Two people holding a bag of fruit between them.

How Working Agreements Can Transform Your Team

Teams are hard. Any time you are put together with people who have different stories and strengths, you are bound to encounter challenges.

I’ve been in a number of teams here in the WordPress ecosystem that were put together, given a problem to solve and left to get it done.

In theory, that kind of trust and autonomy from leadership is really awesome because it creates the space to find a solution. In reality, it can be messy, confusing, psychologically unsafe and frustrating. Especially if the people put together have not worked with each other before.

The trap we often fall into as leaders and participants on teams is that we expect the people we’re working with to see things the way we see them (often based on our own lived experiences), agree with our assessment of all the things and work the same way we do.

I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I’ve fallen into this trap and how many times it’s gotten me into trouble. My wife, my parents, my family and friends and pretty much anyone I’ve ever worked with will likely have stories to share.

Scale & Complexity Can Ruin Teams Focused Only On Delivery

The more complex the problem or the larger the team, the more opportunity exists for people to operate out of their stressed state rather than their natural state. Often this leads to hurt feelings, declining participation and missed deadlines.

It’s just too easy to push and provoke the people around us to do things a specific way, see things a specific way and behave in a specific way. You probably have your own stories of teams and projects that were particularly hard to get through for many of the reasons I’ve shared.

A group of people sitting in a circle facing out.

Teams Are Hard

Teams are hard, but I think there are ways to help them work together better. There’s an Agile/Scrum ritual I learned about and practiced at Envato and now at StellarWP called Working Agreements.

Simply put, Working Agreements are the behavioural norms everyone agrees to be bound to within the team. You don’t have to embrace the Agile/Scrum methodology to benefit from the practice either.

Working Agreements are brilliant in establishing the expectations team members will have with each other and what it will take to make deposits in the relational bank account. It’s a roadmap to building trust, psychological safety and healthier team culture.

Setting Expectations Builds Trust

The path of least resistance for many teams is to dive into the work without really devoting any time or energy to the way the work will get done or who will be doing the work. Whether people have been with a company for long or not, when a new team is formed, trust starts at zero.

We might have preconceived ideas of how others will work together, or have worked with some people and had positive (or negative) experiences already. But together, if it’s the first time working on something, setting the stage for how to work together is a really valuable investment of time.

A good working agreement session will look to understand the specific behaviours that individuals found motivated them or stressed them out previously and builds a shared commitment around how the team will act toward each other and deliver outcomes for the new team/project.

As team members act according to the working agreements, trust is built in each other and space is created for people to deliver their best and be their best.

Working Agreements Shape Psychological Safety

In my experience, taking the time to bring everyone together to talk and establish these norms is a really helpful way to gain perspective, empathy and insight into what makes people tick and how they’re likely to be as the project gets deeper into delivery.

We need to be able to share how we’re truly feeling about a task, milestone or deadline. If we’re creating a team culture that invites and celebrates communication, our teams will feel way more empowered.

It’s also really important as you begin to think about other rituals you want to have in place as a team. So much of how things get done in larger teams is dependent on how well they are communicating and sharing information. The tone for this is set at the beginning.

For example, if you want to do retros or sprints, a foundation of shared ways of working can actively make deposits in the team’s relational trust bank account. This creates permission for people to share more openly and will make giving and receiving feedback a lot easier and more valuable as time goes on.

A group of workers having a team dinner together.

Proceed With Caution

As a leader, you want to deliver. I get it. That’s where the impact is right? When we prioritize delivery we can gloss over the stress on our team and end up burning them out.

The same is true about Working Agreements. It cannot be a box ticked or a way to get what you want out of the team. It has to be a shared experience with equal contributions and equal weight placed on the concerns and ideas of everyone.

The result of a good working agreement experience is a team that works well together, gets things done and doesn’t shy away from telling each other when things aren’t working. The flip side is a team that isn’t present, objectives that aren’t reached and radio silence.

Much of which side you end up on is determined by the one leading the effort. Don’t be afraid to slow down and really dig into things before moving from startup mode into delivery mode.

Working Agreements Aren’t Static

Not everyone is going to agree with everything or prioritize each working agreement the same way. Try to figure out which agreements are most important to your team and check in with them regularly to see how they feel the team is living up to them.

It will also be easy to forget your working agreements if you aren’t regularly revisiting them and evaluating how you all are living them out.

At Envato, we used to pick one working agreement a sprint as our agreement of the week. We’d paste it into our Slack channel description, add it to our team meeting and when we got together to reflect, we asked each other how we did at living it out.

This kept our agreements front and centre and helped us to internalize them all.

Teaming Together

Teams are hard. I feel like I’ve said that a few times already, but they can also be incredible. Working agreements are just one way leaders can be more intentional in their approach to team and maintaining the balance between people and delivery.

If you’re looking for some resources on hosting your own working agreements session, the team over at Atlassian has put together a nice play to help you and I’d highly recommend it to anyone curious about the actual nuts and bolts of running this type of ritual.