Are standups dead in a fully-remote team?
Are you conducting daily stand-up meetings out of obligation, or because they genuinely provide value to your team?
I've always been a fan of the different scrum-inspired rituals, however after working fully remote for 9 months, I start to question whether it adds value, or is simply costing us an hour of productivity each day.
What is the value of a standup?
The daily stand-up is a short, daily meeting to discuss progress and identify blockers. The reason it’s called a “stand-up” is because if attendees participate while standing, the meeting should be kept short. [https://www.atlassian.com/agile/scrum/standups]
I imagine many developers worldwide have some form of daily status meeting - I've at least had them wherever I've worked. Ideally, they should eliminate blockers and ensure everyone is on the same page. When you have a synchronous workday, it's an excellent way to kick off the day. If you have shy team members it's a great way to make sure everyone is getting the help they need, and that everyone is on the same page; working towards a common goal.
What is the problem?
At my current job, and the one prior we all start our days at different times. I like to get up early and get my things done so that I can go home early. Others like to have a long morning with their kids, and then work throughout the night. When I worked on-prem, the standup was a great way to be in-the-know, about things that were only discussed verbally between coworkers.
However now, whenever anyone has an impediment they write it on Slack. If I write it early in the morning all my team members are able to see it, and any subsequent discussion is visible retroactively if you are off a given day. You are always in the know.
What about time? focus? It's easy to get distracted during standups, not because it's not serious, but because someone's focus is often on whatever project they work on - Context switch is expensive, and we do it a lot. I have found ways to improve focus by physically going somewhere else - i.e to the couch with a cup of coffee - it helps, however, it adds a context-switching buffer before and after the standup. However, that does consume time on both ends of the standup. So we timebox a meeting for 15 minutes, but it ends up consuming possibly 20-30 minutes each day. That is about 2 hours each week per person. You could cut it shorter, and timebox it to 5-10 minutes. But a crucial benefit of standups is also that you get everyone in one room - especially working remotely, you lose the water cooler chats, and a standup can be a daily routine where everyone looks each other in the eyes. That has been a primary motivator for having an internal stand-up, and the consultancy I work at; improving team cohesion and relationship building.
So, what about team cohesion?
Since we operate fully remotely, we don't have the opportunity for casual water cooler discussions, which I genuinely miss as an extrovert. This is obviously important to incorporate into remote positions too.
In the consultancy I work with, we have two 30-minute gaming sessions each week. It's encouraged but optional, so you skip it if you have an important meeting or a big deadline, but for the most part, the majority of people are there.
It's a great way to meet everyone, small talk, and have a laugh together. We recently had to draw a bike together; the level of success is questionable, but our team spirit has never been higher:
- A questionably drawn bike, in the game Fake Artist Online
For me, it adds much more team cohesion, solidarity, and unity, and costs the same amount of time, something that is important for me working remotely.
We currently rotate on the following games:
Am I just doing it wrong?
The standup can be more than the three famous questions:
What did I work on yesterday?
What am I working on today?
What issues are blocking me?
It can also be a daily reflection on the sprint goal, (if you are working with sprints, and/or Scrum). We have tried to incorporate that at times, and that is obviously important too; maybe not every day but once or twice a week. So we might just be doing it wrong.
Once again, however, I would argue that standups aren't the ideal setting to gauge confidence due to anchoring bias. You would have to disclose them similar to planning poker, and if that is the case, you could just as well post a survey on Slack, of "How confident are you in our ability to reach [Sprint goal]", which would also give you data you can reflect on retroactively.
Others would argue for an asynchronous daily standup, and we tried that some years ago at a place I worked, where we used a bot to prompt us. It often resulted in people simply not answering, and we rarely used much time to check out each other's answers. If a standup does add value, it does solve some of the scheduling issues you might have, and that might be a solution for you. However, my core issue is that:
As we post a request-for-review in chat, people know when I am finishing a task.
As we always write "I am finished with X, can I help anyone with their tasks?", we know who is available, needing something to do
As the first step anyone does, when they reach a wall in any regard, is to say "I am blocked by X", or "I need someone to help pair program this with me" - we will never really be blocked by the time the standup comes around
Compared to the scheduled standup, which synchronizes expectation and alignment once a day, we never really go minutes without being up to date, with relevant facts. And if I am in a state of deep focused work, I don't have to be interrupted by a team huddle.
Are standups worthless?
Probably not. As with actual Agile teams, it's not a matter of doing a specific set of steps, but rather embracing change and adapting processes for the team, rather than adapting the team around certain processes. When improving communication and transparency, standups are a great formal way of getting on the same page and having a safe space to pose questions to a relevant stakeholder or a coworker, and it can be the correct step on a ladder of progress. I am simply arguing that it might not be the final step for every team.
I mentioned it internally at the consultancy I work at, and we have changed it into 2 standups per week (and 2 days of gaming). Despite these adjustments, I personally still don't perceive the added value from the two internal standups, however, it does add value for some coworkers; and as long as that is the case I happily comply. Nevertheless, if your team is open to trying out new approaches and you share my sentiments, then why not try a sprint without one?
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