Remote work is growing fast in the United States.
Since 2005, the number of people working from home at least half the time has more than doubled according to Global Workplace Analytics. Even more interesting, as many as 90% of workers in the US would prefer to work from home a few days each week.
Work as we know it is changing.
And while most would agree that the trend is positive, there are plenty of growing pains associated with remote work, namely meetings. As offices change, communication is changing too.
For better or worse, meetings are a staple of nine to five life. But the traditional model doesn’t translate well in remote settings, where people are spread across time zones, coffee shops and coworking spaces. Asynchronous communication is key to making a distributed team work. It’s time to rethink the way me meet.
Enter: Remote Standup Meetings
No one likes meetings less than Basecamp founder and remote work advocate Jason Fried. In Getting Real, he writes a sentence so important that every founder should considering getting it tattooed on their arm: “Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead.”
Remote employees are primarily knowledge workers. As such, they need long, uninterrupted chunks of time to read, write, think, draw and create. Yet many businesses create a culture of interruptions where meetings take priority over output. Disruptions trickle down in the form of calendar notifications, excessive emails, PowerPoint decks and so on. This is a carryover from the old days of meetings. If you want your business to grow, you need to shield your staff from unnecessary distractions.
Many companies have embraced standup meetings because the format keeps gatherings short and to-the-point. Standups are a way to communicate without all the drudgery of conventional meetings. It’s a technique that American General William Pagonis used during the First Gulf War and later brought to the corporate world. Each morning, he had 40 officers meet together in a conference room without a table or chairs. It minimized the need for pleasantries and unnecessary comments. Even military officers, it turns out, have a tendency to digress. Pagonis found that the format maximized productivity crucial to military success.
Remote companies have a unique opportunity to create optimal work environments for their their employees. With a few tweaks, the standup format helps remote teams get more done, faster. Here’s a template for starting, running and improving remote standup meetings.
Creating a Structure That Works
Effective meetings don’t happen by accident.
Without a clear purpose, agenda and timeframe, the time slips away without a discernable result. According to NPR’s Marketplace, most meetings are objectively pointless. Here are some numbers to prove it:
- There are 11 million meetings every day in the U.S.
- That means 4 billion each year.
- Over 50% of people surveyed said that half the meetings they attend are unproductive.
- That’s 2 billion ineffective meetings.
Cynthia Husek, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Performance Improvement at the University of Colorado, knows a thing or two about standup meetings. She was brought into the University’s Office of Contracts and Grants to address years of dysfunction. “The former director had a practice of conducting two-hour staff meetings on Monday mornings,” says Husek. “He more or less held people hostage.”
Not surprisingly, the staff was skeptical when Husek informed them that they would be having standups every morning at 9am. On the first day of the new meetings, just three out of 30 people actually showed up. “It was pretty awful in the first few meetings because people didn’t want to be there.”
Husek pressed on, capping every meeting at 10 minutes. She led the sessions at first, but soon asked team leaders to take turns. As the standups gained traction, she decided to ask every team member to lead a meeting. Anyone who was dismissive of the meetings now paid close attention. Husek worked helped individuals create agendas and talking points, all with an emphasis on brevity. Within a few weeks, everyone knew how to participate in and run an effective standup meeting.
She eventually reduced the frequency from five times per week to four, then three, and finally two. The endless two-hour Monday meeting was ultimately replaced with two quick 15-minute standups. The entire team participated, important information was shared and everyone had more time (and information) to address their real work. Three years later, they still use the same format.
The fact is that humans just aren’t very good at running meetings. We tend to wing it, which almost guarantees that time is wasted. If you’re going to hold meetings — particularly standups — you must decide on a structure, time cap and frequency.
A Template for Remote Standups
Here’s a simple template for creating an agenda, deciding how often to have standup meetings and choosing a video conferencing tool that works for everyone.
Here are the three standard questions that typically guide standups.
- What did you get done yesterday (or last week, last month, etc.)?
