Creating Your Remote Team Agreement

5 minutes, 5 links


Updated March 23, 2023

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Professors Christine M. Riordan and Kevin O’Brien underscore that social contracts emphasize a few key elements of how teams interact:

  • information exchange

  • reciprocity

  • mutual trust and fairness

  • shared values and expectations.

They write:

To turn groups of employees into great teams, a powerful first step is to form a social contract—an explicit agreement that lays out the ground rules for team members’ behaviors. A contract can cover territory such as how members will work together, make decisions, communicate, share information, and support each other. Social contracts clearly outline norms for how members will and should interact with one another.

To draft your first set of agreements, team leader(s) facilitate a series of sessions where the team gets together (most likely on a video call) to discuss different aspects of how they’ll work together. These sessions usually focus on uncovering existing team norms, both positive and negative.

Four discussion prompts that can help get a team agreement started are:

  1. What expectations do team members have of each other?

  2. What is working well within the team?

  3. What is not working well?

  4. What should the team keep doing, start doing, and just as importantly, stop doing?

Established teams can take this exercise as an opportunity to write down unspoken rules and question them in a healthy manner to evaluate if they foster collaboration or not. New teams can kick off their work by discussing how they’d like to work together, which can be a good team-building exercise.

importantTeam agreements can include positive behavior the team wants to encourage, and also outline negative behaviors. They must also explicitly establish how the team will handle violations and hold each other accountable.

Some additional questions that can help you add detail to your team agreements are:

  • How often do we plan or revise our plan? Where do we document it, and who is responsible for maintaining it? Who is responsible for planning?

  • What is our meeting etiquette? When is it necessary to meet? Can I leave a meeting if I don’t find it valuable? Where are notes kept? Do we record meetings?

  • Where do we communicate? How should we use the different tools that we have at our disposal? How should we not use tools?

  • How do we keep each other informed on status? How do we inform others? Are we “on track” by default, or do we check in daily? How do we communicate if we’re off track? What is the threshold to communicate the risk that a task or project can’t be completed in time?

  • How available do we need to be on chat? How do we communicate when we’re doing focused work and shouldn’t be interrupted?

  • Do we have core hours? Do we overlap? If we don’t have time overlap, how do we inform others about progress and issues, and potentially “hand off” work?

  • How do we communicate vacation, sick days, or personal emergencies?

  • How do we report team or company emergencies? How can we be contacted in case of emergencies? Is there someone on call?

  • How do we provide feedback to each other? How should we signal to each other that we’re breaking an agreement? What do we do if someone is consistently breaching our agreements?

It’s important that your first team agreement be achievable, and refined over time as the team learns what works well and what doesn’t. This requires regularly revisiting and updating team agreements, and being sure to get feedback on them as new members are added to the team.

cautionAgreements really can’t be mandated. All members must collectively form and share the contract, because lack of buy-in will prevent the agreement from working. It is also important that leaders model the behavior desired in the agreement, or the team will quickly realize the agreement isn’t fairly implemented and/or regarded as important.

Sample Team Agreements

  • This set of collaboration guidelines from Juan Pablo Buriticá can be used as starting templates for other teams.

  • Meetup’s Chief Product Officer, Giff Constable, published the team agreements from one of his past teams as a spreadsheet.

Further Reading on Team Agreements

Next, we examine in detail the protocols for team agreements that are particularly important for remote teams.

Time Zone Protocols

Like most factors in remote work, time zone management depends on how each company (or each department or team within it) chooses to deal with the spectrum of time zone differences, as well as the tradeoffs they want to make.

Time zone protocols are outlined in the team agreement, clarifying how people communicate when they are not in the same time zone, and hence may not have periods of overlapping availability for synchronous communication like video calls.

In general, you have two broad options here: establishing windows of “core hours” overlap during which things like video calls or stand-up meetings can occur, or designing collaboration plans that push more collaborative communication to asynchronous mechanisms and don’t rely on overlaps that are needed for regular synchronous communication.

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