6 Core Components of a Team Charter Document

From Chernobyl to Fyre Festival, every man-made disaster of human history begins with poor teamwork and a lack of communication. Failing to establish objectives, poor leadership, twisted priorities - there are countless origins for epic failure, but there’s a common denominator. At some point, any semblance of teamwork is extinguished.

A team charter document is the best tool for fending off potential collapse of a team. This document can be applied for multiple scenarios: 

  • The framework for an organization, such as a startup or team within a corporation. 

  • Team project for college students

  • Opening a second location (small business or restaurant)

  • Military operation

  • New client kickoff 

  • New project kickoff 

  • Engineering projects (such as breakout sprint within a larger organization)

Team charters will differ based on the situation. There will always be unique elements but the core elements remain the same. 

Core Components of a Team Charter

Background & Context - Actionable guidance is impossible without background and context. This section establishes the purpose of the specific team charter you’re working on. It answers the question of, “What?” It could include simple outline the document contents. 

Objective - This section answers the question of, “Why?” Some prefer to use, “Mission & Vision” or some variation. Use this to explain why the team should care about this document. The main goal of the project or team should be included. It’s also appropriate to list the success metrics for the project, such as key performance indicators (KPIs), a financial target or audience-related goal. Another benefit of the objective section is to eliminate the possibility of scope creep, when a team begins working on deliverables outside of the project guidelines. Scope creep is a surefire way to miss deadlines and increase team confusion. 

Roles & Responsibilities - The next question to answer is, “Who?” Many teams and businesses operate with a misunderstanding of who does what. This section presents direction that is more useful than titles for LinkedIn profiles. For instance, team members with the title of “Sr. Engineer” are more effective within the team dynamic by focusing on different tasks. For instance, one group handles ops work (supporting the system, bugs, downtime) while the other focuses on development work (new features). The roles and responsibilities section provides clear direction for the team and the role of management. Will they be present in daily standups or weekly meetings? Is someone authorized to make managerial decisions if they’re away? These answers should be clarified with a series of FAQ’s and hypothetical but realistic scenarios. 

Team Operations - The next two sections answer the question of, “How?” Team operations might be  referred to as Checks, Balances, and Reviews, Team Member Authority, or Team Assessment and Evaluations. Whatever name you decide, this section explains how the team will conduct their business. This could include a meeting schedule, sprint schedules, deadlines, milestones, service-level agreements (SLAs), collaboration expectations, etc. 

Everything about what the team creates should be explained. This included processes for how and when artifacts are created, and where they are stored. For example, a sales team might produce meeting notes after sales calls that are stored in Salesforce. The next associate reaching out to that customer would review notes prior to the call.

It’s important to separate this section from roles and responsibilities to demonstrate the importance of teamwork and team unity. It serves as an accountability tool for teams and management.  

Budget, Resources and Available Support - A misunderstanding of budget and resources is an easy way to crush team morale. At this point, team members understand what they have to do and how, but need to understand what they’ll be working with. For instance, will a marketing team get a budget for design work or will they have to use free resources? This section is useful for providing support avenues if team members are absent or fall behind. Clearly stating the budget provides accountability for managers. They are tasked with keeping the budget consistent instead of pulling resources during the course of a project to serve a wider-scale budget need. 

Final Consensus - No team charter is complete without a final section of unified approval and team consensus. The word ‘team’ is a crucial aspect of a team charter that should not be overlooked. This document is not a delegation of duties. It’s meant to bring a team together before they begin a project or start working at a new company. Many teams include a period of “negotiation” during this section, which allows team members to share their feedback and request any changes up front. The final step of any team charter is to have everyone involved sign off to confirm consensus. This could be with written or digital signatures. Whatever the method, every team member must confirm their unconditional approval. With that said, there’s no reason for this to be a rigid process. The information and procedures will naturally evolve over time, but this must be done in an organized and transparent fashion. 

Team Charter: Principles in Action

A team charter isn’t limited to any industry or purpose. The same or similar has been applied throughout history when communication and teamwork is paramount. Consider these examples from an elite military unit and a software behemoth. 

