Personal User Manuals, Team Agreements and Company Handbooks for Hybrid Teams
Are you enjoying hybrid work? Can you juggle working from home while occasionally going back to the office? Does this model work as well for you as it does for most employees — or are there still real challenges to overcome for yourself, your team or your organization?
My guess is that the latter is true for most of us. The past three years have revealed how we work ... doesn’t always work. Before COVID-19, it sometimes felt like we bluffed our way through work by copying what successful people do. But we can no longer get away with the "fake it till you make it" mentality.
Lockdowns and work-from-home mandates have certainly shown our flexibility and resilience. But how we worked during lockdown and how we moved forward when hybrid became the de facto norm has also revealed that change is hard, and employees can’t always re-invent the wheel for themselves (nor should they have to).
The truth is, leaders do not always choose the right solutions to overcome the challenges we face in hybrid working. Think of return-to-office orders for x amount of days or surveillance software for colleagues who work remotely. Expectations of technology are too high in most cases and the digital tools we use don’t really facilitate new — or fundamentally different — ways of working.
So … What Does Work for Working?
How do we move forward from here? Assuming we are starting from a state of rest and focus, with each other's best interests and well-being at heart, we can then ask: Which working practices do we keep, and which do we leave behind?
I believe three practical keys will help us to take the next step regarding hybrid work:
- The personal user manual: Each employee explicitly and tangibly notes who they are, what they need to prosper and how they can best contribute to their company’s goals.
- The team agreement: Teams or departments outline what they need to do, how they want to communicate and collaborate and how they keep an eye out for one another.
- The company handbook: Organizations establish why they exist, how they serve their clients and how employees and teams can prosper within that framework.
Perhaps one or more of these practices are familiar to you — the company handbook in particular is something that’s gained traction over the past year or two, often from fully-remote organizations. Whatever the case, I’ll dive into all three and summarize how they could (or should) fit together.
Personal User Manual
When you buy a new coffee machine, refrigerator or some other appliance or device, the first thing you probably do is plug it in and switch it on … and then you just use it. Although that works in some cases, these types of machines come with some form of booklet that explains what the machine is for and how to operate it successfully.
The same often applies to work: we just plug in and go. We physically switch on your computer, plug into the collaboration platform — be it Teams, Slack, or something else — and just work. This approach was fine in the past, because when we experienced any difficulties in work we could just ask the colleague or someone in the next office to fix things. But, just as with household appliances and other electronic devices, humans have an intended use; we have goals and ways we go about achieving them. However, most of us haven’t learned which methods work for us in school, and if we have, it was probably through trial and error.
Through personal experience, I’ve found that it's vital to be intentional about work and about working. It is crucial to discover who you are and what methods help you be most productive and achieve your goals. This includes finding time for deep, focused work, when it's best to meet and collaborate with colleagues, and when to take time to rest and rejuvenate.
A practical tool to help you discover this is the personal user manual. This manual will help you discern new things about yourself or unearth latent qualities you had not given words to before. Such a personal guidebook would contain most, if not all, of these things:
- Foundation: Which values and principles are important to you? What’s your personal mission or life motto?
- Qualities: What are your gifts and talents, strengths and weaknesses? What gives you energy, and what drains it?
- Collaboration: How do you do your best work, both alone and with co-workers? At which time do you do your best work? When and how are you reachable for others?
- Tools: What does your workplace look like? Which hardware and software do you prefer?
- Background: What are your educational and work credentials, your areas of expertise? What’s your DISC, MBTI, CliftonStrengths, or other type of profile.
- Life: Where do you live, and where are you from? Do you have life partner, or children? How do you work out and how do you rest? Do you do any volunteer work?
- Personal: What are your favorite books and movies? Which people inspire you? Do you have any favorite quotes or fun facts about you?
When you put time into your personal user manual, you will discover that you can fill out some questions quickly but may need to dig a little deeper for others. Tools, background and life might be easy to determine, while foundation, qualities and collaboration may prove to be more more difficult.
When you share your personal manual with people in the workplace — and they share theirs as well — you will find that it helps build empathy and strengthens ties between colleagues. And better relationships will lead to better results.
If everyone creates a personal user manual (PUM), you’ll have a whole range of them in any given team:
I would call this the first, base level of a hybrid team's collaboration guide. And I’ll circle back later as to why that is. But for now, let's talk about ...
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Sharing personal user manuals with your team is essential, but it isn’t enough to ensure good collaboration and make sure you achieve common goals. This is precisely because those common goals aren’t yet made explicit. With varying personal preferences regarding working methods, tools, collaboration and well-being needs, it can prove difficult to successfully work together.