- What are you working on now?
- What isn’t going well, and what could you use help on?
This is a good start, but if you’re going to hold meetings of any kind, respect the attendees by spending a few minutes to prepare an agenda. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Assign a meeting leader. If that’s you, take the job seriously.
- Only address topics that affect everyone attending.
- Set goals ahead of time. One goal might be to share important business metrics. Another might be to get status updates from the team.
- An agenda can be a list of questions. Don’t default to talking when listening would be better.
It’s incredibly important that standups remain short. In remote work settings, participants likely aren’t standing, so there is a temptation to settle in for a long discussion. If you get stuck on a topic, remember that it likely doesn’t affect the entire group. It’s best to wrap up on time and let participants follow-up with each other as needed.
Zapier CEO Wade Foster noted that his team tried at least six formats before they “finally found a meeting structure that drives meaningful discussion and visible results for the business.” However you structure your meeting, stick to it, collect feedback and change only when you have a clear understanding of the problems preventing a better meeting.
Husek found that she needed daily meetings to ingrain the standup methodology in her team. She wisely backed off the frequency as the meetings became more efficient.
Remote standups can be difficult to schedule since employees are likely working on different time zones. If you’re team is spread out, it’s a good idea to balance synchronous communication (i.e. face-to-face meetings) and asynchronous communication (i.e. email, Google docs, etc.).
In my time at Vero, we gathered once a week for a 20-minute standup meeting, but used iDoneThis to record our daily work. With team members stretching from Sydney, Australia to Washington, D.C., it was simply too much to ask everyone for a video chat every day. Our standup meetings were supplemented by one-on-one calls and a handful of project specific meetings. The frequency and format worked well even as the team grew.
Zapier, a remote company with more 35 employees, uses a similar schedule. The company is broken into three teams. Each team meets once per week at a time decided on by the group.
In the past, we tried the agile version of the 15-minute daily standup, but we found this was too frequent. Most days, team members didn’t have enough new information to convey, making a majority of the meetings not useful. The daily format also required everyone to slot some part of their day, every day to chat. That was a lot of wasteful meeting overhead.
So we settled on a weekly meeting. One week between check-ins tends to supply the right amount of activity where a team meeting becomes useful.
Here’s a schedule that works for a number of remote businesses:
- Annual company retreat.
- Monthly standups for the entire company.
- Weekly standups for project teams.
- Daily email standup for individuals.
This isn’t perfect, but it’s a foundation to build on. (If you’ve found a different structure that works, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.)
Where to Meet
This seems to be a hangup for remote teams. How many times have you scheduled a meeting, then started late because someone couldn’t remember their Skype password? Or drawn out a meeting because no one can resist the temptation of Google Hangouts mustache stickers?
There are dozens of tools you can use to facilitate remote standup meetings. It’s important to remember that tools mostly get in the way. Choose one and move on.
I could list the pros and cons of every video conferencing tool out there, but it would be a waste of time. My current favorite tool is Zoom for five reasons:
- It’s free (and pro plans are affordable).
- The mobile app is great.
- You can use the same link for every meeting.
- Screen sharing is easy.
- You can record meetings.
If you want something even more stripped down, Appear.in is free and supports up to eight people.
No tool is perfect — Internet connections drop out, someone is sitting in a noisy coffee shop, etc. 18F, the remote digital services arm of the General Services Administration, uses a Google Doc to share the agenda and brief notes about each standup meeting.
“A shared Google document with an agenda helps people to know what the meeting will be about in advance,” [developer Jacob Harris] says. “And anything that is discussed / decided in the meeting must be added to that document. This makes it easier to remember what we’re working on and keeps our actions public in case someone wasn’t able to hear what we were talking about.”
Process is paramount. And the routine of regular meetings with the same tools will make everyone’s life easier.
