273. Working Agreements

September 27, 2022

The remote work landscape calls for conscious congruity amongst teammates, now more than ever. The best way to ensure everyone’s on the same page is to construct a working agreement that everyone is on board with. In this episode, we explain what working agreements are and why you need one! We break down how to optimize your working agreement, the pitfalls to avoid, and how to run a seamless work agreement meeting. Tune in to find out all you need to know about working agreements, from where to find templates to how to handle rule-breaking and more!

Key Points From This Episode:

  • The definition of a working agreement.
  • Why working agreements are particularly important in the remote work landscape.
  • When a working agreement works well.
  • The working agreement-related pitfalls to avoid.
  • What to do when a rule is continuously being broken.
  • Why it’s important to keep it simple and have everyone on board with the guidelines.
  • How to run a working agreement meeting.
  • An example of a working agreement meeting and what the team agreed on.
  • The templates available on Miro.

Transcript for Episode 273. Working Agreements

[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast. Living large in New York. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Today, we’ll be talking about working agreements, what is it, and why you should have one with your team.

So normally you join a team and you’re collaborating with your teammates but there has to be that initial meaning where you get to identify what are some things that people are required to do in order to do their jobs. 

I don’t think that we expect anyone to just, “Hey, get to work, start cracking code, make it happen.” I wouldn’t suggest if you are a team lead to say that to your team because I’m sure they will find that highly disrespectful, so don’t do that.

We’re going to talk about working agreements, what they are, when it works well and what pitfalls to avoid, and how to run one. Let’s start with the definition of what is a working agreement, also known as team norms are guidelines developed by the teams as to how they work together to create a positive, productive process.

Now, I think working agreements is something that you would do now more than ever if you’re remote because working at an office may have some implicit rules and structures in which individuals will work but now that we’ve all been remote, there are some things that we need to align ourselves with.

[0:01:29.2] The definition within the working agreement, it is a meeting in which everyone can align on team norms and expectation of each person and on this remote space, there is also conversations about time zones and you know, you can be living on the east coast and then, individuals on the west coast three hours earlier than you, this meeting you will help everyone align to the things that are very, very important to them.

When does a working agreement work well? When they’re important to the entire team, they’re fully supported by each team member, they are simple and limited in number and I think that one is very, very important because if you have like, for example, 15 rules in your working agreement, you might get lost in breaking one or two because you have to keep all 15 at the top of your mind when you have an agreement and you agree to everyone on your teams. 

So always be mindful, try to keep it as concise as possible when creating the working agreement. I hear some other things that would work well within a working agreement. They can be shared with new people in less than 30 seconds.

So there’s no crazy diagram, it’s not an org chart. It’s words with simple tenants that one would have. The members are reminded of agreements during process checks. So it’s just like, anytime someone breaks the rule, you’re able to bring it up and in a way that brings it to their attention without being mean or disrespectful.

And finally, the members are reminded of agreements when they are broken. Here’s an example. Suppose we are in a meeting and I’m running late. I run late to this meeting and one of our tenants within the working agreement is, “We will not be late to a meeting unless we notify.”

If I show up late to the meeting, someone can say, “Hey Bobby, is everything okay? We noticed that you were late to the meeting. If everything is okay, just please inform us that you will be late so that we don’t have to wait an additional three minutes for you to join before we start the meeting.”

[0:03:43.5] I think that’s not a disrespectful way to bring up the idea of something that we all agreed upon especially if I agree that I wasn’t going to be late without notification and I am late without notification. So things like that is something you would want in your working agreement.

Some pitfalls to be careful about a working agreement, they may be hard to keep and therefore, keeps being broken. I think this is pretty difficult, especially when you have a lot of tenants and ideas or really strict working agreements, they’re more likely to be brittle and broken. So that’s probably going to call for more team meetings to rehash the working agreement, so be mindful of that. 

Working agreements are not reflected on, at regular intervals are not posted. Okay, so tell me working agreements was a, you know, in-person process without telling me that it was an in-person process.

I’ve worked at a team where a working agreement was plastered on the wall and everyone was able to see it and any time that it was broken, you know, we always joke and forcefully point it at the thing on the wall. The example being like, don’t be late to a meeting without notification, I think that was one of them.

It’s just like, “Ah, Bobby” and then you're like, pointing down number three and everyone’s like, we can rag on each other because we all agreed but at the same time, it’s like, “Hey, I hope everything’s okay” before we talk about this and always make sure that if a rule is constantly being broken to you know, rehash that particular rule and assess whether that we’re going to enforce it or just change the working agreement altogether.

[0:05:25.6] Working agreements are long or complex and therefore, hard to follow or remember. Always want to keep your working agreements very, very general. Working agreements are not supported by the whole team. It is important that if you're in a working agreement meeting that you’ll agree to everything in the discussion and if you're not, you need to speak up.

Because after this meeting, everyone will claim that we all agreed to this process and these tenants, so if it doesn’t spark joy, then you should be able to speak up and talk about why it doesn’t and whether it should just be reworded or wordsmithed or removed entirely.

And lastly, when there are too many working agreements to follow. I can imagine it’s like if there’s just a lot of numbers within it or you have working agreements per team, I don’t know, a new interface with the development team and then, what the PM, it’s a different working agreement. I think that everyone should just have a solid working agreement that works with everyone altogether. 

So try not to keep working agreements on a space or team-by-team basis. I would say, include your PM with the developers, you have a QA team, they should be including as well and talk about ways to work together as a team and we’re going to talk about how to run one. 