United States Navy SEALs

Communication and teamwork is a life and death matter for military personnel. Yet commanders face similar circumstances as business leaders when they prepare for a mission. Each commander creates a presentation of how his team will operate, and presents it to senior officers.

This was largely done with flashy PowerPoint presentations filled with buzzwords. Leif Babin and Jocko Willink met in the mid 2000’s and debuted a new strategy. They focused on directions that are easy to follow and easy to understand, opposed to being impressive for senior officers. They developed a comprehensive checklist which resembles the team charter core components. 

  • Analyze the mission. Understand the intent of everyone involved, and the endstate (the goal). State your own intent and endstate for the specific mission.

  • Identify personnel, assets, resources, and time available.

  • Decentralize the planning process. Empower leaders within the team. 

  • Determine a specific course of action (prioritizing simplicity). 

  • Plan for likely contingencies throughout the operation.

  • Mitigate controllable risks (as much as possible).

  • Demonstrate leadership by delegating portions of the plan and brief to key junior leaders. 

  • Constantly check and question the plan as information emerges.

  • Ask questions, encourage discussion and team interaction to promote comprehension. 

  • Conduct a post-operational debrief after execution. Implement lessons learned going forward. 

This strategy was shared by Babin and Willink in their #1 New York Times bestseller, “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.” The pair launched their consulting firm, Echelon Front, in 2011. They provide workshops, training and presentations for business leaders looking to improve team operations. 

Google 

Google’s People Operations Team conducted interviews and analyzed data to identify the five keys to a successful Google team. The results pair well with team charter ideals, and provide further insights for team charter creation.

After 200+ interviews, and analysis of 250 attributes within 180+ active Google teams - they came up with the following:

  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?

  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?

  • Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?

  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?

  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

All of these elements demonstrate the importance of team buy-in and cohesion, another reason why the negotiation and consensus aspect of a team charter is so important. The data created a new routine at Google, where teams conduct a daily 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics to ensure good standing. 

A team charter is one of dozens of documents that can fortify the effectiveness and morale of your team. Here’s inspiration for your next leg of document creation. 

The True Cost of Employee Turnover: Tribal Knowledge Loss

Gallup data shows 60% of millennials are open to new job opportunities, which is 15% more than other generations.

Imagine this scenario. You run a business. Information about processes, sensitive information and department manuals sporadically vanishes. Employees look for answers, but they’re not even sure what went missing.

It sounds like a hack, data breach, or catastrophic IT failure. But this situation is far more common and just as damaging.

It’s the impact of employees leaving. Turnover.

And without a system of proper documentation, training, succession planning and onboarding - the resulting loss of tribal knowledge can do long-term damage to any small business or large corporation.

Here’s why the loss of tribal knowledge is so pervasive, and how the available solutions that use technology and methodology fall short. 

The Bane of Our Existence

It’s hard to wrap this issue with a financial figure or conduct a study. But some studies have looked at the cost of ineffective knowledge systems. One approach for this is to calculate what it costs when employees must spend time looking for answers they need. International Data Corp. (IDC) did this and estimated the average enterprise wastes $2.5 to $3.5 million per year due to ineffective knowledge systems. They based this on the cost of employing 1,000 workers who search for nonexistent information, fail to find existing information, or recreate information that can’t be found. The same report estimated the opportunity cost for this spectacular misuse of time, noting the total would cost roughly $300,000 per week, equivalent to the annual salary of a top-end Wall Street trader. 

Instead of estimations, let’s review how prevalent the problem is. The knowledge loss issue is unbiased when it comes to industry, company size and existing systems. 

Sales - Whenever the top salesperson leaves a company, a portion of sustained company revenue leaves with them. There’s no incentive for sales reps to mentor others or document their success strategies. A drop in sales will occur until other reps (new or existing) decode the formula. 

