How We Write Employee Handbooks That Work in 6 Easy Steps

Hans-Kristian Bjerregaard
Feb 23, 2024
11 min read

"If it is not written down it is not work!" is a key mantra for us at Workjoy.

It comes from the belief that to have a calm and productive work environment you need to know how to succeed at work - and you can't do that when key information is passed around by word of mouth.

So to avoid that we write down how to succeed at work. Simple but impactful. This allows us to onboard new colleagues with ease and iteratively and clearly illustrate changes as we develop our business.

Employee Handbook in Workjoy
All our Employee Handbooks in Workjoy.

Unfortunately, good handbooks can seem like a daunting task.

In this article, we will teach you our technique to write employee handbooks in a way that is quick and easy.

Using this process it takes us on average 6 hours over 2-3 days to write a employee handbook from scratch.

Why we write at all

If you - as a leader - have not clearly defined what great work looks like how can you expect people to do great work? Should they "just know" what you want? That sounds like an impossible ask.

But can't just tell them? You are after all an excellent communicator!

In the case you are an excellent communicator then there still are 3 major reasons to use writing:

  1. Writing allows you to lead even when you are not in the room. Writing enables your team to refer to your thoughts and directions - even when you are not in the room. It allows them to make the right choices without deferring to you all the time.
  2. Writing helps your team to learn faster. One of the biggest things to fight in knowledge sharing is The Forgetting Curve. It is simply the fact that we forget things rather quickly but repetition makes things stick around for longer. Without writing you have to do this repetition manually 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 times over before it sticks. With writing you only have to write it once.
  3. Writing makes changes in direction clear. When you say things you tend to say the same thing slightly differently each time. This is often the root of confusion - are we changing direction? When things are written down every change in direction is deliberate and clear.

In the case you are like the rest of us then there are more good reasons to write:

  1. Writing can be polished before it is distributed. Try and record a video of your message - did you get it in one take and was that take spot on? Often not. That is the trouble with verbal communication - it is always a first draft. Writing allows you to polish your message before you send it to others.
  2. Writing can be improved over time. If you say something 10 times it is often that the 3rd time was the best version. Or at least sometimes you say it better than others. Writing always gets incrementally better and thus compounds the quality of your communication over time.
  3. Writing forces you to think clearer. Writing forces you to connect the dots in a way that presentations or meetings don't. This is a good thing as it helps you think through things.

Writing this article has made me more clear on how to write internally and has caused us to improve our handbooks as well. Writing helps make your thoughts and ideas sharper.

Why we write multiple employee handbooks

The most common mistake companies make is to not have any handbook, the second most common is to only have a single handbook.

No handbook is obviously bad as all information has to be passed by word of mouth. A single handbook is either too little (only generic employee information with little value) or too much (a monster no one truly reads).

We have found that many smaller handbooks are the ideal middle ground. But how many then?

We have found the ideal amount to be one book per leader/team and one per strategy.

And then every handbook has one explicit owner that is either the team lead or strategy owner.

This structure makes it super easy for people to find where the information is. Find the handbook on the topic and go to the relevant chapter. 1-2-solved.

Why we use a narrative book format

When documenting things you can choose between two ways of organising your information: books or wikis.

So when structuring company information books are just so much more powerful than wikis.

Why delegating employee handbooks is a mistake

The biggest red flag in a company is when a (if not the) handbook is delegated - often to the least senior people in the HR team. It is as bad as delegating the company all-hands to that person.

Handbooks provide permanent direction and guidance and are thus a core pillar of great information. Critical communication should always be owned by a leader.

Should you get help and feedback? Yes! But you - as a leader - should always write the outline and first draft. Often the key is in the detail.

If you don't feel comfortable that is fine. Writing is like running - if you have not done it regularly you are not in good shape. That is completely natural. But just like running it is only about getting in shape and that just takes exercise.

How to write about the things that matter

The hardest part of writing is writing what matters.