When Remote Standups Go Wrong
The template for a great remote standup meeting is simple, but there are so many ways it can go wrong. Time zones make it harder to schedule meetings, it’s hard to track down folks who don’t show up on time and it’s easy to get off topic when you haven’t seen your coworkers in a while. Here’s a few suggestions, ranging from mindset to software, that you should consider at the beginning and address often.
Tackle the time zone challenge.
I love telling people that I have co-workers all over the world, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes challenging. Time zones will prevent good communication unless you have a process to handle it.
Buffer, a team of more than 70 people working in 30 different cities, has become the poster child for remote work. On its Open blog, writer Courtney Seiter explains that the best strategy to handle time zones is simply awareness.
Possibly the simplest tip of all is also the one that can be the hardest to keep top of mind. Typically, we try to be mindful of what time it is for others when we use synchronous communication like video or Hipchat. This keeps us from asking a teammate to dive into a brand-new project if they’re just about to jump off for their evening, for example.
One of Buffer’s developers built a tool called Timezone.io that they use to keep track of everyone’s time zone. Of course, people sometimes work early or late, but it promotes mindfulness and prioritizes asynchronous communication.
Seiter also recommends a tool called Every Time Zone, which helps you visualize time zones when it’s time to plan a standup.
Time zones are only an issue if you don’t address the problem head-on. Work with your team to find regular meeting times. The longer you can stay in the routine of meeting at the same times each day, week or month, the easier the process becomes.
Enforce a time limit.
Remote standups should last 10 to 20 minutes depending on frequency. That’s it.
If your meetings drag on, your employees will lose interest. Inefficient meetings are the reason we hate meetings in the first place. Set a time limit and stick to it, even if it means politely reminding attendees that time is up. Great meetings are an art. It takes practice. As Husek described earlier, she capped every meeting at 10 minutes. It was the only way to secure buy-in from her team.
Jason Yip, an agile software development coach at Spotify, says that daily standups should never go longer than 15 minutes.
As a general rule, after fifteen minutes, the average person’s mind is going to wander which doesn’t help with setting focus.
Fifteen minutes may even be too long for smaller teams. Because of the mind-wandering effect, even for larger teams, fifteen minutes is a good limit.
If you’re having trouble ending meetings on time, schedule them before lunch advises software development manager Ed Gibbs. He uses the same phrase — “Well, enjoy your lunch everyone” — to signal the end of meetings. It’s a “throwaway line,” but it’s become an important part of his team’s routine.
Don’t replace meetings with Slack.
Effective, efficient meetings have an agenda and clear goals. And that is exactly why group chat tools like Slack are terrible for productivity according to Jason Fried. “Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.”
I breathed a sigh of relief when I read his article on the problems with group chat. “I’m not the only one feeling totally overwhelmed by Slack!” It’s a great piece of software, but it may not be the best way to communicate with your co-workers.
Group chat is the opposite of a standup meeting. Standups are quick and effective, whereas group chat conversations tend to drag on for hours, meandering through different topics as people drop in and out. On the topic of Slack, designer and onboarding expert Samuel Hulick writes that, “All-day meetings every day of the week are substantially more ‘meetings’ than the ones you’re saving me from.”
Instead, consider organizing your team’s work day into two distinct categories:
- Deep work, i.e. long periods of uninterrupted concentration
- Collaboration, i.e. standup meetings, group chats, email, etc.
The two can co-exist, but can’t overlap.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that knowledge workers “are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value.” Don’t celebrate people who boast a laundry list of finished tasks in standups. You don’t want people doing busy work just so they have something to say in a standup. If someone has accomplished a single important task since your meeting, recognize them for it.
Empower your introverted employees.
If you run a remote team, it’s likely that you’ve hired a group of introverts. And that’s a great thing according to consultant Jonha Revesencio: “Because introverts spend more time alone, they have developed self-discipline to complete a task without support or oversight.”
Remote teams also tend to have more individual contributors and fewer managers. This keeps your team lean and productive, but it also means you have to rethink things like hiring and hierarchy. Managers, for example, spend more time empowering employees than directing them.
