Illustration of a team looking at larger than life laptops, headphones, clocks, and other work-related objects.
5-second summary
  • Creating team agreements is a way of codifying your team’s culture, which lets new members ramp up quickly and helps other teams understand how to work with you.
  • Without formal agreements around behaviors and communication, your team may experience low morale, low performance, and higher work-related stress.
  • These are agreements – not blood oaths. It’s OK to revise or refresh them.
  • The Working Agreements Play from the Atlassian Team Playbook helps our teams clarify expectations and work together more harmoniously – and it can help your team, too.

Think back about two years, to the days just before your office shut down. You and your team had certain ways of working together. You were familiar with each other’s habits and work styles. You had well-established workflows. Even if things weren’t ideal, they were stable. And when points of friction emerged, smoothing them out might’ve been as simple as having a quick cubicle convo.

But we all developed new patterns and preferences during the great remote work experiment of 2020 and 2021, both as individuals and teams. Now that some of us are working in the office again, and many more are embracing hybrid work, it’s only natural to feel a little discombobulated – like our teams are back in the “storming” stage of Tuckman’s team development model. Which, it turns out, is exactly what’s happening!

Teams all over the world are rebuilding their cultural norms. That includes your team, whether you realize it or not. So the question is: will your team stumble through this process ad-hoc, or will you move through it intentionally? (The correct answer is “intentionally.”) If there was ever a perfect time to hit the reset button – or formally define your norms and expectations for the first time – it’s now. That’s what team agreements are for.

By carving out time to create agreements with your team, you can get back to “norming” and “performing” much faster.

What are team agreements, anyway?

Team agreements, also known as working agreements, are documents that lay out the ways you work together and the behaviors you expect of each other. They speak to a broad spectrum of topics ranging from logistical (like processes and tools) to cultural (values, accountability, how you resolve disagreements).

Examples of team agreements
  • “We work roughly 9 am – 5 pm local time (unless we communicate otherwise to the group) and don’t expect each other to respond to chat or email outside those hours.”
  • “We document strategies, plans, and decisions in Confluence. We use Slack for quick questions and updates. We use email as little as possible.”
  • “When we close out a Jira ticket, we add notes as to how the work was done for future reference.”
  • “We treat failures as shared and systemic. No finger-pointing or scape-goating.”
  • “We celebrate wins with donuts (when we’re together in person) or donut-related .gifs in our Slack channel (when we’re apart).”
  • “We start each team meeting with 5 minutes of casual chatter or an ice breaker so we’re always connecting on a personal level.”
  • “Headphones on in the office = ‘do not disturb.'”
  • “We seek to understand first, then offer feedback.”

However you document your agreements, make sure it’s easy for everyone to find later for reference. (There are templates for Trello boards and Confluence pages that make sharing super easy.) In an ideal world, other teams can see the agreements as well. If they understand how your team works internally as a unit, it’s that much easier for them to work with you.

The agile guide to winning at team development

Who should use them, and when?

According to one of Atlassian’s own Team Doctors (yes: that’s really a job title here!), working agreements benefit all types of teams at all levels. Although it’s most common to create them with your nuclear team – where everyone reports to the same manager – they’re just as useful for cross-functional project teams.

And don’t think of them as training wheels for people just entering the workforce. “There’s a misconception that working agreements are kids’ stuff and a waste of time for senior-level teams,” says Team Doctor Corey King. “But nothing could be farther from the truth.”

Mark Cruth, a fellow Team Doctor, agrees: “I’ve run them at the VP level and it’s amazing how much it helped them to collaborate better because they were no longer making assumptions around how they work together.”

Newly formed teams should create a set of agreements as soon as possible to establish a strong foundation. For existing teams, there are a handful of reasons to create or revise agreements. (It’s a living document, after all.) Reorgs, massive growth across the company, changes in team membership, a shift in strategic direction, transitioning from remote to in-person or hybrid work…these are all sensible moments to reassess how your team should function.

There’s a misconception that working agreements are kids’ stuff and a waste of time for senior-level teams. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

– Corey King, Team Doctor at Atlassian

Why do teams need agreements?

