Sam O’Brien is the Director of Digital and Growth for EMEA at RingCentral, a Global VoIP, video conferencing, and call centre software provider. Sam has a passion for innovation and loves exploring ways to collaborate more with dispersed teams. He has written for websites such as IndustryTap and Bricsys. Here is his LinkedIn.
With the almost global adoption of distributed teams, it can be difficult to catch up and stay connected with team members. While they seem straightforward, stand-up meetings are often mishandled and not utilized to their full potential.
Wait…what exactly is a Stand-up?
No, it’s not your tight five comedy routine. A daily stand-up is a quick catch-up session for a remote team to stay on top of any day-to-day updates. The name comes from (you guessed it) the idea that you do the meeting standing up.
By standing up for the length of the meeting, you’re more likely to keep it short – the ideal length being no more than 15 minutes. Whilst working remotely can make meetings easy through a VoIP server, it makes actually standing up impractical – you don’t want your webcam pointing at your torso for quarter of an hour! The principles behind stand-ups, though, are easy to apply to distributed teams as well as in-office ones. You want the meeting to be:
- Quick – remember, fifteen minutes max
- Efficient – no small talk, no rambling
- Focused – only talk about what’s on the agenda
- Collaborative – this isn’t a direct report to your boss, it’s sharing with a team
- Prepared – know what you want to say in advance
Lengthy meetings can be off-putting, overwhelming, and often more distracting than helpful. Moving to a stand-up format can revitalize them and make them a useful part of the workday.
6 Tips to Boost Remote Team Productivity With Daily Stand-Ups
Get Your Goals Together
Meetings can lag when not everyone is 100% sure what their purpose is. Inform all your team members so they have ample time to prepare the information they may need. Most stand-up meetings have three key questions that they ask everyone to be ready for:
- What have you accomplished since our last meeting?
- What are you working on at the moment?
- What challenges are you facing or what help do you need?
In monthly meetings, the answer to the first of those questions can be quite long! But with daily stand-ups, it should only need a sentence or two unless they’ve just hit the end of a large project. This smaller update is easier for the rest of the team to digest, and also encourages your team to set small goals on the way to their larger ones.
When it comes to what they’re working on at the moment, you also want it to be small landmarks leading towards a larger one. For instance, if someone is heading up a new communications system install, they don’t need to wait until the entire thing is done to give an update. Instead, their answer to question two could be ‘finished setting up the small business phone system’, and then a few days later ‘booked training meetings with all new users’.
Assessing project scope and breaking down tasks into these smaller chunks has major productivity benefits. Separating out a huge project into smaller, bitesize sections makes it easy to plan for, less overwhelming, and gives you a roadmap to follow. Daily stand-ups encourage this kind of task management, and reward teams for doing it, which is great for boosting team productivity.
The third question, – what challenges are you facing or what help do you need, needs to be managed carefully, as it’s the one most likely to spiral out into further conversation. While you do want the team to offer to help one another, you don’t want that discussion to take over the meeting. Ideally, you want the issue to be raised, people who can help to raise their hands, and then move on. That way, team members know who to talk with after the meeting to get help, and it won’t distract from your goals.
Stick to Your Schedule
There are a million reasons why meetings don’t start on time: prevent that with your stand-ups. Enforce a standard when it comes to always arriving at the meeting on time. This is something that’s actually easier to do online than in person, since you don’t need to physically head to a meeting room!
With traditional meetings, you’ll often find yourself waiting for everyone to arrive. This adds on even more time to something that’s already taking you away from your desk.
In fact, meetings starting late is one of the biggest complaints a lot of staff members have with them. Another issue is when too much or not enough time has been allotted for the meeting. Luckily, you can avoid this by simply starting on time, regardless of whether everyone is there, and finishing on time, even if people are late.
One huge advantage of daily stand-ups is that they’re not designed to be a full update to management, or a chance to do some virtual brainstorming. Instead, they’re intended as a way to ensure everyone on the team is up to date. The regularity of these meetings means the updates are similar to the tasks – bite size – so if someone is late or ends up missing them, it’s easy for them to catch up.
