Daily Standups in Remote Teams

Communication
daily-standups-in-remote-teams

With a team distributed amongst timezones and locations, getting everybody online for a daily standup – a common routine in modern teams – can become increasingly difficult. As a remote team grows, having a 10 to 15 minute meeting every day can feel unproductive and dated, and requires a lot more preparation time than just a few minutes.

Why do "Daily Standups"?

Standups are a regular part of the modern agile software team. There are multiple definitions of what goes into a standup and how it is conducted, and it differs from team to team. In general, we define a daily standup as follows:

  • A daily standup largely happens every day
  • At a certain time of the day (in co-located team usually in the morning) the team or a group gathers together for a meeting
  • Traditionally, this is a time to "stand up" and get together, keeping it casual, not sit in a meeting room, even though this is not mandatory
  • The word is passed along, every group member gets about a minute to give a status update
  • Updates usually consist of: What did I do yesterday? What am I stuck on? What am I going to work on today?

The goal of this meeting is to keep every member of your group in the loop. If that's really the case is material for another post, but managers often appreciate the casual and quick setting of these standups. Another aspect is that the group comes together as part of the start of their day. That's also largely why remote teams still tend to appreciate this type of meeting.

The issue

As with many things, it doesn't always work the same when your team is distributed around the globe. These are some of the most common issues we've seen related to daily standups in remote teams.

Timezones & Burnout
This might not seem related at first, but in this case, they definitely are. If your team is largely in the US, doing daily standups usually works out. As soon as you hire your first person in Europe, Africa or Asia, it usually means that this person needs to join that hangouts during late or really uncommon hours. If you do your standup at 10am, that means that a team member in Germany needs to join everyday at 7pm for a 10 minute meeting. Your team member in India joins it at 10.30pm. For one, that doesn't seem exactly fair and might even be illegal (without proper added compensation or time off) in some countries. Even if the employee is okay with it, it often means that your team members are working long or odd hours, which comes with an increased risk of burnout.

Productivity Loss
Doing a standup seems like a quick thing. Gather everyone, pull it through in 10 minutes or so, and get working again. To start with, this assumption is wrong. Even if you gather around local employees, that means you're either dragging them out of deep work, or they might postpone their deep work block prior to the meeting. You're already losing productivity.

For remote employees, this effect is even more obvious: For a 10 minute meeting, you might be watching the clock a few minutes before the meeting already. Then, at meeting time, you need to shift your focus from work to your communication tool. There is a certain delay until everybody is joined, and then the meeting is started. You're likely spending 20+ minutes per member on every 10 minute meeting. That seems insane.

Missing Advantage
A common question for these standups is: Wouldn't this be more productive in writing? Most senior engineers say yes, and feel like the roundabout update form is rather unproductive. Standups as first thing in the morning (or last thing, very late in the evening) also tend to come with a loss of focus. Furthermore, remote employees have the ability to drift off, look at something on another screen, while co-located employees can't. While face-to-face time is still achieved, it might not have the advantage you were hoping for.

How to make them work

Simply put, remote work and daily fixed standups don't always mix. Our official suggestion is to have some fun with your face-to-face times instead. GitLab is utilizing more casual breakout or group calls to do so. RemoteHQ hangs out in a shared videocall channel, that people can join in at anytime.

If you're not up for that at all, here are some quick tips on how to make standups work out better.

Switch up the agenda, and write it down
Traditionally, standups happen in a very casual and unplanned manner. If you want to get some more productivity out of this, handle the raw updates over chat prior to the standup. Many of the things that people share do not have to be said and shared in a short meeting. Create a standup channel in your chatroom, and share updates there.

Out of that, create an agenda (written down!) of things you'll have to discuss in the standup. Make it a discussion that people can chime in, one-on-one discussion can be done somewhere else. This makes standups more interesting, makes people engaged, and you're probably coming out of it with a more productive outcome.

The schedule is your friend
Number one: Start on time! Nothing worse than joining a late night meeting and having to wait 15 minutes for it to start. It's also usually not fair to have your remote employees join in at late nights, while the HQ or core members can join in at a relaxed time. Switch the schedule up, do a morning standup and/or an afternoon standup, and consider the timezones. Not everyone has to always join, and that's okay.

Make it optional
Which leads us to the last point. Don't be dependent on it. As your team grows, you will have a harder time getting everyone into a meeting. Having the face-to-face time is fine, but all information should be available somewhere else too:

  • Do updates over chat. Do you need to hear about them live anyways?
  • Make the agenda public. It's okay to answer questions beforehand in the document itself too. During the meeting, fill the gaps.
  • Make a recording and send it to people involved. A great way of getting information that would otherwise be lost.
  • Create other opportunities for face-to-face time. Standups are still for productivity first.

As always, adjust this advice to how your team works. We've seen remote standups work really great for US-based teams (even remote). If a team member is a true nightowl, this might even work with a US-based team and a remote member in Asia. As your team scales, your flexibility is getting smaller though. Starting earlier with good practices will help you down the road.

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