Often we either get too high-level (and just say obvious things) or we get too detailed (and lose the big picture in the details). Striking the right balance is key - and hard.

Part of our framework is built to solve this problem.

In your handbook, you should always start with the high-level "why" - why does this handbook, team or strategy exist and then slowly get more and more into the details.

Handbooks - as opposed to a wiki - help you bridge nicely from the high to the low levels.

Our general rule for a good handbook is that it should cover the pitch (what is in it for you), the why (why are we doing this), and the how (how are we doing this):

If you notice even this article starts with the pitch, the why (which we are ending now), and the how (the next chapters).

Our writing process

This section will be super hands-on with how we write our handbooks.

Just follow this formula and you will have a great handbook by the end of the day.

Start with the title

Words matter and the ones in the title matter most. They set the stage.

You can call your handbooks "Employee Handbook", "Support", "Marketing" etc. But they are boring and you miss out on a great chance to set the stage.

Eg. what most companies call their "Employee Handbook" we call "How We Do Great Work" - cause that is what the book is actually about. We wrote it because we have a way of working that is unique to our culture and gives us a competitive edge.

That is what we want readers to take away. So by spending some time working on the title we set better expectations and thus get better results.

Write the full introduction

We always start our handbooks with an introduction called... Introduction.

This is where we pitch the handbook. Why does it even exist and why should you read it?

Every handbook has that and we use it to set the scene for what to expect. It sounds so simple but this is important to set the reader up.

Keep the introduction short and simple.

Employee Handbook introduction in Workjoy
Simple introduction to our employee handbook on How We Do Great Work.

Write all the chapter titles

Next outline all the chapters you want.

Don't write anything yet just focus on the big-picture structure.

Spend some time re-phrasing the titles, add some, delete some, and move them around until you see an outline you like.

If you write the right titles and have the right outline the handbook writes itself.

Write v0.1 of all chapters

Now when you have the title, introduction and chapters it is just about writing.

This is just bout powering through! You have decided on what you need to write so now you just have to do it.

The beauty is that with the title, intro and chapters you do not have to do much thinking, just writing.

Don't spend a lot of time on making each chapter perfect or on spelling or structure. Just go with it and write v0.1 of each chapter.

The whole point here is just to write something to go back and iterate on.

Sleep on it and get feedback

Now that you have a fully written v0.1 of your handbook (with typos and everything) leave it be.

Go do something else. Let your brain get some distance and at least one night's sleep.

Then go back to it and start just improving each chapter. When you have slept on it the improvements are easy.

Don't focus on perfect but just go through the whole thing and fix what is obvious and easy. If you are stuck on something just skip it.

The whole idea of this process is to take it from v0.1 to v0.2 and then iterate again to v0.3.

Each of these iterations is much faster and easier than writing the perfect chapter in the first attempt.

When you can't find any more easy fixes (not when you can't find problems) you ask for feedback. If you have a manager, let them read it. If you don't have a peer read it. They should also only suggest their easy fixes.

In the end, you have a fine handbook without any major writing block anywhere.

Share it with your team

Now it is time to share with your team. Ideally as a v0.9 or v0.1 (beta).

Have them read it and then use Q&A and use their immediate feedback to improve it again.

This is where you test if what you have written makes sense to them.

When you have incorporated their feedback you have your v1.0 in your handbook.

Good employee handbooks are always evolving

Good handbooks are living documents that are routinely updated. Just as I plan to go back to this article over time and polish and adjust it as I learn more or can express my ideas more clearly.

I constantly find myself going back and adjusting or adding small things when I find misalignments with my team.

Most of these updates are not communicated as they are mostly to make it easier for the next reader.

When we make major changes to how we operate we use the handbook to make this clear to the team that this is a major permanent change. I usually rewrite the chapter(s) covering the change and then write a post in our team channel addressing the change and why we made it.


So to summarise the process:

I hope this helps you to write a lot of great handbooks for your team. If you need a place for your team to easily find them then check out how we have built handbooks as a core knowledge base feature.

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