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How Personal Operating Manuals can help you build a stronger team at work

Personal Operating Manuals can fast-track trust and connection among distributed teams. Here’s a template to get you started.

By the team at SlackFebruary 6th, 2024

In the days when desk workers were co-located in a physical office, people learned about each other’s working styles and communication preferences the old-fashioned way: by direct observation around the conference table, water cooler, or even the bar at happy hour.

While the old-fashioned way may have felt tried and true, it didn’t always necessarily lead to the most inclusive and welcoming work environments. And in our new world of work, where a majority of desk workers are distributed across locations and timezones, leaders are grasping for more effective ways to foster genuine connection, collaboration, and sense of belonging among diverse teams.

Personal Operating Manuals—also called POMs or Personal User Manuals—can help. POMs are short “About me” profiles that employees compose and share with each other. Researchers from Slack’s Workforce Lab have found that while many desk workers want to get to know their colleagues more closely, just as many are hesitant to share their own back stories.

POMs can fast-track team trust, which research shows is a key to optimizing team productivity. Here’s how to get started.

What is a POM?

POMs provide a common format for employees to share working styles, communication preferences, and personal and professional history with their coworkers. Think of it as a “How to work with me” guide that other people can consult. For example, POMs can detail what time of day you work best, how you prefer to get or give feedback, and other important details you’d like colleagues to know about you.

Workforce Lab research shows that POMs are not yet a common practice in most workplaces. In a survey of 455 desk workers across Canada and the United States, only five percent of respondents said that they’ve used written guides to get to know their colleagues.

But many desk workers who try POMs become fast fans. “Reading my coworkers’ Personal Operating Manuals has helped me better understand how they each work best, and that’s helped us all avoid unnecessary roadblocks,” says Christina Janzer, head of the Workforce Lab at Slack. “The act of writing my own Personal Operating Manual was also such a clarifying exercise for me—it helped me crystalize what’s important to me at work and how I want to show up for my team.”

What information should you include in a POM?

What should a POM include? The answer will vary from team to team. Here’s a head start: Download the Slack Personal Operating Manual template and customize it as needed. You’ll find prompts for work schedules and preferred modes of contact (e.g. video on or off?), and work-life topics such as caregiving responsibilities at home.

 

As you brainstorm the ideal mix of POM prompts for your team, here are a few considerations to keep in mind:

While POMs can help everyone, individual contributors stand to benefit the most. Our survey showed that familiarity with colleagues is weakest among individual contributors. ICs were more than twice as likely to say they are unfamiliar with their colleagues working schedule, communication style, and interests and hobbies compared to executives. This indicates that team leaders may underestimate the importance of helping teams to build familiarity, assuming that since it’s less of an issue for them as leaders, it’s less of an issue for all.

Workers want to know more about each other. But sharing can be scary. Survey respondents ranked “understanding my co-workers strengths” at the top of the list for what they want to know about their colleagues, followed by “communication style,” “how to contact them,” and “personal well-being.”

Chart from Workforce Lab

 

But respondents also showed varying levels of comfort with sharing this information with others. Personal well-being ranked at the bottom of the list, with more than half of respondents expressing reservations about sharing this information widely.

Chart from Workforce ab showing the kinds of personal information desk workers are comfortable sharing

 

Do’s and don’ts for creating successful POMs

POMs don’t magically transform workplace relationships by themselves. Leaders need to educate teams about why POMs are valuable, make them easy to access and complete, and regularly remind team members to read each other’s POMs and update their own. 

The do’s and don’ts below will help boost buy-in and readership for POMs.

Do make time to create POMs together. Completing and sharing POMs can be a fun and helpful trust-building exercise for your entire team. Allot enough time for team members to complete POMs and discuss them with each other, in person or remotely.

Do show that it’s safe to share. Managers should lead by example and show that it’s safe to share who you are and what you have on your plate. It will help create a supportive environment between you and your team.

Don’t let POMs gather dust. Life inside and outside of work changes, which means your POM should too! To increase effectiveness of this tool, create a plan to keep POMs easily accessible and top of mind. 

  • Incorporate POM how-to’s into onboarding processes, and include one or two completed POMs as an example to follow. Ask new hires to complete POMs and share them with their teams during early days on the job. 
  • Make a plan to periodically review and update POMs as roles and personal circumstances change. Consider establishing a set schedule based on the size and composition of your team. 
  • Make your POMs an ongoing conversation. Add a few minutes at the beginning of team meetings for someone to share something from their POM that might surprise others. This can be a welcome moment of connection among the team!
  • Not everyone is comfortable with sharing their POM widely—and that’s ok! But for those who are, consider adding a link to your complete or excerpted POM in your Slack profile.

“Personal Operating Manuals are only useful if people actually read them, but as our research shows, they tend to be underutilized,” says Chrissie Arnold, Director of Future of Work programs at Slack. “Create a plan so that POMs are top of mind, updated regularly, and stored in an accessible place.”

Remember that Personal Operating Manuals are not one and done. POMs are intended to be living guides that will evolve as teams evolve. Setting aside time for you and your team to do POM brush-ups is an investment in nurturing a culture of empathy and connection.

 

 

Methodology: Research cited above comes from a Slack Workforce Lab survey of survey of 455 desk workers across the United States and Canada between July 24 and August 18, 2023. The survey was administered by Qualtrics and did not target Slack employees or customers. Survey respondents were all employed full-time (30 or more hours per week) and either holding one of the following roles or saying they “work with data, analyze information or think creatively”: executive management (e.g. president/partner, CEO, CFO, C-suite), senior management (e.g. executive VP, senior VP), middle management (e.g. department/group manager, VP), junior management (e.g. manager, team leader), senior staff (i.e. non-management), skilled office worker (e.g. analyst, graphic designer). Research conducted by Kevin Chow, Ph.D. Candidate – University of British Columbia; Michael Massimi, Ph.D. – Slack; Lucas Puente, Ph.D. – Slack; Thomas Fritz, Ph.D. – University of Zurich; Joanna McGrenere, Ph.D. – University of British Columbia

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