Team agreements help new team members acclimate quickly, streamline workflows so you’re more productive, and reveal how teammates can bring the best out in each other. “Working agreements establish the expectations we have of each other and eliminate assumptions,” says Marc.

They also go a long way in avoiding misunderstandings – the all-too-frequent root of so many forms of professional headaches and heartaches – in these four ways.

Improve communication – Humans thrive on stability and predictability. If you don’t know when to expect updates on each other’s work, or don’t know how new work will be communicated, a general sense of unease settles over the team, which harms morale. According to a 2019 report from Dynamic Signal, 52% of companies report losing money due to poor communication. When you can’t trust that you’re “in the loop” and are getting all the latest info, you’ll waste time seeking out information on your own. And you may or may not find the correct info, leading you to act on the wrong things and waste even more time.

1. Clarify expectations

Is it a big deal if you show up late to a meeting? How much notice should you give your boss when a project is delayed or at risk? Are sick days exclusively for healing, or are they really just work-from-home days? How do we make sure everyone can contribute their ideas? Knowing the answer to these questions helps keep work on track, avoid interpersonal conflict, and reduce stress on the job (which means we’re not bringing that stress home with us!).

2. Understand and harmonize work styles

Each person is at their best under different circumstances. One person tends to think as they’re speaking, while a teammate prefers to collect their thoughts before sharing them. One person is a work/life segmentor (meaning they keep work and personal time strictly compartmentalized), while another is an integrator (meaning they’re happy to dial into the department all-hands while on a treadmill at the gym). All of that is fine – as long as they know these things about each other and respect the differences. For example, if the integrator doesn’t understand why the segmentor isn’t responding to Slack at 9 pm, that’s a recipe for frustration and conflict.

3. Avoid psychological hazards

Lack of trust and psychological safety amongst team members leads to unnecessary stress, burnout, and even bullying or harassment. Unwanted behaviors might be subtle, such as interrupting someone in meetings. But if left unchecked, the effects accumulate over time (think “death by a thousand paper-cuts”), which destroys morale and degrades both team and individual performance.

6 ways to support the work-life integrators and segmentors on your team

For Annelise Cappy, a long-time Atlassian, team agreements made a massive difference when she pivoted her career from PR specialist to SEO specialist. “I’d been with the company many years, but new to this team. And I was working remotely at the time, so even though I was acquainted with my new teammates, I’d never had a chance to sit with them in an office setting,” she recalls. “The agreements exercise really helped me understand how the team functions, which, in turn, helped me understand where I have flexibility within that.”

Along with getting her ramped up quickly on the logistical aspects like where the team shares product updates and what hours everyone works, creating team agreements also revealed that everyone on the team craves heads-down time to focus on project work. As a result, they established a meeting-free week once a month.

And although team agreements should never be used as a weapon, they do provide a fail-safe mechanism when teams deviate from them. In that case, anyone can say “Hey team, we agreed to do X but it doesn’t seem like we’re doing that anymore – do we need to revisit this agreement?” No finger-pointing or public shaming required.

How do we create good team agreements?

The most important thing is to create team agreements collaboratively. Remember, these are agreements, not mandates dictated from on high. You can find complete instructions in the Working Agreements Play from the Atlassian Team Playbook, including templates and pointers for co-located and distributed teams.

When you run the play, feel free to mix in your own discussion prompts and questions, or draw from these:

  • What do we need in order to feel energized?
  • How can we foster psychological safety?
  • How can we ensure alignment on what’s a top priority?
  • What will we do before accepting or starting new work?
  • What is our preferred way of getting in touch with each other?
  • How soon should we respond?
  • What guidelines would help us have better meetings?
  • How should we deal with disagreements?
  • How should we celebrate wins?
  • How can we encourage diverse thinking and open debate?
  • How can we bring a continuous improvement mindset to everything we do?

Check out the play, schedule an hour with your team, and start looking forward to a more harmonious working environment.

How team agreements help you navigate the brave new world of hybrid work