Tech - Developers have a deep understanding of how a product or business works so their departure is that much more worrying. This creates serious delays and stumbles as everyone picks up the pieces. When Anthony Levandowski was fired from Google’s self-driving car team only to launch a similar project at Uber, an IP lawsuit ensued which is the legal side of knowledge loss and protection. 

Restaurants - Employee turnover is the biggest problem for restaurants, with the National Restaurant Industry reporting a 73% turnover rate for all employees in 2017. Service industry managers are lucky to get exit interviews, let alone a thorough transfer of knowledge.   

Federal Government - The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) cited retaining knowledge as their top priority in their 2018 federal workforce report. They cite the need for a succession plan to utilize a multi-generational pipeline (but fail to provide actionable guidance).

Security & Exchange Commission - The Inspector General’s office published a report about the SEC in 2018 which addressed their challenges with human capital management. Succession plans, and issues relating to competency and skills gaps were covered. All of which relate to institutional knowledge retention. 

Emergency Medical Services - The Journal of Emergency Medical Services cited several examples of knowledge loss in police, fire and EMT departments. The journal estimates 20 years of knowledge is lost when a leadership position is forced to resign because of an intolerable workload. It takes years for  departments to recover. 

Brain Drain and Job Hopping

Knowledge loss has become a trending issue because of two factors. The baby boomer generation is approaching mass retirement, and the millennial generation has a different mindset on the ideal career path. 

Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are said to be retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day until 2030. This has social and economic implications, notably the amount of jobs opening up without information being properly transferred. More than 40% of baby boomers have worked for the same company for at least 20 consecutive years. The goal for baby boomers is job retention and pension collection. Meanwhile millennials have found the best way to elevate a career path is to job hop instead of waiting for a promotion. 

Companies have began addressing this pending retirement issue by offering “phased” retirements, so retirees work part-time as they transition out of the company. However, this can be troublesome if part-time hours and lower salary factor into pension plans, healthcare, social security, benefits or profit-sharing. Additionally, many retirees won’t even get a phased retirement opportunity as the idea has fizzled in recent years. A 2019 retirement survey by Transamerica found the majority of employers are not offering flexible schedules (20%), full-time to part-time capability (19%), or a switch to a less demanding position (15%). 

Firms have started to prioritize flexible work policies, employee wellness and professional development programs to address the job hopping issue. Still, Gallup data shows 60% of millennials are open to new job opportunities, which is 15% more than other generations. 

The Knowledge Base Solution (Technology)

If you search for an answer to this problem, the common suggestion sounds perfect - create a knowledge base. A system for saving information, which makes things easy to find and is organized so it becomes a collective system of record for the entire business. This addresses the issue but introduces new challenges. First, what does a knowledge base mean to you? There are several interpretations and several problems with each: 

  • Storage - Tools like Google Drive and Dropbox are used to store documents, files and important information. 

    • Problem(s): These tools are great but can suffer from poor searchability and lack of standards for what to save and where.  

  • Project Management - Many employees expect to find what they need within their project management software. The major project management tools promote features like “Docs & Files” which allow document sharing and are used for storage and discovery. 

    • Problem(s): Some project management tools claim to be knowledge bases, others have built separate knowledge base tools (Atlassian with Asana and Confluence). This demonstrates the lack of clarity in these solutions, they are focused on collaboration with knowledge base capability as a toss-in afterthought. 

  • Chat & Email - Another group of employees will expect to find what they need in chat apps, or email. Chat tools have built integrations with storage tools to help with this, but relying on any chat tool for is not ideal. 

    • Problem(s): They’re designed for collaboration and communication, not information storage or retrieval. Workers often search for something specific in chat or email history only to not find it or realize it wasn’t documented.

  • All-In-One Tools - Certain tools from the categories above claim to be all-in-one solutions, they claim to immediately replace other systems already in place. This would be ideal but in practice it doesn’t work that way. 

    • Problem(s): For instance, in large enterprises there are so many teams with varying needs it’s unlikely there can be one tool to rule them all. Additionally, going all-in on an all-in-one tool fails to address management and employee morale issues that could be the real cause of the dysfunction and “we have too many tools” complaints. 

