11 tips for running an effective daily standup remotely

It is important to ensure that remote daily team standups bring us as much value as they would if done face to face.
Daily standup is the most important meeting for the team as it allows to refine planning daily and address all the issues as soon as they arise. It is also a great way to keep everyone on the same page, engaged and involved in the process.
The problem is that in the remote setup a lot of teams are struggling with maintaining the habit of meeting daily. It gets even more challenging when the team consists of members from different time zones. But let’s face it, the remote work has become a new reality. A lot of people are moving to fully remote work and many companies are downsizing the office spaces. So how do you ensure that the daily standup is done properly and serves its purpose with a remote team? Here are a few tips for you.

Cameras on, microphone off

Yes, there might be situations when someone cannot have the video on, for example due to low bandwidth or because they are breastfeeding at the moment. But the general rule of thumb should be cameras on all the time. It is only 15 minutes, and it is part of the work. Normally, you would be in the office, dressed up and standing in front of other humans. Probably you won’t be doing a clay mask or wearing a stained t-shirt, so please make an effort and get ready to appear on camera for the standup (pants are optional).

Not seeing others makes people feel disconnected and disengaged, while a simple nod from a colleague can go a long way, and helps a lot with increasing the motivation.

Microphones are the opposite - unfortunately we cannot always control the noise around us. As an owner of rather small dog, who nevertheless breaths like Darth Vader, I always set myself on mute when not speaking. It is totally acceptable to ask people to mute microphones (or do it for them - some tools like Zoom allow it), because they might not always realize how the sounds of their environment affect others on the call.

Everyone has to speak up

Follow the classic protocol of stand up: everyone says what they’ve been working on yesterday, what they are planning to work on today and what are the blockers they are facing. A person speaking nominates the next, or the facilitator can do a round robin and ask each participant one by one.

Here’s the thing, some people are more outspoken than others, and sometimes your team members might hesitate to bring up a problem they are dealing with. When you are physically co-located, things are easier - you might notice some non-verbal clues and invite them to speak, or they might address another team member one on one after standup and ask for help. With a remote setup there are less opportunities to do it, so you want to make sure you have prompted all team members to speak up and encouraged them to share the problems they are facing.

Rotate facilitation

Standups tend to get quite boring if you are doing them for a while in the same manner, so bring back some joy. Rotating facilitators would bring some new energy and the team will experience different standup styles. Probably not everything will work and some facilitators are better than others, but you will have a lot of great opportunities to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Another option is doing standup without facilitator whatsoever. Each person would nominate the next one, and the last person would name the one who would be starting the next standup. This works for mature teams, as another facilitator’s role is making sure the problems get addressed, so as long as the team can do it collectively, a standup without facilitator could also be a good option to try.

Accommodate for time zones

We are all used to the idea that standup should be the first meeting of the day (or, at least, the last one). Normally you don’t want to break your day in two and it’s much easier to recap what you did yesterday (or today) and summarize what you will be doing today (or tomorrow in case of evening standup).

With time zones, it becomes trickier. Quite often the only time that works for everyone would be somewhere in the middle of the day, or, much worse, late at night or early in the morning. I have seen teams doing 2 standups (PO interacts with different parts of the team in different time slots to protect them from weird working hours). I think this is a very very bad practice. The team staying connected is the most important thing here, and we should not be relying on PO to serve as a bridge. So adjust the time to fit everyone’s schedule - no biggie! Just change the questions from “what did you do yesterday?” to “what have you done since the last standup?”

If the only time slots that work are terrible for everyone (try finding something that works for both Tokyo and East Coast!), I would normally recommend a rotation of slots (different parts of team suffer on different days), but since this is generally not sustainable, it might be worth considering splitting or rearranging the team. There is of course an option of shifted working hours, but I’m not a big fan and I don’t believe it is healthy.

Use the same link every time

As simple as this advice might sound, I have witnessed multiple standups being missed because someone forgot to send an invite, update the link or removed the invitation by mistake. Just create one link (for Zoom, Teams or whatever tool you are using) and keep it somewhere on a shared resource which all team members have access to. The simpler you keep it, the less people are likely to forget it or mess things up.

Look at the backlog

Long gone are the whiteboards with sticky notes that we used to gather around, However, a lot of people are visual thinkers and need some visual reference, so share your screen with Jira, Trello or any other tool you are using daily and refer to it when you discuss completed work and to-dos. Please note though that standup should not become a discussion of tickets done/not done. The main purpose is always aligning on short-term priorities and ensuring all the blockers and issues are addressed in a timely manner.

For mixed teams pretend everyone is remote

If you have at least one team member joining remotely, do the standup like you would do if everyone was remote. It means that each team member will be joining from their computer even if they are all sitting in the same room (don’t forget to mute your mics and turn off sound to avoid echo). The person who speaks would be the one with mic on and sound on.

When part of a team is sitting in a meeting room, they tend to talk to each other ignoring remote peers or get disengaged. When everyone is on camera, it is less likely to happen, and also the remote team members will be able to better hear what is being said.

Share updates if you missed standup

Standups should not be missed, period. But sometimes we all have family emergencies, miss alarm clocks or calendar notifications or need to visit a dentist. In the office environment, people naturally connect when they see each other and updates are more likely to get shared. In the virtual setup however, it is easy to forget that you haven’t heard from a colleague for a couple of days. So it is important for the team to establish some norms around missed standup. A quite common one is “if you miss standup, summarize your updates in the same format you would use for standup (what did you do yesterday, what you will do today and what are the blockers) and post on Slack #team-channel the moment you get back to work”. You can adjust it, and of course it can be any other tool or format, but it is important that the team shares the updates.

Use an icebreaker

People often stop joining standup when they don’t see value in them or when standups become too boring. I’m not suggesting you to turn it into stand up comedy (pun intended), but it’s never a bad idea to add some fun elements to it. A quick icebreaker activity to kick off the standup might be nice to try. You can rotate those activities by week, or month, and in most cases the easiest approach is to have the person doing the activity nominate someone for the following day. Since the standup is only 15 minutes, try to limit your icebreaker to 2-3 minutes maximum.

Here are a few ideas for activities to kick off a standup.

  • joke of the day (make sure to set some ground rules in advance - e.g. no foul language or no politics)
  • Today I learned (sharing interesting fact or trivia)
  • Inspiration of the day (share a quote or a story that inspired you)
  • Personal lifehack
  • Book/podcast/movie/series recommendations

Generate action items

Standups are supposed to help teams resolve problems on the spot and not be just status updates. So whenever an issue is brought up, make sure something is being done about it. You don’t have to resolve it right there (after all, we only have 15 minutes!), but an action needs to be taken. An action can be:

  • adding a backlog item
  • Agreeing to schedule a separate call or to send an email
  • Assigning an owner
  • Sending a quick note or a chat message to the right stakeholder

Flex your virtual background muscle

Speaking of fun, a lot of platforms allow to use virtual backgrounds. If everyone on the team has access to it (you don’t want to exclude people with lower bandwidth or older computers!), have some virtual background fun once in a while. For example, on Fridays everyone puts the silliest background they can find. Or coordinate your backgrounds and take a group picture every Wednesday.

It should not take too much time and distract people from the main objective of the standup, but having a few laughs will help to improve group work and bring back excitement to the standups.
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