The Social Collaboration Contract

March 28, 2019

While tools and platforms like Yammer exist within the workplace, how effective are they if not everyone is using them, or the same way for the same purpose? It’s one thing to standardise on a platform, but another thing to make it part of how people actually work together.

Yammer – like all tools that change how people work – faces challenges when it comes to user adoption. Many people have worked with the same tools (eg. Outlook) for over 20 years. It’s hard to change a habit. New shiny tools like Microsoft Teams come along that offer a multi-modal approach to collaboration, but at the end of the day we’re still dealing with the same people who work within the teams that use these tools.

The reality is that collaboration is about people, not tools. It doesn’t matter how good the tool is, how much training is delivered, and how much swag you give; if team members don’t change how they work then collaboration doesn’t exist.

We have diverse experiences

If you look around at your colleagues – what do you see? Depending on where you work, you may see up to five different generations in the workforce; from baby boomers through to people fresh out of school (or possibly still in it!).

Looking beyond age as a source of different experience, we also need to look at where people have worked and with what tools. Some people may have worked in the same workplace for a decade or more, some job hop. Their experience and familiarity with tools and technologies is often predicated by what their previous workplaces offered.

Some people may have worked previously with Jive or Slack; does that mean they can pick up Yammer instantly? Some people may have actually worked with Microsoft Teams; but does that mean they understand how workplace social tools are best suited and used?

Even if they have, people have their own preferences. People also have different styles of working. Some people (such as the author of this post) embrace the concept of working out loud and quite happily share and start social conversations. Others prefer to just get on with their job. Some are fine with continual distractions and notifications, others want to focus.

The reality is that all users need to possess “digital literacy” skills, regardless of what tools they have or now use. Five key competencies of digital literacy are:

  1. Information and data literacy: To articulate information needs, to locate and retrieve digital data, information and content.
  2. Communication and collaboration: To interact, communicate and collaborate through digital technologies while being aware of cultural and generational diversity.
  3. Digital content creation: To create and edit digital content.
  4. Safety: To protect devices, content, personal data and privacy in digital environments.
  5. Problem solving: To identify needs and problems, and to resolve conceptual problems and problem situations in digital environments and to keep up-to-date with the digital evolution.

What is a collaboration contract?

A collaboration contract is not as formal as it might sound. There is no document, no legal binding, and no blood exchange required. It is merely an agreement amongst members of the team to effectively be on the same page for how they are going to work.

A collaboration contract is made up of three key areas:

  • A common understanding
  • Shared expectations
  • Comfort using the tools selected

What should be in your “collaboration contract”?

Think of your team’s collaboration contract as a “service level agreement” they make with each other. Your team has a plan or a charter describing the work products and plan, ultimately what your objective is and what you will produce. The collaboration contract describes how your team will work together.

Consider the following samples as possible elements:

  • We won’t email documents to each other – we will post and share links to documents in our document library.
  • We will make sure that all of the work for the project (even documents that are still a work in progress) are stored in the agreed document library.
  • We will use [Name of Tool (eg. Planner)] to record task status and keep our status and major milestones up to date. (The specific tool you use is not important as everyone on the team
    agreeing to use it!)
  • We will tag content with the metadata we agree to as it is added, even if the attributes are not forced!
  • We will use this specific folder/library structure to organise our team documents. (Without being too rigid in the beginning of a project, it is a good idea to establish some general organising principles at the start.)
  • We will let the team leader / project manager know if the metadata scheme or folder structure needs to be adjusted.
  • We will use our OneNote notebook for all meeting minutes.
  • We will use the date of the meeting as the name of the page.
  • We will use Yammer for all internal team conversations. (Or, if you use Microsoft Teams; think about your channel structure and the intent of each channel and make sure that is part
    of your contract. Then also decide if Yammer is then used for external team conversations, how that integrates with Teams and who is responsible for monitoring the group.)
  • We will be accountable for checking the collaboration site / Yammer group regularly.
  • We will use the following file naming conventions… (such as “no version numbers or dates in file names”, avoiding the use of “DRAFT” and “FINAL” as well).
  • We will hold each other accountable to follow the collaboration contract.

This “contract” should be entered into by all of the members of the team who are about to work together. If the team is established and working, take the opportunity to re-set expectations and improve collaboration going forward.

How to make a collaboration contract work for you

Tools with notifications and popups can’t enforce or make the collaboration contract effective. Forcing behaviours to occur won’t either. Despite its name, a collaboration contract must be voluntarily entered into by all members of the team. Understand your outcome goals (ie. with whom are we collaborating, what tools are available to our team members, what are we trying to accomplish, etc.) and then think about which tool to use. Get everyone to self-assess things like Yammer responsiveness, comfort level with tools, work speed, priorities, life/work balance, etc. This can be shared via survey or discussion.

Learn the tools and how to use them as a group – in other words; participate in training at the same time.

Use the time not just to learn about the tool, but also to evaluate how the tool might benefit the team.

Talk to each other about what makes sense, what you want to try, and what might not work.

Use these critical conversations to establish shared experiences.

For tools like Yammer; install the mobile and desktop apps for easier access, set notifications, talk about tagging each other, use of hashtags, etc. Share tips and best practices with your team if you learn something useful – work out loud!

If someone is not living up to the expectations/contract, don’t get frustrated; help/coach/guide them. If something isn’t working, don’t just trundle on and hope it will improve. Get together and adjust early, and don’t be afraid to keep tweaking.

It's a journey, do it together.

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Loryan Strant has been in IT for over 20 years working across web design, network infrastructure, servers, IP telephony, with the majority spent designing productivity and communications solutions. He has lived & breathed Office 365 for almost a decade; writing blogs, speaking at conferences, consulting to organisations, and has co-authored two books. Loryan is passionate about enabling people and organisations using technology, enabling them to become more productive.

* This post was inspired by “The Collaboration Contract”, co-authored with fellow MVP Susan Hanley @Susan Hanley