There are lots of reasons people might be late. While remote work does mean you don’t have to physically travel somewhere, working from home has a lot of new distractions. Maybe a child has woken up ill, or something in the house broke down and needed immediate attention. If someone is late (or doesn’t turn up at all) but apologizes and explains later, it won’t impact the rest of the team’s progress for the day.
That said, if someone in your team is regularly late, it’s something you’ll need to address. Missing one or two meetings due to situations they can’t control is something that happens. Missing regular meetings, though, especially when those meetings happen at the same time on a daily basis? That’s a problem! Maybe they’re unfamiliar with using remote work tools, or maybe there’s something deeper going on. Take the time to ask them why and try to figure out a solution together.
Sticking to the schedule isn’t just about being on time to start. It’s also about finishing on time. Let’s face it, we’ve all been in those meetings that feel like they have about twenty different endings. You finally wrap up on something, and then there’s the inevitable ‘just one more thing…’
One of the main benefits of stand-up meetings for productivity is their brevity. The moment you move away from that, you lose it. Stick to a strict endpoint. To start with, it might be worth setting an alarm for exactly 15 minutes, with a snooze of two minutes just to wrap up. Once that 15 minutes plus the snooze time has passed, you’re done – no matter where you were up to!
Some people suggest scheduling stand-ups before lunch to encourage wrapping up on time, but this has some disadvantages. Hosting them before lunch means your team has started work, got into a rhythm, and is then pulled out of it for a meeting. It’s also tricky if you have a global team as not everyone is in the same time zone! Having an employee schedule template can really help with trying to figure this out. Consider starting the day off with it – or as close to that as you can manage, accounting for time zones. That way everyone will be ready and raring to go when you’re done.
Respect Everyone’s Time
Virtual meetings can be difficult and quickly get off track when everyone is trying to talk at the same time. If one person has the floor, let them speak.
One great way of doing this in person is to hand them an object. Some teams use cute toys, a branded notebook, or even just a pen. Obviously, you can’t do this online quite as easily. However, you can still take the concept to heart. Is there some way you can clearly physically mark the person as the speaker? Instead of having a set item in the office that you pass around, why not pick a type of item? You could have whoever is speaking hold their coffee mug up as they do.
Of course, you can also take advantage of technology to encourage this. Have everyone mute their mics when they’re not the one speaking. That way, speaking requires an extra step so if people are inclined to speak up, the fact they’re on mute will remind them it’s not their time yet.
Whilst stand-up meetings are designed to be more democratic and open than traditional meetings, it’s still worth having a meeting leader who can enforce this. This meeting leader doesn’t necessarily have to be a manager, and it doesn’t have to be the same person every time. As long as someone is assigned the role to guide the meeting, it can help avoid people being talked over or forgotten.
Another thing that can slow meetings down is trying to show off files. No matter how good your online hosting solution is, it’s going to slow the meeting down. Try to avoid using files or presentations, and just keep it simple.
Stick to The Point
It’s normal for meetings to go off-topic. When this happens, try to put a pin in it and stick to the established agenda.
Earlier, we spoke about the three key questions:
- What have you accomplished since our last meeting?
- What are you working on at the moment?
- What challenges are you facing or what help do you need?
In particular, the third question poses a challenge for staying on topic. As mentioned, encouraging people to volunteer help by raising their hand (or, since visuals are a little harder to follow online, simply saying ‘I can help’) – but not detail that help can go a long way. For instance, if someone mentions having concerns about remote working security, say you can help, and then after the meeting organize a separate one-on-one with them after, rather than deviating in the stand-up.
It can be tempting to veer off into a discussion on the problem, especially if it’s your area of expertise and you see it as a quick fix. However, stand-up meetings shouldn’t be treated as a place to discuss solutions, just to highlight issues. The actual discussion should be scheduled after since it won’t involve everyone in the meeting.
Of course, this isn’t the main way meetings tend to go off-topic!
The big one is small talk, and who can blame us? In any remote team, social contact is very important, and your work colleagues are a huge part of your life. Asking how their children are, whether they’ve watched any good movies, or complimenting their haircuts are all natural parts of conversation – and they’re good ones.
