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Building trust through team-level agreements

How to set flexibility—within a framework—for your organization

Posted October 1, 2021 by Helen Kupp

Reading time 4 min

As leaders look to provide more flexible work models, they face a challenging question: how do I balance the business needs of the organization, the needs of the team, and the needs of the individual? While some are quick to propose that executives impose more constraints on work (e.g. Don’t let your employees pick their WFH days), these actions often prompt more employee backlash (see: Apple, Google). Fundamentally, employees are looking for trust and agency from their leaders.

So what works better than mandates? While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model, executives from Future Forum have found common success in building executive alignment through organizational principles and guardrails. And once organizations establish these overarching principles, the next step is for business units, departments, or teams to drill down on their functional or project-specific constraints and needs and agree on what flexibility means for them.

What are team-level agreements?

Team-level agreements (sometimes called “Team norms,” “Team working agreements,” or “Team operating manuals”) are a set of guidelines that establish expectations for how all members of the team work with one another. The goal is to inspire trust, create clarity, and unlock performance of teams by being more explicit up front about how the team operates. As all teams have different goals and constraints, what works for one team may not for another. And because circumstances change, team norms need to be discussed, tested, and adjusted over time.

Agreement example

Scheduling and meeting hygiene

“Core collaboration hours: We expect team members to be available between the hours of 10am-2pm PT, Mondays through Thursdays”

As teams become more distributed in place and time, it’s critical to be explicit about the hours that teams are expected to work synchronously— both to ensure that everyone knows when to expect meetings or requests (such as feedback or action required) and to prevent employees from feeling like they have to be “on” and responsive 24/7.

When deciding the optimal 3-4 hour timespan for collaboration hours, teams should consider team member’s various time zones and morning/afternoon meeting preferences. In some cases, depending on the needs and wishes of the team, core collaboration hours may vary early in the week versus later in the week. 

It’s also important to note that core collaboration hours are not synonymous with “working hours” or your typical “9 to 5”. Core collaboration hours are set times when a team expects to be available live for faster responses and feedback cycles, or available for meetings. This norm also recognizes that there is time outside of the 10am to 2pm block for more focused or asynchronous work. Focusing on a shorter burst of collaboration time (versus the standard “working hours from 9 to 5” implicit office norm) unlocks a lot more flexibility for individuals who may prefer starting their day early, or those who might have caregiving responsibilities in the afternoon and prefer more focus time in the evening.

Build your own team-level agreements

If leaders proceed without listening to their employees and establish policies colored by their overly rosy view of in-office work from the executive lens, then they run the risk of their number-one concern coming true—and inciting turnover within their organizations. If leaders put flexible policies in place but don’t personally commit to and model those policies, they risk alienating people of color, women and working moms, and creating more inequities between remote and co-located workers. Leaders who genuinely listen to employees, foster flexibility, embrace inclusion, build connections and lead by example will create a work environment that is more productive, balanced and innovative than before.

The Future Forum team-level agreements template was built based on Slack’s own digital-first efforts and is meant to be a starting point to customize for your team or organization. The template includes some of the most common categories of agreements or norms we’ve seen across teams and other F500 organizations, along with specific flexible work examples that can help teams build alignment around how they will work together, while still maintaining flexibility for everyone.

As you roll out this template within your organization, think about what categories are the most relevant to your teams. We suggest starting with no more than three to four categories to keep the set of norms simple. More importantly, find a few high-performing and innovative teams to pilot this template with. High-performing teams are likely to be able to offer agreements or norms that are already working well, which you can then carry over and highlight in the template as a jumping off point for the rest of your organization. 

Give teams the freedom to decide on and experiment with operating norms that help them stay aligned while still maintaining flexibility for individuals. Also, encourage all participating teams to surface great ideas or examples along the way.

For more tips on managing teams, check out Future Forum’s playbooks—like making hybrid work work and building for diversity, equity, and inclusion