Virtual Work Needs a Team Working Agreement

A working agreement is a common set of expectations that a team creates to capture how they will work together and engage with each other. For many collocated teams, this is a valuable asset. However, the team working agreement becomes even more critical when team members are working remotely. Depending on the team or phase of work, working agreements can vary and should be modified to account for changes in the type of work or work environment. It should also be reviewed regularly and updated based on learning.

What is a Working Agreement?

A working agreement is a living document that captures how the team will work based on team members’ needs. Because no two teams are alike, working agreements will differ – and even a single team will want to revisit their working agreement from time to time. For example, as members join or leave a team, the collective’s needs will likely change. The working agreement should reflect those needs.

A working agreement can even be something that serves the needs of an impromptu and/or short-lived group. It makes visible and evident any hidden assumptions about working together:

  • What technology will be used for communication? Delivery? Measurements and analytics?
  • How long should meetings be? What happens in full-day sessions?
  • Will there be breaks or a lunch? How many and how long?
  • What styles of work need to be accommodated?
  • How does the group celebrate accomplishments?
  • What are the core hours each day
  • How do we handle disagreements?

Finally, the team commits to uphold the working agreement as the single source of truth for how individuals on the team collaborate, deliver value, care for themselves and each other, and do whatever else will unlock the most potential from the group.
The strength of the working agreement lies in the team’s commitment to it, including the commitment to hold each other accountable. Without some degree of commitment and accountability, team members may sub-optimize their own work. That is why the agreement should be created by the team as a whole and every item in it should be agreed to by each team member. If one team member does not support an item, remove it. The team makes its own working agreement. Otherwise, you can’t expect full support or accountability.

Good Practices for Team Working Agreements

When designing team working agreements, there are physical and virtual environmental considerations:

Define the team’s core hours

During core hours, all team members are available for meetings and collaboration sessions. Be realistic and don’t forget to account for other work, regular breaks, and time zone variations.

  • In person
    • Many employees have rituals and routines around lunch. The best teams find ways for their members to tend to their needs without greatly inconveniencing the team. Thus teams can make explicit how individuals like to take their breaks and lunches. Would you like a standing agreement, like everyone goes for an hour from noon to 1 PM? Or less regimented, like individuals radiate when they would like to take lunch on the day of, with the team weighing in?
  • Virtual
    • Long-time virtual workers know to radiate their progress and how they use their time early and often. Individuals new to virtual work would benefit from establishing not just core hours, but a cadence for check-ins with interested parties (supervisors, managers, key stakeholders) in addition to team working sessions (standups/Daily Scrum, planning, retros, etc.).

Because team members may have different ways of working, design ideal methods of communication.

  • In person
    • In an office with rooms, it’s easier to find privacy. In an open-floor plan, you may need to be more explicit. One of our consultants always put up a sticky saying he was in the middle of a working/thinking session and didn’t want to be interrupted, along with a time limit. (He was practicing the Pomodoro method.)
  • Virtual
    • For virtual teams, this is even more crucial: you won’t be able to just pop by someone’s desk or talk to them in the hall. So it is especially important to focus on real-time conversations vs. asynchronous channels (email, Slack, MS Teams, etc.). If you are in a remote work session, mute other channels that can interrupt the flow. Use virtual indicators to radiate whether you need time to yourself or if you are available.

Agree on tools and how to use them

  • In person
    • Is everyone present always? Where you work as a group and in subgroups may impact what tools you use. To accommodate remote workers, you may want to consolidate all-hands conversations into time blocks (a.k.a., meetings) as opposed to pinging remote members constantly at random hours.
    • Work visualization boards with physical work tokens can help make progress real for teams. In contrast, virtual boards like Jira Align, LeanKit, or Trello are easier to access from several different places at the same time. Choose which tool to use and design some lightweight criteria for how to use it. Train new team members on how to work effectively with the team.
  • Virtual
    • Online interactions often need to be more coordinated. An all-in-one tool like MS Teams makes scheduling meetings a cinch, because they include links and numbers for participants to join. Whatever video conferencing tool you use (Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc.), encourage the use of video (if bandwidth can handle it), even if just to briefly share your smiling face with your colleagues at the beginning. This is important for teams working at a distance because human connection contributes to job satisfaction and productivity.
    • Make tradeoffs explicit so that it is easier for the team to inspect, adapt and experiment with better ways of working. For example, on a video call with many participants, encourage participants to join on mute and their video off, then move into the meeting by asking speakers to self-identify, unmute themselves, and turn on their video as needed. For smaller video calls, this may be unnecessary. The point is to take time agreeing to ways to improve communication and collaboration within the limitations of the technology in use.

Example Team Working Agreement

What would a team working agreement look like? Here is a real-world example created by an entirely distributed team at a national healthcare payor:

  • Tools
    • Web cam (eye level preferred)
    • Noise canceling mic or headset (to minimize echo)
    • Zoom
    • Mural
    • Slack
  • Daily Stand Up
    • 8am PST
    • Cameras Always On
    • Mute as an exception
  • Lunch
    • Between 11:30 and 1:30
    • Same time as our pair for 30-60 minutes
    • TAKE IT
    • Let everyone know on Slack when you are leaving
    • Let everyone know when you are back and ready
  • Daily Stand Down
    • 4:30pm PST
    • Cameras Always On
    • Mute as an exception
  • Time to learn
    • From 9am PT on Friday to 11:30am PT
    • Rotating person or pair per week
  • Retrospectives
    • Mini Retro in stand down
    • We will record our feelings at least daily (niko niko)
    • Full Retro 2 weeks, Thursday after Review
      • WHOLE Team (SM, PO, Team)
    • Every 3 sprints Program Retro
      • Focus on BIG Picture
      • All Teams, Stakeholder, Customer