  • Wikis - Wiki tools make a lot sense for knowledge base purposes. After all, the Wikipedia we all know and love is an encyclopedia for everything. A business version of Wikipedia seems like it would solve knowledge loss issues. 

90-9-1 (1).png

90-9-1 Principle

Problem(s): Most wiki tools don’t prioritize great design so they’re prone to low usage. They’re also prone to a social phenomenon called the "90–9–1" principle. This means 1% of users create content, 9% of users edit/modify content while the remaining 90% solely view content. It’s easy to get team members to use a wiki tool to find information, but to get them to write and create information as needed is far more difficult.

Further, all of the tools above suffer from inconsistent workflows and the lack of knowledge discovery. Different teams have natural differences with how they implement and operate software. There’s a growing sector of workflow and process management vendors because of this issue. 

It’s also difficult to use these tools to find answers when teams are not sure of what they’re looking for. One of the most common knowledge base tools, Microsoft’s Sharepoint, has a list of possible issues that prevent search effectiveness. These include permission, indexing and content approval settings, view filtering, missing metadata and more. 

 The Writing Culture Solution (Methodology)

We know Google and Facebook have addressed knowledge loss related to turnover and other issues by creating campus-style offices where employees never have to leave. This is an impractical tactic for any non tech giant. The most relevant and practical method is to install a system of writing, reading and sharing. Amazon and their CEO, Jeff Bezos, is an excellent example of this. The billionaire completely overhauled meetings, outlawed PowerPoints and preserved information. 

The Amazon system set a rule that a long-form document must be written for any initiative, project, process and any business venture. Ask any former Amazonian (even the co-founder of Topple, also a Jeff) and they’ll say this has a huge impact on how Amazon is able to roll out thousands of product lines each year. And compete in so many different spaces beyond e-commerce. 

So, how do you go about applying this solution? There’s nothing built-in to existing software that can help with overhauling how your team communicates. But we know successful and innovative companies have created a writing culture. No matter the size of your organization or your industry, you should be able to apply this method for success with software. That’s why we created Topple, to solve your tribal knowledge problem. 

Cubicles, Open Offices, & Flexible Work: The Form and Function of Our Workplace

The cubicle office. Rows of tall walls separate workers with drab effect. The color palette always includes a shade of taupe, the color of moles. Or a bland mix of white, gray and dusty silver, the same used by your local penitentiary. And it provokes the same feelings. Your workstation is stagnant, with little room for customization. You spend your free time searching for landscapes and things to look at, yet spend the work day in confinement. Cubicle offices are morale-killing, disasters. 

The open office. Crunched in just a few feet from one, maybe two neighbors. You can hear them type, breathe, and telling you their bad jokes. Their sneezes are your sneezes. Any cross-office disruption might as well be Thor smashing his hammer through your screen. You throw on $200 headphones when you need to do anything besides send emails or chats. Work from home days are scheduled when, “you need to concentrate.” Study after study shows how distracted and unproductive you are simply because of someone else's decision to save money, save space or just to “be cool.” Open offices are productivity-killing, disasters. 

Both of these statements are true. How can both office types be so bad?  

The answer requires us to look at history, and the priorities of the past leading up to today. 

People replicate behavior and ideas when they’re deemed successful. They often do this without a deep understanding of the nuance or conditions that contributed to that success. Misapplication of these ideas brings erosion over time. 

Here’s how both of these ideas suffered that fate, and the best solutions for today’s workplace. 

The OG Open Office

We’ve gone through this cycle of love then hate with the open office before. The open office was revolutionized by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, some 80 years ago. The famed architect pioneered the open floor plan for houses before it was trendy, and did the same with the open office in 1939. The project formed with the perfect storm of ingredients. A modern-thinking businessman (H.F. Johnson Jr. of SC Johnson & Son Corporation), the tail end of the great depression and signing of The New Deal which led to a mass increase in the amount of jobs. Johnson specifically recruited Wright to, “build the best office building in the world.” Wright had already designed the Larkin Administration Building, which was known as, “the first modern office.” But that project was restricted by the available resources and technology. This time around he had the budget, fame, and an unlimited creative leash. Wright wanted to influence the workspace. He called boxy office designs of the time, “fascist.”  