[0:06:51.6] So I’m going to share a secret that I use in my everyday life since we’ve gone remote. People got a lot of time. Myself included and I think one of the things that you know, looking back, the thing that we use to do in person, it was very easy to just facilitate a meeting, you know, remember when you had to schedule a room and you had to get all the supplies?

Stride used to give us these supply packs with like, post-its and index cards and Sharpies and all those other stuff that we would have with us so that whenever we need to facilitate any meeting, we were ready, ready to go and you had to book the meeting, you had to go in there and wait for people to walk in and then you start the meeting with like an agenda, have to explain how the meeting could have run, all this stuff. 

We don’t really have to do that anymore but what makes it difficult is that there’s all sorts of different ways of drawing on a screen and facilitating meetings have been a new skill that a lot of people have had to use. My tip of the day would be always Google the kind of meeting you want to run and then follow it with your application of choice for drawing. 

So at Stride, we use Miro. So just to give you an idea, we had run a working agreement meeting very recently and I just googled, “Working agreements Agile Miro” and you’ll find different templates that people have created and curated and you could find the one that works for you and your team. 

I would suggest for a lot of meetings, check if there’s a template that exists for you and if you want to have really interesting retrospectives, you could run remoteretro.org, check that out, that’s a Stride-related product that we use and it’s free. That is remoteretro.org, all one word.

[0:08:52.3] If you want to run a different kind of retro, you can run a starfish retro, you could run a sailboat retro and you could look up all these different kinds of retros and just put that name, follow-up at Miro and chances are, there’s a template.

We recently ran a working agreement meeting and I tried to put this particular skill to the test and I found one template that was fairly easy to follow. It is the working agreement’s meeting, according to the URL or rather the Google link, I use Jon Spruce’s working agreements template that’s found in the Miro-verse. 

I don’t think I’m in the Miro-verse right now but that is where I found it and there is a description of what it is, they have some pictures that Jon already had put up. So Jon, thank you so much for setting that up and I can just go over some of the things that John in his example of a working agreements meeting, things that are important to a team. 

The first five are essential to the values of Scrum which is commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect and then he added three more that is specific to working remotely that John has run into many times, which is the biggest rule. 

We use the chat and cameras and the way that we ran the meeting this morning is that we took time to look at some of these images and I gave the ability for users for our team members to have three stickies so that they can then vote on the things that are important to them.

[0:10:35.3] If something was not represented within the stickies, we were able to then just create a new stickie, explain the thing that we would like as well as putting our votes to that and I am more than happy to share some of the things that we came up with. This particular working agreement that we have has six tenants and you could kind of merge one with the other. As I go through them, you’ll see why. 

We have communication, speak up when you have a question and letting people know when you are running late and we can use Slack, Zoom, smoke signals are great too, obviously, that’s a joke but the idea of communicating with your fellow team members is a way for us to know that we are running late or not. 

Breaks, breaks are very important to an individual on the team. Sometimes we forget to take a break and we may need to be more adamant about using the Pomodoro technique, where we take 25 minutes to do some work and a five-minute break afterwards. I think it will be healthy for all of us to I think the technique is for 20 seconds look 20 feet away from you is a technique that I have heard somewhere. 

I think that I am blessed enough to have a window that just is – there is a tree right in front of us. I don’t think I can really see 20 feet but the idea is that people like to take that as a break. If you have five minutes, definitely go for a walk. I definitely go and pick up Gio and spin him around and make sure I hang out with him before I get back to work and a lunch break is also a kind of a break that needs to be. 

I ask specifically for it to be preserved because I do have a three-year-old and I want to be sure that I am having lunch with him before he starts daycare soon. I can’t believe it, it is going to happen soon, it’s kind of wild. 

[0:12:22.1] We also have a tenant for openness. I voted for the openness column to bring your whole self when you’re at work to everyone and that includes, you know, if you’ve got any quirks or any accent, things you want to share, stories like I want to be a part of that because I also don’t want to be closed off with my team members. So I made that a point that openness is important for me and everyone agreed on that. 

Commitment, we take our word very seriously. We all value our craft in which to uplift every team member to do the same. So it is, you know, if there is a particular design pattern that exists, we will discuss and have a conversation about that and we will all learn from each other. 

Lastly, respect. Respect to other people’s ideas and give the space for us to share what we think and why we work. We will respect everyone as a human being and trust and respect go hand-in-hand. 

So those are very, very general related working agreements. I’ve had working agreements that had specific uses of multi-communication that were specified. No Slack hangouts where you can just pop into a voice chat like, “No, if we need a meeting, we’ll do it at Zoom.” 

Working hours that was specifically set on a particular working agreement and it doesn’t have to be that specific, right? If you have a working agreement and it is for breaks for example, then the two individuals that are pairing will be able to figure out when is the best time to pair is the idea. 

[0:13:54.9] As long as you keep it very general and everyone agrees to it, thumbs up at the end of the meeting and it’s best to, you know, in the remote world pin it on the Slack channel of your team so that everyone has an idea of where they can find these working agreements at the end of the day. 

I hope you learned something new with the working agreements and how to run one and if there is one tip that I would ask for you to learn, Miro probably has a template to the meetings that you want to run. So I guess crack open Miro board, create a working agreement with your team, make sure everyone agrees to it and do your best to keep it in a place where people can refer back to it. 


[0:14:39.3] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five-star review and help developers just like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode, subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.


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