.

The most important time to review, or even start over on your working agreement is when the team changes. If someone leaves or a new person joins, it’s a whole new team with different dynamics and personality interactions. It’s usually best to create a new working agreement, but a few of the previous statements will likely continue on the team’s working agreement. After all, creating a working agreement for your team is one of the best things you can do to avoid unnecessary conflict and keep your colleagues working efficiently. Treat it as an evolving document and don’t be afraid to keep reworking it to help your team function at their best.

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