Team bonding is a great thing and something you should encourage. It’s just that stand-up meetings aren’t the place for it.
If you’re encountering a lot of small talk in these meetings, think about why. Does your remote team have a way to talk and bond outside of this space? If not, create one. There are a few ways you could do this.
Many remote workers struggle with feeling isolated from their teammates. If the daily stand-up is the only chance they get to chat, then, of course, they’re going to want to make connections!
Host online team events – think after work quizzes and socials or a virtual break room (an open video call during set hours). You could even set up ‘show and tell’ sessions where they can share their work in more detail: perhaps an introduction to business intelligence, or a quick walkthrough of Excel shortcuts. This can provide a social outlet outside of the daily stand-ups.
Do you have an online instant messaging platform? Sometimes this is built into your project management software, other times it might be separate. Encourage friendly chatter with channels like a ‘good news’ chat view where they can share updates – both life and work-based – or a daily snapshot thread, where people can upload a picture of something fun every day.
Help Them Network
This isolation is often compounded when a team member is in a different time zone than the others. Introduce them to other staff in the same time zone, even if they’re in a different team. By knowing who in the company is around at the same time as them, they’ll have a way to socialize and reach out without relying on scheduled meetings. It’ll also help out if you end up relying on cross-team collaboration in the future.
All of these solutions will help move the small talk out of your stand-ups, without isolating your team: the perfect way to boost productivity!
Keep the Format Flexible
What works for one team doesn’t always work for the other. Listen to each other and determine the best format, agenda, or time to meet and stay flexible. By starting with daily stand-ups for your team (or sections of your team, if you’re a particularly large department) you can figure out what works. I’d recommend trialing this format – the three questions, the regularity, and the timing – for a few weeks, and then getting feedback.
All of the advice so far is focused on the idea that daily stand-ups of fifteen minutes for the whole teamwork for you. They might not! If you have a larger team, you might find that you need to split them into a few separate meetings. You might have tasks that won’t update much day-to-day, so you only need two stand-ups a week. All of these are great ways to use stand-ups in your work routine.
You might even find that stand-ups work for some periods of time, but not others. Maybe during the early development stages, they’re really helpful, but during a later implementation stage, they’re more of a distraction. By being flexible and shifting them to work for you, you can get the most benefit out of them and avoid them stagnating into ‘just another meeting’ territory.
Make it Optional
It’s not always possible to get the whole team together. If people cannot attend, let them know the ways to communicate this and how they can get their vital information to the rest of the team. No employee should miss out on important information due to missing a meeting.
Sometimes, people are late, and it can happen. By making it optional, you reduce people’s guilt at prioritizing other, more urgent things. It’s also better for those in different timezones – if it’s not mandatory, then it’s less of a problem that it happens outside of work hours for them.
One great way to communicate vital information to the rest of the team is through an internal work chat. Have a dedicated notetaker at every meeting (if no-one volunteers, maybe change who it is regularly!) who can type it up into an easy to access document that’s ready to go at the end.
Brevity is the point of stand-ups, so these emails shouldn’t be too overwhelming. Keep the same focus – goals achieved, what they’re working on, and any issues. A simple summation of what’s said can be formatted like the below:
- Achieved: finalised written content for campaign
- Working on: acquiring images for campaign
- Issues: can’t find good photograph of [product]
Send this email out to everyone – not just people who didn’t attend – as it’s a useful reference for later. To make it easier, it’s worth giving these emails a shared title, like ‘stand-up notes [date]’. That way, your team can set up filters for these to go in a folder dedicated to the meeting notes. Those who need reminders can access them, whilst those who don’t, won’t find it clogging up their inbox!
Communication is key when it comes to powering a remote team. Even with all the tech tools at our disposal, it can still be difficult to create a collaborative environment. Allowing your team some face time can do plenty to establish transparency and boost productivity.
Using daily stand-ups is a great way to incorporate this face time, without it becoming a major distraction. It’s a simple, effective way to get everyone on the same page, pick up on problems in the early stages, and see where the project is at. Just remember: keep it short, efficient, and to the point and you’ll save a lot of time.