Building Team Culture. A tool: Great Working Environment Poll.

A little of the history behind the Great Working Environment Poll

When I started with my current team, my lead at that moment asked me to focus on strengthening team culture. The team was new and a bit of cohesion was needed too.

It made sense as personal satisfaction, and productivity are tightly tied with (1) having a comfortable working environment where you feel confident and (2) trust relationships you build in your closest environment: your team. Team Culture is crucial in remote works, where the environment is virtual, not an actual office, and your team creates this safe and Great Working Environment metaphor.

I started by reading a lot of articles and books. I found a lot of inspiration, but the key was not outside, but inside the team itself. This was the most relevant outcome.

Horizontality is the key to participation

We needed team members to take part in the creation of this Team Culture that generates a Great Working Environment. So my perspective changed from

We wanted to create a Great Working Environment for a team.

to

The team was going to create the Great Working Environment they’ll enjoy.

The process.

Recap: First, the team members define together their dreamt of Working Environment. Then, the team -we- evaluate where we are re: that target. Third, we put in place measures, plans, actions, to walk towards that target. Finally, we check again where we are = we assess these plans effectiveness. Restart the cycle.

1.- What’s the team Great Working Environment plan?

It depends on the geographical origin or culture of your team, their/your previous working experiences, tenure in the company, how many years each team member have been working remote or even personal preferences… So the team must decide what’s a great working environment for them.

Instead of starting from scratch, you can use some questions as starting points. You could reuse and adapt those I copy below these lines or google a bit and create your own list. You can also check with other team leads within or outside your company to get some insights and different perspectives (I’d be glad to be contacted). But team members must be included in the elaboration of the set of questions as soon as possible so that they understand they are the owner of these indicators. We are not trying to understand what the team lead thinks that is a Great Working Environment, but what the team members (including the lead) are looking for.

1a.- My indicators example.

This said my team’s questions/indicators were (I created 3 categories for clarity purposes):

  • TEAM SPIRIT
    • WE Have a strong sense of team identity
    • WE Create a positive team atmosphere
    • WE Take pride in the team
    • WE Build a collaborative working climate
  • RELATIONSHIPS
    • WE Invest time in building relationships
    • WE Know each other well (the people behind their jobs/roles)
    • WE Trust each other
    • WE Support each other without needing to be asked
    • WE Give each other praise
    • WE Value each other’s differences
    • WE enjoy working together
  • COMMUNICATION
    • WE have open, transparent discussions.
    • WE give timely feedback to each other
    • WE are supportive of each other’s role
    • WE feel like we are able to speak up and be heard.
    • WE Provide each other with positive feedback 
    • WE Provide each other with critical feedback 
    • WE Value the contributions, viewpoints, and opinions of all team members

Note: The WE is not casual. Horizontality as a powerful attractor for participation. And we NEED every team member participation.

2.- Evaluate where the team is

And to do so, ask the team. My approach is to create an anonymous poll with these questions. And answers (averages) will be our indicators.

Lessons learned:

  • A good looking poll can boost both, number of answers and juiciness of answers to open questions.
  • Robust extraction tools are your friends.
  • Corollary: I’d use Crowdsignal or TypeForm for the poll.
  • The poll should be anonymous or you would bias it with what your team members think you’d like them to answer.
  • Check the scales. I mixed 0..7, 0..10 and 0..5 questions. My bad! You can read tons of theories about the best approach depending on your poll topic, audience, approach… Or you can just skip these. Just decide on the scale… and keep it for any answer 😀
  • Create space for non-mandatory comments. You can’t expect hundreds of comments, but those you’ll have will be golden, genuine, insightful.

This was the poll itself.

3.- Discuss and Implement plans to go to that scenario from where we are

Once we have the answers, the team must be in the loop. I make them public immediately, this to see where we think we are regarding the Great Working Environment and how we perceive our team culture. Some indicators will be lower, some others pretty cool. And, with some exceptions, the rule would be: let’s work on these indicators that are lower.