Wright’s creation was the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. The design featured gorgeous dendriform pillars, bright pyrex ceilings and space, lots of space. A mezzanine level was included for manager offices. The layout provided the perfect blend of natural lighting, ample space and detail-oriented design. The office was a hit. Employees began having tea for an afternoon energy-boost, because they enjoyed working late hours.

The concept was copied again and again, but the derivatives lacked attention to detail. Plus, the cost of real estate and the amount of white-collar jobs continued to rise. Twenty years later, open offices were cramped and loud, as seen in “The Apartment” and “Mad Men”. This erosion of the original continues today with a fresh spin of “cool.” The distractions have proven to outweigh any potential communication and collaboration benefits. A 2018 Harvard Business School study found participants who switched from cubicles to an open office actually spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, so the perceived collaboration and communication benefit was nonexistent. They also spent significantly more time on email and chat opposed to work that requires critical thought and focus.   

We’ve all experienced the negative effects of an open office. There’s evidence of how much workers dislike them and an ever-growing collection of data on how they don’t work on offices with multiple levels. But these studies, and the reports that follow, fail to provide solutions. 

Are cubicles really the answer? 

The Cubicle Renaissance

 By 1967, another creative genius was on a mission to fix the tainted open office design and traditional walled office design alike. Inventor and academic Robert Propst was hired by the Herman Miller Research Corporation, a powerhouse in furniture design and research. Propst struck gold with the Action Office 2, a cubicle design that focused on quality materials, natural flow of movement and interaction without distraction. The creation took off after competitors released similar designs, validating the ingenuity.

At the core of Propst’s original creation was giving workers a sense of purpose. Everyone had their own space, he was the first to introduce pinboards where you could hang family pictures or important notes. Another genius touch was what ultimately led to the cubicle’s demise, each space was modular. Teams could alter their wall height and position based on the day, season or their own personality.

Over time, Propst and his counterparts were not able to control installation of their designs. The installations were controlled by managers who saw the modular function as something else - a cost-cutting method. 

Managers would implement the most cost-effective walls and material with little thought about workplace morale or productivity. This created the “cubicle farms” we know today, which include several variations of bad. Some cubicles are high-walled and restrictive, so collaboration is discouraged. Some cubicle plans smush people together, eliminating the benefit of privacy and ability to focus.  

Propst criticized penny-pinching executives who eroded his invention until he died in 2000, saying, “they make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.” 

A Lesser of Two Evils? Think Beyond 

What these two stories have in common is the blind pursuit of cost reduction will always have a negative impact on our work. Whether it’s a noisy, unproductive open office or a cubicle forest which suffers from the same issues it’s designed to address. But no matter how many hot takes there are about bad open offices are. This isn’t a simple problem that can be solved with an order of partitions. 

Business leaders have to look at their situation and ask, why do we have an office? For an increasing amount of companies, the answer is, “we don’t need one.” Elastic, the company behind Elasticsearch, went from launch to IPO with an entirely remote workforce. 

However, many businesses cannot operate on a remote basis, either for practical reasons or preference. There has been some research for comparing these office types. A University of Sydney study looked at more than 40,000 workers in 300 office buildings. They compared five types of offices:  enclosed private offices, enclosed shared offices, cubicles with high partitions ( >five feet high), cubicles with low partitions (<five feet high), and open office without partitions. Private offices were the highest rated for all sixteen factors which included privacy, noise level, cleanliness, air quality, temperature, and amount of light. The results were very close in multiple categories so the conclusion was less than conclusive. 

Gensler, a leading global design firm, conducted their own study of 4,000 office workers across 11 industries. They found the most effective office layout was an open plan with shared desks, but with barriers high enough so workers had to stand to see their neighbor. 

This illustrates how there is no indisputable solution. Each office setup, whether it’s for a startup or a new corporate branch, requires custom planning and analysis of variables.  

