Team Working Agreements: The Why, What, and How

Every team needs a written working agreement. Without one, there’s bound be chaos, bloodshed, and death.

Or at least it might feel that way.

Team working agreements are the first step to good team building. Without a concrete list of rules for team interactions, invisible habits will start to creep into the team’s workflow. Habits that aren’t always good.

If you’re part of a team that doesn’t have a working agreement, read on. You’ll learn why it’s important, what it involves, and how to create one.

Why is it important?

Team working agreements minimize friction between teammates. The agreement gives all members of the team a template for what is expected during their day-to-day work. A good working agreement can help even the most contentious of teams come together to produce great results. They can also be used to introduce new team members to the group culture more quickly, since he or she will have a list to reference.

The key benefit of working agreements is their enforceability. Since everyone has agreed to follow the rules, enforcing those rules becomes less awkward when infractions occur.

For example, my team has a rule that everyone should be attentive during meetings and stay off their phone. Because of our working agreement, it is much easier to ask a teammate to put their phone away. Everybody knows that phones are a no-go, so when one does appear in a meeting nobody feels shy to point it out. The person on the phone will then realize that they are breaking their agreement and change their behavior accordingly.

By defining and agreeing on the expected behaviors for all team members, we are able to reduce behavioral problems. Good practices encouraged by the agreement ultimately turn into habits that propel the team forward, while the bad habits are weeded out.

What does the working agreement cover?

People are unique, so every team will likely come up with a different working agreement. While what works for one team certainly won’t work for every team, many agreements will contain rules similar to the following:

  • Core working hours when members are expected to be online or in the office
  • How to communicate vacation or sick days
  • When and where regular team meetings take place
  • Who should attend which meetings
  • Expected behavior during those meetings
  • Expected behavior during the rest of the day
  • Which software products are used to track work and to communicate
  • How and when to use those software products
  • Who plays which role on the team
  • What days the team eats lunch together
  • Etc…

The team working agreement is a contract between all members. It should be relevant to everyone and to the work that you’re performing. Treat it as a living document by revisiting it periodically and making updates as needed. Feel free to experiment! If one particular addition doesn’t work out, you can always go back.

How do I make one?

The most important part of creating a working agreement is that it must be done by the entire team. If you’re a decision maker or influencer on your team, this is easy to do. Otherwise, you’ll need to convince your teammates of the benefits to making one.

Make sure that the rules in the working agreement aren’t dictated by upper management — only your team truly knows what it needs, so outside influence should be kept away.

A working agreement can be created in a single meeting, even as short as 30 minutes. Ask the team to come ready with ideas, and then discuss each idea and whether it should be added to the agreement. By the end, you’ll be ready to go!

Any future updates need to be agreed on by the whole team as well. Depending on the extent of the changes, you can have another meeting or simply get consensus over email or chat.

Remember, your team working agreement is just the first of many processes that development teams need to implement to be effective. It defines the rules of the game and creates a common behavioral language. Finding common ground creates the bedrock on which future processes can be built.

Now take your newfound knowledge about team working agreements back to your team and start changing the way you work!

This is the first of nine articles delving into the processes that every effective development team needs. Stay tuned for more!

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