How to Create a Working Agreement

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You may have heard the term “working agreement” from colleagues, or your organization may already have one in place.

Regardless of your familiarity, here we cover the basics of creating a working agreement and provide an example of a real agreement used by a successful fully remote software company with over 60 employees. You can find the full example working agreement here:

Example Working Agreement Template

What Is a Working Agreement?

A working agreement is a set of shared guidelines that an organization uses to define how people work together.

Working agreements tell everyone what they can expect from others and what is expected of them, particularly with regards to collaboration and communication.

Sometimes a working agreement will go by other names, like rules of engagement, values statement, or culture document.

Even if an organization doesn’t have an explicit written working agreement, rules often evolve organically about things like how quickly people should respond to emails, where to document certain information, etc.

So, whether you know it or not, you are probably already operating with a working agreement in your organization.

Why Should I Create a Working Agreement?

Unsurprisingly, the goal of a working agreement is to ensure that everyone agrees on how they should work together. Perhaps a better question is: what happens when people don’t agree on how to work together?

First, new employees have a much harder time getting started and take a lot longer to establish trust with their teammates without a written working agreement. The reason for this is that they have to discover the team’s implicit working agreement through trial and error, committing various faux pas until they learn the expectations, which is stressful and inefficient.

The more serious problem, however, happens when different parties in an organization operate under different unwritten and conflicting working agreements. This often leads to political infighting, resentment, and a toxic work culture.

By having an open discussion and coming to explicit written agreement about rules for working together, people can operate independently while still relying on and supporting their co-workers.

Which Organizations Need a Working Agreement?

One question we often hear from people is whether their organization is big enough to benefit from a working agreement. The answer is that it’s less about size and more about mindset.

At minware, we have used a working agreement from day one and it has been a net positive for us even when we only had a few people. Writing down our expectations has taken minimal effort and helped to clear up various ambiguities.

Some people, however, have an aversion to rules and thrive on chaos. People with this mindset may resist a written working agreement or other written processes.

It is possible for smaller teams to survive without a written working agreement, but it starts to fall apart once there are multiple teams (usually over ten people). Beyond this point, different implicit rules begin to emerge and the culture can start to become toxic and political without a formal working agreement.

Who Should Create the Working Agreement?

The key term in “working agreement” is “agreement,” so it is important that the person creating the working agreement follow a collaborative process that gives everyone the opportunity to provide input. Otherwise, people won’t follow the agreement and it will become a meaningless piece of paper.

At the same time, it is important that leaders take the working agreement seriously and stand behind the result, including reprimanding those who do not follow it.

Leaders at the top of an organization should be involved with the process and hold veto authority over the working agreement’s contents even if they do not write it themselves. This means that creation of the working agreement should not be delegated to a committee.

Ideally, the working agreement should be drafted by someone with expertise in work process efficiency and good knowledge of how people operate currently. This ensures that everyone will be capable of following the agreement, while moving the team toward better practices rather than perpetuating current ones that may be suboptimal.

Finally, everyone who will be subject to the working agreement should have the opportunity to carefully read the proposed agreement and provide suggestions. This is critical for two reasons. First, people have different perspectives, skills, and challenges in their job that make it hard to anticipate what will work best without asking them.

Second, it is important to provide everyone with the opportunity to contribute to the working agreement to enhance buy-in and create evangelism. Drafting the agreement is the easy part — making it truly effective requires day-to-day advocacy from everyone to hold each other accountable to its terms.

What Should a Working Agreement Contain?

Luckily, we have been through the experience of growing an all-remote software company from the ground up to over 60 people. Through that process, we have learned through trial and error how to create a solid working agreement so that you don’t have to.

You can view the entire example agreement here:

Example Working Agreement Template

Some of the main areas include:

  • Expectations for how to use slack, email, and other communication channels, including how quickly you should respond and where to ask questions
  • How work is tracked in various systems, and how to interpret various fields and work types
  • Where information of various types is documented and can be found
  • What the different responsibilities are of each role and who to talk to about various things
  • Etiquette for efficient meetings
  • How the process for proposing, planning, and prioritizing work operates at different levels
  • What the steps are in the process for developing, testing, reviewing, and deploying software

The Bottom Line

Whether you’re new to working agreements or already have one in place, they are critical for success as companies grow, especially with distributed teams.

Here we covered the basics of how, when, and why to create a working agreement, as well as provided an example from a real company to help you get started.

If you’d like to learn more about how minware can help you track and measure whether people are consistently following working agreements across teams, contact us to set up a demo.

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