Fortunately, there are a few other tactics for creating positive and productive offices. 

Another Tool for Great Offices: Flexible Work 

Offices can be the best of both worlds. Workers can have individual spaces without losing important interaction time. Cubicles can be cool. But there’s a reason we don’t see many offices that resemble Frank Lloyd Wright’s open office masterpiece or Robert Propst’s AO-2 treasure - cost. Our history lessons prove that today’s application of open offices are not works of genius, but an effective way to save money. Especially for startups, office design and planning is not on the top of the priority list. Most office designs being used today probably aren’t fully optimized, even for mature businesses. 

But there’s another option for decision makers to consider, flexible work policies. 

Flexible work prioritizes getting things done over how it gets done. Many consider this a startup ploy to entice millennials with unlimited vacation time and kegerators, but in reality those with families and children benefit the most from flexible work policies. It’s also true that many flexible work policies are shot down by “butts in seats” managers who are incapable of measuring non-attendance based productivity. There are several initiatives in place by companies today, such as: 

  • Workations (part-time work during extended vacations)

  • Distributed teams, remote work 

  • Agnostic work hours

  • Flexible weeks or years (for hourly employees) 

  • Job sharing

Essentially, all of the above are a form of a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). This idea was published in the book, “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution.” It takes set office hours, office presence and vacation policy out of the equation. And measures performance, results or output instead. This occurs in quota-based sales organizations, and can boost accountability and fulfillment if applied carefully across an organization. 

Flexible work is not a push button solution. It requires critical analysis of business operations and how a workforce interacts. And it should not be confused with contract labor, or even “The Future of Work” we hear so much about. There’s nothing about flexible work ideas that is particularly groundbreaking or technologically advanced (besides that it’s easier to work remotely in today’s age). Flexible work is about thorough communication, crafty management and creating fulfillment in the workplace - the policies are simply a result of those ideals.  

One powerful success story shared by CEO Ricardo Semler in a past Ted Talk. He took over the Brazilian conglomerate SEMCO in 1980. He replaced managers who were stuck in their ways, then installed a policy of trust for all employees. Many of his Semler’s ideas resemble the “new-age” flexible work ideas listed above. His initiatives were:  

  • Ability to trade salary for extra PTO days

  • Flexible work shifts based on commutes and office proximity

  • One-week of shadowing before hire

  • Managers were reviewed by employees

  • Transparent salaries

  • Open board meetings and votes

A compelling lesson was the idea that leisure is not the opposite of work. Our leisure time is spent doing things we enjoy. Idleness is the opposite of work, and people don’t enjoy idleness e.g. being confined to a cubicle or being crippled by distraction. Or being bed-ridden from a sickness. 

If work becomes a place where we can get things get done, while feeling fulfilled and happy - it has a much more powerful effect than any type of office floor plan.

The Importance of Building a Writing Culture

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to use clear, understandable language in government communication so the public can understand and act accordingly.

Imagine creating writing legislation for your business...

It would be against the law for Vicki from accounting to send that typo-ridden email on a Saturday morning. John from sales would be legally required to not disregard the meeting agenda by bombarding everyone with weekend escapades. 

That reality isn’t possible. Suing co-workers would get ugly. 

But it is possible to create a strong writing culture that extends to every nook and cranny of the company. A focus on excellent and thoughtful writing improves company culture, productivity and efficiency. 

Here’s more on this issue, why it matters and how you can implement an effective writing culture. 

Communication Culture vs. Writing Culture 

“The importance of communication.” We see it everywhere. On annual reviews, emails from bosses, inspirational memes and posters. When teams or businesses fail, we often assume it’s due to a communication breakdown. Too much information was withheld while frivolous details ran rampant. In actuality, the culprit of failure might be too much communication. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos immortalized this line of thinking more than a decade ago. During an offsite retreat, a group of Amazon executives presented their ideas on how to connect distant teams. Bezos famously retorted, 

“Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out ways for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”

Of course, the statement was meant to help employees improve and innovate on their communication, not eliminate it. Bezos installed this into the culture at Amazon. He addressed it with the two-pizza rule. Teams and meetings should not require more than two pizzas for everyone to be fed. This rule was a philosophy and didn’t mandate an exact number. Large teams mean more bureaucracy, more confusion and less effectiveness. 