Work means here figuring out processes, actions or any mean to get them higher because indicators are based on answers to these questions the team thought that were important to define the working environment they wish. And, again, team members’ participation is required as they need to engage with those processes.

How to encourage participation?

  • I use a post to introduce the poll result and encourage the team to (1) give their opinion about the results themselves. Do they expected some? Some others surprised them?… and (2) suggest and discuss plans and actions.
  • I like the post format because the participation is public so the post with the subsequent conversation in comments is a good example of the horizontality you expect (if you avoid introducing your opinions or plans in the post, and you keep the horizontality by participating as another team member, in comments).
  • However the post could not be appealing enough to excite the participation, especially depending on the participation and horizontality culture your team already has. You need to push a bit forward, to spark the participation: any team hangout or 1:1 with a team member should be used to do so. (I have memes regarding this).
  • You can hand the responsability to animate the participation off to a subteam. This helps, but still, don’t forget to use any 1:1 and team hangout to remind the importance of participation.

3b.- Deployment phase notes

Once you have decided the first measures and actions -more could come, it is not a closed list- you will start the deployment phase. I like to wait a bit less than a year, around 9-10 months to evaluate results for the actions you take, but it could depend on the team dynamics. It’s a middle term process so…

  • you can expect team members not to be aware of the plans/actions at any moment. But you will: keep these actions listed and review what you are doing at least once a week. I use Trello cards, e.g.
  • the team can introduce new ideas and plans, as well as remove others that are not as promising as they seemed. Pro tip: ask for their participation from time to time.

3b.- Some ideas for plans

Some examples for actions we implemented:

  • Two questions/indicators were about providing timely actionable feedback to other team members. A peer-review process can help here. We did this with amazing results. Note to self: post on the peer-review process that I’m going to be talking about here, in commit-conf.
  • Another question was ‘We know each other well (The people behind their jobs/roles)’. We were low there so we launched a series of What we did posts, where we explained what we did before joining our company or our team, as having a noticeable impact. Note to self: a post on the What we did posts could be amazing.
  • About open discussions and the value we give to each opinion, I’d mention the goals setting procedure we created. We collaboratively discuss and decide our team goals, mapping them from the division goals. Note to self: A post on our Goals mapping process would be amazing.

4.- Evaluate plans and measures effectiveness

We have questions and a poll to convert them into indicators, so it should be as easy as to repeat the poll and compare indicators. An example? Here it is (Left side initial poll results, right side second poll results)

I’d say we just need to resist the temptation to make the second poll too early. We are talking about human relationships and these dynamics have their timing if we want to build robust trust links. For reference, I’d say 9 to 12 months is a good timeframe, but it would highly depend on team dynamics, culture…

Evaluation is not just data collection. It should start in the comparison of both indicator values, at the beginning and the end of the iteration. But of course, this is not all, as you’d need to color it with context helping to explain results.

  • Team changes (new members, a team lead change, new responsibilities for the members…) can have an impact on results.
  • Important events in the team culture could also have an impact: A team meetup were team members can de-virtualize or a company-wide gathering, major events like WordCamps, Support Driven…
  • Any kind of event affecting the team could have an influence on the results that could be the object of an explanation.

And, guess what? Again, the more the team takes part in the evaluation, the better.

Does this work?

Actually, I’m convinced it does. As a team lead, you’d need to animate the whole team participation especially as it warms up, and don’t give up as the process takes time to get momentum. But I can tell it pays off. In our case, in just 9 months we got to move from 3.7 out of 5 to 4.8/5 in “We create a positive team atmosphere”. A more than enough justification for the whole process.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is results-team-spirit-survey-typeform-2019-09-05-07-51-58.png
Left: Starting Point poll results, Nov18. Right: end of the first iteration results, Jul19.

Ah! Happy to share more information about the poll, responses, details… Just contact me 😛

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