Here’s the challenge: Introverts and individual contributors are sometimes averse to meetings, period. It’s incredibly important to prove the value of your standups instead of demanding their attendance. Here are few ways to foster engagement from all of your employees:
- Ask for written feedback. Introverts tend to prefer communicating via text rather than face-to-face.
- Don’t equate shyness with a lack of productivity. Some people don’t want the mic, but don’t assume that means they haven’t accomplished great work.
- Encourage one-on-one meetings. Most people feel more comfortable in smaller groups, so encourage people to follow up with each other rather than hash out projects in group meetings.
Understand the value that introverts bring to your business and use these meetings as a way to help them to do their best work.
Embrace Asynchronous Communication
A remote standup doesn’t mean that your team communicates for just 10 minutes each week and meetings will fall flat without a structure for good communication the rest of the time.
Remote teams must get comfortable with asynchronous communication. Many workers are used to a “now” culture at work. “I need to get that document now” or “Let’s ask the boss now.” A lack of immediate feedback may feel like a roadblock, but it can actually be a blessing.
One great benefit of asynchronous communication is that it actually encourages your employees to be more self-sufficient. When people can’t tap a co-worker on the shoulder with a question, they are forced to solve problems on their own. It also creates an environment that demands good processes, organization and effective communication.
Creating an asynchronous company doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not all roses. Here are a few ways you can encourage good communication for the other 39 hours and 50 minutes of the work week.
Preach work-life equilibrium.
Did you know that 89% of Americans think work-life balance is a problem?
Part of the problem is the way we think about “balance.” Work-life balance is not achieved, it’s maintained. To borrow a phrase from writer and designer Paul Jarvis, it’s more like treading water than floating. Dr. Julie Newell of Southern Polytechnic State University calls balance a “static condition” that is “elusive and ultimately unattainable.” This problem is intensified when an employee’s home is also their office.
Instead, Newell suggests that we think about it managing work and life in terms of equilibrium.
We all manage the landscapes of our lives in similar ways. When we have more work to do, we shift our energy to pick up the load. When family or personal demands increase, we shift our focus there and let work slide a little.
When we reach the new equilibrium point, we readjust, but that equilibrium point is always changing.
Distributed employees will do better work if given the freedom to find their own equilibrium, but it has to come from the top down. A commitment to asynchronous communication is a signal that your company is more interested in good work than hours worked.
Create a process for everything.
Without processes, work gets messy. Remote companies should default to transparency when it comes to things like shared documents, project management tools and employee onboarding resources. Readily available information reduces the need for meetings and email.
- Make all important documents accessible to your team with a tool like Google Drive or Dropbox. These docs should include any processes that you’ve written out.
- Processes are easier to visualize than to read about, so consider using Microsoft Word, Google Docs or Draw.io to make flow charts that explain all the steps in a process.
- Use a project management tool to keep track of tasks, checklists and due dates. Basecamp, Asana and Trello are all great ways to do this.
Anything event or project that happens more than once needs a process. Start documenting now to reap the benefits of good process later.
Adopt status reporting.
It doesn’t sound sexy, but status reports can be the glue that holds a remote team together. In fact, status reports are the basis of iDoneThis.
Here’s how it works. Each of your team members gets a daily email from iDoneThis that asks, “What did you get done today?” The respond with the tasks they accomplished or the projects they made headway on. iDoneThis collects all the responses and sends each employee a digest each morning so they can see what everyone else is working on.
A single email per day can replace hours of meetings. When it comes time for a standup, everyone is already informed.
Less Is More
As you begin to optimize your standups, remember the minimalist mantra “less is more.” It’s better to make meetings shorter than longer. It’s better to invite fewer people than more. It’s better to discuss one topic than many.
Don’t expect the improvement to happen overnight. Like anything else, standups require a strategy, measurement and execution. Have any questions? Drop a note in the comments and we’ll be happy to help.