This communication paradox doesn’t apply to just internal communication. Ryan Fuller, co-founder of analytics firm VoloMetrix (acquired by Microsoft), shared a productivity analysis case study of a billion dollar tech firm. The firm worked with a large network of outside partners (vendors, manufacturers, etc), and estimated 700 employees managed this partner-facing side of the business. They wanted to analyze the value of this communication. VoloMetrix discovered that in reality, 7,000 (not 700) employees spent at least one hour per week interacting with outside partners. The review concluded that 50 percent of time spent on this form of communication was unnecessary did not translate to real value. That’s equivalent to 500 full-time workers and one million annual work hours. 

COURTESY JOSH BERNOFF -  https://withoutbullshit.com/

COURTESY JOSH BERNOFF - https://withoutbullshit.com/

It’s not just that we communicate too much or in a disorganized fashion - we can also be bad at it. Author Josh Bernoff conducted a survey with 547 business people who read and write for work more than 2 hours per week (excluding email). The survey inquired about the quality of writing they review. The research identified telling figures, 

  • 65 percent of respondents said that what they read is poorly organized

  • More than 65 percent of respondents say that what they read is too long 

  • 54 percent of all readers thought jargon was a frequent problem

  • 44 percent of supervisors, managers, and directors think their writing is not direct enough; it’s their top issue

Also, the majority of the respondents say their own writing is not poorly organized or too long. This shows the problems are not due to individual limitations but the failure to institute a system that encourages and incentivizes quality writing. 

The Workplace Disruptor 

The data above shows many businesses (even successful ones) have widespread communication problems. And many smart people are bad writers or think they read bad writing all day. 

How did we get here? There’s more availability of data and information sharing. But there’s also been a transformation in how we work. Email, project management software, wikis and the most divisive addition, Slack (workplace chat). 

Slack was originally thought to be a replacement for internal email. Faster, easier and more fun. But the increase of messages doesn’t always mean more clarity. Time Is Ltd. is a research firm working with 10 large companies who have more than 500 employees. They estimate it would be physically impossible for workers at those firms to check every Slack message every day. Remote employees feel the pressure to hover around Slack to show they’re working. This decreases the amount of time we spend on ‘deep work’ or concentrated periods of high productivity. 

Back in 2012, McKinsey predicted new communication software (such as Slack) would increase productivity. Their data showed an estimated 28 percent of the workweek was managing email and 20 percent looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues for help. However we now have information in more places than ever. Chat and email, project management software, internal wikis or file servers, etc. Despite powerful search functions and detailed organization of information - it’s still a grind to find exactly what you need. 

Solution: Guides & Guidelines 

Talk to any leader in company culture and you’ll hear about the importance of writing culture down. Define the values, mission statement, goals and other important aspects of company culture that all employees see and hopefully follow. This usually includes a branding guide with typography, brand colors, logo treatment and company info. This is important, especially for startups looking to build cohesiveness. 

But to build a great writing culture, consider creating a company style guide with guidance for all writing that occurs in the organization. 

Here are the basics for your company style guide: 

Voice, tone & personality: Oftentimes, a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) will communicate in emails and chats with an upbeat and enthusiastic tone, while a sales director communicates in a completely different way (or vice versa). This seems frivolous but you’re missing an opportunity to instill a sense of belonging and togetherness. Of course, we’re not robots and should not be forced into a box. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t encourage all employees to use a similar voice and tone, and the same acronyms and abbreviations. This will impact daily mood, productivity and can be extended from chat conversations to the company blog and email blasts, even the holiday party. A defined company personality can be a competitive edge in recruiting. 

