Cornell Martin

How to upgrade your remote standup meetings for hybrid work

Balancing async check-ins with video calls

7 minutes
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The year 2020 has upended how people go about their workday. For knowledge workers, offices are empty, whiteboards are gathering dust, and all social bonding time now occurs within the four corners of a laptop screen. While some people are accustomed to working on teams with remote colleagues spread across a region or even across the globe, not being able to see most of your colleagues in-person might be a whole new ballgame for you.

It’s crucial managers and teams allow for time to adjust to this new reality. There are no cookie-cutter answers for all the nuanced questions managers face on to how to best adapt a team. But it's also a big opportunity to take a hard look at processes established when everyone was in the same office and explore options that work better not just for an environment when everyone is WFH, but ones they may set you up for success for a hybrid model.

More and more organizations are developing hybrid models, trying to combine the benefits of working from home with the best parts of working from an office. There’s a lot to consider to make sure those models are inclusive, and everyone is able to engage in meaningful ways.

We think a good place to start is the daily standup meeting. It’s used far and wide, and has been synchronous from its inception. But many find standups don’t stand up as well when everyone is everywhere else.

Here are some ways to think through an approach to standups that can also work in a hybrid environment.

Breaking bad habits

For the past century, being in the same place and on the same timetable was a requirement for most teams. But as more companies adopt remote policies with flexible work schedules, confining everyone to these outdated rules doesn't make sense, particularly when it comes to doing standups.

First, there isn't a centralized place for everyone to stand up together. It's hard to replicate the same openness you get in a co-located meeting through video calls where the usual non-verbal social cues are noticeably missing. The absence of these cues adds psychological stress, making Zoom calls more mentally taxing and less free-flowing. On top of this, using the standup to impose an artificial start time to the workday or keep tabs on how many hours each team member works are not only unsustainable solutions to a long-term problem, it erodes trust. It's about results, not people’s hours.

It’s time to ditch some of these bad habits.

The task then is to create new ways for everyone to share and connect on projects that help keep things moving forward. Some parts of your standup may still work in a remote context. Keeping strict time limits is a good example. But many will need to change.

Going back to basics

At a basic level, the daily standup is a quick, time-boxed meeting to sync with other contributors on work that's inflight. Each person shares completed items and any blockers in their way. When the session wraps, everyone should be on the same page, feel a sense of shared camaraderie, and get the help they need.

Some of this can occur asynchronously using productivity tools like Slack or Range. For example, sharing updates about upcoming work, highlighting specific documents for completed tasks, and adding context about an issue are all great ways to ‘offline’ part of the digital standup experience using apps.

But other elements that require more active collaboration from contributors—such as social bonding and trusting that their work aligns with the team’s goals—need a face-to-face tactic. The synchronous meeting comes into play here. The 10 to 15-minute recurring video call is the perfect place to ask questions about prioritization and get clarification on something in real-time instead of it needlessly devolving into a drawn-out Slack thread.

There are also opportunities to use a mix of both methods, sync and async, to ensure all team members, no matter their time zone or work schedule, feel included in the process and supported in their work. Taking on this type of hybrid work model requires managers and facilitators to be sensitive to their team’s changing needs and intentionally build each individual up to do their best work.

Some people will lean on asynchronous communication for reporting progress and issues more, and others will get most of their answers through a short video chat. If you design this process well, it’ll work wonders for everyone without adding lengthy meetings or creating a bulky, bureaucratic structure.

Design each part to do what it does best

So, how do you go about designing a hybrid ‘standup’ experience for your team?

Keep it simple in the beginning. Think about the three main functions of the daily standup mentioned above: knowledge sharing, removing blockers, and allowing people to connect and feel like they’re a part of one big unified team. The decide which method, sync or async, works best for each. For example:

  1. Sharing updates
    1. This aspect of your standup naturally lends itself to asynchronous written communication. Each person can share an update when they are ready, and it’ll be available for reference later if needed. Depending on your team’s culture, you may want to establish expectations around timing. Give clear guidance on when and how the whole team should share their updates.
  2. Getting help and removing blockers
    1. Trying to get a clear answer to a question or help on a time-sensitive issue through Slack or other async channels can be notoriously tricky. Depending on the team culture, there may not be an expectation to respond promptly on said channels. It’s also common to misread the nuance in written communication when tackling a challenging topic, leading to unnecessary tension. For these reasons, getting help with roadblocks is well suited to synchronous video calls. While some non-verbal cues may be missing, it’s still miles better than shifting everything to a written form that’s sometimes prone to misunderstanding. 
  3. Connecting as a team
    1. Building strong connections on your team helps support productivity. To facilitate the social interactions that help build up relationships and trust, use both writing and video. For instance, you might encourage your team to answer an icebreaker question while asynchronously sharing progress on work. Conversely, have the group share personal matters that might impact work in the 10 to 15-minute video call. Be flexible here—you don’t need to have hard fast rules. The goal is to figure out how best to enable everyone to feel like they’re an essential part of the team.

Here’s an example scenario:

  • Event 1: The day starts for colleagues in London. They need to check in with New York about a blocker mentioned the day before. Someone in New York committed to looking into it, but won’t be on for another few hours. They’re still blocked.
  • Event 2: New York comes online and shares that they’ve fixed the issue. London is well into the workday.
  • Event 3: The US west coast comes online. The daily standup meeting commences. A team member in San Francisco ran into an issue EOD yesterday. They needed clarification and help before they could start work on a task. The standup is the only outlet for this. And London teammates are the ones who can unblock it, but San Francisco wasn’t clear at the time who was best positioned to help. So London spent the morning waiting for New York, and potentially had time to address San Francisco’s issue had they known about it before the daily sync.
  • Event 4: The 15-minute meeting ends. New York is clear. London is off to dinner. And San Francisco has to wait another day to move on a project. People are happy to see one another but annoyed by the time lags. They’re out of sync.
  • Alternate Event: The team keeps the synchronous daily standup meeting, but all the waiting on other people for clarification and answers happens through written updates held in a central app where each person can share progress, raise flags and chime in. Folks hop on video in London mostly to have meaningful conversations that move work forward with the folks in San Francisco, since they have very little facetime, or ask a quick clarifying question on a posted update.

The scenario above is one of many where a dynamic hybrid standup meeting can help. Experiment and ask around to discover how other teams handle this shift in the workplace. Some may break standups down into even smaller, more localized groups, and provide an async update to other teams in other offices right after the local standup.

Making updates to your work traditions will definitely take time and require many adjustments along the way. But the last thing you want to do is attempt to force old solutions on a new problem without considering how your team’s fundamental needs have changed, and how they'll change when "back to normal" is a very new normal.

For the daily standup meeting, breaking it into its parts and building new solutions to meet those needs can help your team become more flexible and resilient, more connected, and actually build a better version of the standup — one that is well-tuned to hybrid work.

And check out our Guide to Standup Meetings to learn more about the ins and outs of standups, and how to get them right for your team.

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