Working Agreements. How to set up a safe working space.

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I am a fan of working agreements. I see them as a way of getting to know the team you work with. And it is a great technique to enhance safe working spaces.

The theory says that working agreements (WA) are a set of rules generated by the entire team in regards to the mindset and behaviour expected within the team. It reduces unwanted friction between team members. It is also known as a ‘social contract’. The rules can be phrases, words, images or can take any form that is explicit and understood by peers.

WA are a useful practice in setting up the stage for retrospectives, trainings or executive meetings. You can use it for describing and setting the norm for a workflow within a software team.

Working agreements are:

  • explicit and visible
  • encouraging transparency and openness
  • creating a safe space
  • not limiting people
  • respected by peers during the meeting
working agreements
working agreements to set the stage

How to practice

  • Have a place where you can write down the agreements. It should be a visible to all participants attending the meeting.
  • Explain the concept and start first, by verbally telling your expectation. Give some time for thought (no more than 5 min).
  • Gather all ideas from participants on sticky labels or write them down on the flip chart / whiteboard.

I personally used WA when delivering a training or facilitating a retrospective.  To give an example, we were starting a learning program within a software team. Using WA was on point, because the team was newly formed. We all needed to get to know each other.

After explaining the concept, people were reluctant and a confused.  Once we gave an example, like ‘Be on time’, things got smoother. Afterwards, we collected their thoughts on sticky labels and add them on the whiteboard. I read them out loud and asked for clarifications when needed.

This short intro into the kick-off session broke the ice. It helped us to be more open and have confidence in expressing their ideas and arguments. Looking forward, during retrospectives the team members used the rules to correct unwanted behaviour. And to maintain focus on communicating constructively.

working agreements during a retrospective

I iterated few more times and used the practice when the study group had additional members. Or when a complex topic was up for debating.

Just a short remark though. WA are not an universal panacea. Some people may reject rules by default or be less open to exposing their thoughts. Sometimes it may work and sometimes it may not.

If you used this technique before, I would love it to learn how your experience and what impact it had in the team.

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