The next step that project teams, groups of co-workers, departments or divisions should take is to combine the essence of every personal user manual to create a team contract, or team agreement. In it, you define:
- Purpose: What is our team’s goal? What do we want to achieve? How does that connect to higher company and personal values?
- Values: What are our core values and what do they mean in our day to day working practices? Which qualities do we value?
- Well-being: How do we take care of each other’s well-being? How do we make room for one another to ensure we can all rest, work, and blossom?
- Communication: How, when, and via which channels do we communicate? What are company-wide criteria when it comes to sharing and replying?
- Collaborate: In which ways do we want to work together? When do we purposefully share what we’re doing? How do we innovate together? And when are we available to meet?
- Responsibilities: How do we determine who is responsible, who is the decision maker? How do we deal with conflicting priorities?
- Measurability: How do we define success? And how do we measure whether we have achieved our goals?
- Interaction: How do we give recognition and feedback? What do healthy and unhealthy conflicts look like, and how do we resolve them?
- Commitment: What kind of obligations do we have towards each other? And how can we make sure that everyone is able to keep them?
When working together based on the personal preferences and the needs of each co-worker — and bringing them together with a mutual purpose, value and commitment — you will create a solid foundation for any team to collaborate, bond and build an understanding of one another. This will eventually lead to fabulous results.
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This is what you might call the second, or the mid-level of a hybrid team's collaboration guide. And again, I’ll come back to this later.
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Aligning Team Agreements
I believe there’s no single way to answer every question in a team agreement. For one team, it might be necessary to work at a certain location for multiple days per week in order to achieve results. This will inform any other decisions such a team would make. For other teams, where people work may be irrelevant, which will inform other requirements and agreements. And this is just the location aspect of collaboration.
If there is indeed not one, right way to create a team agreement, it is logical to conclude that there will be multiple agreements in use at any given time. And that’s OK: a team needs to define what works best for them, given the organization’s goals and values. This means that, in any organization, you’ll have multiple team agreements (TAs).
What may prove difficult in day to day practice is collaboration across different teams, because they will have to deal with at least two team agreements. And with project teams composed of co-workers from various departments, a myriad of agreements will be involved.
In cases like these, there’s only one foundational solution for organizations, departments, project teams and other groups alike: creating a new team agreement for every form of collaboration. Only then can you collaborate intentionally and explicitly so everyone can contribute to the team's common goals, taking into account their personal needs and preferences.
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Now we arrive at the third, top level of a hybrid team's guide to work: the employee or company handbook. As stated before, this is typically the most familiar level as employee handbooks have received outsized attention following the shift to hybrid work from COVID-19.
Among other things, a company handbook should include:
- Profile: What is your organization’s strategy (purpose, mission, vision), values, and culture? What is the company’s history, what does the org chart look like?
- Well-being: How do we make sure all employees are working from the right mental place? And how do we look after each other?
- Best practices: How should employees go about their work? Which ways of working and methodologies have a proven track record in our organization?
- Responsibilities: Who is ultimately responsible for which decisions? How do we define success, and how do we measure it?
- Teams’ control: How much wiggle-room is there for teams and departments to create their own team agreements, and which elements are basically set in stone?
- Technology: Which communication and collaboration tools and channels do we use for which type of work?
- Legal: What are applicable health and safety requirements? Which rules and regulations are relevant to the organization?
- Employment: Performance standards, review and appraisal, promotions, discipline; code of conduct; benefits (pay, holidays, leave); onboarding and onboarding.
A 3-Tier Guide for Hybrid Teams
It's time to land the plane. When you stack all three levels on top of one another, you get what is akin to a pyramid:
- A broad base level consisting of personal user manuals (PUMs), in which employees make explicit and tangible who they are, what they need to prosper, and how they can best contribute to their company’s goals.
- A connecting mid-level which is the team agreements (TAs), and in it teams or departments outline what they need to do, how they want to communicate and collaborate, and how they keep an eye out for one another.
- The pinnacle top level that is the company handbook (CH), in which organizations establish why they exist, how they serve their clients, and how employees and teams can prosper within that framework.
Now the trick is to work on this three-tier hybrid team guide from bottom-up, in the manner that I’ve described, as well as top-down. This way, a team’s personal user manuals may inform the team agreement as any organizational team agreement informs the company handbook. However, it is also true that the company handbook frames the team agreements, which then frame the personal user manuals.
This means that any work on PUMs, TAs and a CH is not a solo exercise, but a team effort. Collaborate on all three levels, and you create a consistent guide for you hybrid team.
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About the Author
Christiaan is co-founder of TheDayShift, a business consultancy focusing on radical new ways for organizations and professionals to work and collaborate, and the co-author of "Digital Employee Experience: Put Employees First Towards a More Human Workplace."