Communication etiquette: If one manager sends out a daily goals through Slack while another uses email - it may seem trivial but these issues snowball as a company grows. Set standards for chat, email and meetings. Maybe you enforce quiet hours or a quiet day of the week where deep work is the focus and chat communication is reserved only for emergencies or epic gifs. To Slack’s credit, they’ve built a series of tools to help users manage their notifications. These features should be explained during the employee onboarding process. 

Meeting laws: Meetings might not come to mind when you think of writing culture but how many times have you heard the quip, “this meeting could have been an email.” This painful truth is unavoidable without clear guidelines on why meetings should take place, and it doesn’t require micromanagement. For instance, some CEOs require employees to develop a clear agenda via a shared document before a meeting can take place. Bezos created a “memo culture” at Amazon where PowerPoints were replaced by 6-page documents and meetings began with a study hall (more on this below). 

Writing guidelines: A comprehensive style guide for writing is important, but to build a strong writing culture you need to inspire employees to improve their writing or at least feel confident enough to write out their ideas. 

Ann Handley, founder to marketingprofs.com and author of the relevant best seller, “Everybody Writes” has 10 rules to follow to create a culture of writing. 

  1. Reframe who’s a “writer”

  2. Schedule time each day to write

  3. Outlaw self-slander

  4. Write badly. Then, fix it

  5. Don’t sweat the grammar

  6. Create your own style guide

  7. Hire a dedicated editor

  8. Create a collaborative writing environment

  9. Shed the idea that companies always have to buy content expertise

  10. Invest in training

There's an unlimited amount of ways to format your style guide. It should be concise and easy to digest to be effective. While a branding guide will be updated sparingly, this document should be shared early in the hiring process and routinely updated. 

Writing Culture: Real World Use Cases

All this theory and advice is great but seeing how these ideas are put into practice is more powerful. Take a look at a few examples that stretch across industries and sectors. 

Amazon - Memo Culture: As mentioned, Amazon may be the best example of a writing culture focus. Bezos banned PowerPoint presentations for all meetings. Instead, team members develop a written document that outlines the issue, such as a roadmap for a new feature or a public relations issue. Everyone in the meeting reads the document together before any discussion begins. These memos force employees to think deeply about an issue. They can take weeks to write. Oftentimes when the memos fall short, it’s because of a wrong expectation of scope, not bad writing. In a traditional meeting-presentation environment, this conclusion might not be discovered until much later.  

Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia - Writing Center: This group of 250 Philadelphia bankers, regulators and supervisors spend a great deal of their time writing. Detailed reports (up to 40 pages long) are required to explain to bankers in the region how to comply with always-changing regulations and laws. A consultant was hired to improve the organization's writing. She implemented an unconventional idea - a writing center. The program was voluntary, delivered feedback in-person or over the phone and directly to the “student.” A post-mortem analysis showed a 20-56% improvement in overall quality, organization, clarity, grammar, support and analysis. This concept can be easily applied to a business environment. 

Ogilvy - Pre-Digital Writing Culture: David Ogilvy built one of the largest creative agencies in the world. It was well known that upper level executives at Ogilvy & Mather had to be masterful writers. He demanded concise and clear language and wrote, “the better you write, the higher you go at Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well. Woolly-minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters, and woolly speeches.” This shows the importance of a strong writing culture precedes the digital age. Many people who worked at Ogilvy spent decades at the firm which was known for a strong corporate culture. 

Evernote - Elevate Writing: It makes sense that a note taking app would have a strong focus on writing culture. Andrew Sinkov, employee #6 at Evernote, explained how the company built a positive writing environment. Most of his rules have been discussed above: 

  • Be intentional

  • Build a playground

  • Find your voice

  • Create cadence

  • Hire talented writers

  • Critique often

  • Apply your voice to everything

Regardless of your politics, we can all agree government literature should be clear and easy to understand. The Plain Writing Act attempted to accomplish that. If your business has yet to think about this issue, now is the time. Whether you’re creating an all-hands communication guide or just getting everyone on the same page with email and chat, any investment toward your organization's writing culture is a smart investment.