Remote work is growing fast in the United States.
According to a FlexJobs report, 3.9 million Americans work from home at least half the time, which represents a 115% increase from 2005. “Remote/work from home” was one of the most popular job-hunting search terms in the past year, and hiring managers predict that in the next 10 years, more than one-third of employees will be working remotely.
This growth isn’t a trend. Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work survey showed that 99% of respondents wanted to work remotely for the rest of their careers. When people get a taste of remote work, they don’t want to go back.
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 cofounder and remote-work advocate Jason Fried. In Getting Real, he writes a sentence so important that every founder should consider 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 of 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 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 time frame, the time slips away without a discernible result. According to Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings report, bad meetings are costing companies money, and employees time. Here are some numbers to prove it:
- Badly organized meetings will cost United States companies $399 billion in 2019.
- 44% reported that poorly organized meetings mean they don’t have enough time to do the rest of their work.
- 43% said that unclear actions lead to confusion.
- 31% reported that irrelevant attendees slowed progress.
- 71% said they lost time every week to unnecessary or canceled 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,” Husek says. “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 9 a.m. On the first day of the new meetings, just three out of 30 people 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 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 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, 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 frequency, a structure, and a time cap.
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 preparing 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 usually 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.
The key to a successful stand up is fulfilling the promise of a short, focused meeting. This is often easier said than done
Managers might want to impress their big-picture concerns on team members, and team members might want to vent about the details they’re prioritizing that day. Especially in a remote workplace, where face-to-face communication might not happen often, it’s easy for conversation to ramble long past the time limit.
To keep standups tight and productive, use the parking lot technique. The parking lot is a place you can “park” any topics that threaten to distract from the agenda. If a topic or problem seems too big, managers or employees can decide it warrants a separate discussion. Parking lots enable employees to keep their teammates abreast of the challenges they’re facing without dragging them into long, endless meetings.
Another tactic, which might seem counterintuitive, is to develop meetings that can serve as outlets for potential distractions. Hotjar, a fully remote team that develops user-feedback tools, has weekly “bonfire” meetings, where team members can connect, share knowledge, and have discussions that aren’t strictly work-related. If you give your team time and space for much-needed human connection, they’ll be less likely to get off topic during standups.
Husek found that she needed daily meetings to ingrain the standup methodology into her team. She wisely backed off the frequency as the meetings became more efficient.
Remote standups can be difficult when employees are working in different time zones. If your team is spread out, it’s a good idea to balance synchronous communication (e.g., face-to-face meetings) and asynchronous communication (e.g., 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 to participate in 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.
In the past, we tried the agile version of the 15-minute daily standup, but we found that to be too frequent. Most days, team members didn’t have enough new information to convey, making a majority of the meetings unhelpful. 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 to make a team meeting 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
Starting on time seems to be a hang-up 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 six 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.
- It went public in 2019 and shows it’ll continue to produce a reliable, successful tool.
No tool is perfect: Internet connections drop out, someone is sitting in a noisy coffee shop, etc. Seer Interactive, a digital marketing agency, recommends taking detailed notes for every meeting so that your meeting isn’t dependent on technology working perfectly:
“Without the necessary details, it’s impossible for your team to understand the full context of an assignment, and therefore, impossible for them to do their best work. By taking detailed notes at all meetings — both major and minor — you set up the whole team for success and optimal workflow.”
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 are a few suggestions, ranging from mind-set to software, that you should consider at the beginning and address often.
Tackle the time-zone challenge.
I love telling people that I have coworkers all over the world, but that doesn’t mean the setup isn’t challenging sometimes. Time zones will prevent good communication unless you have a process to handle it.
Slack, one of the most important companies in the remote-work revolution, has a lot of tips to offer. When it comes to figuring out time zones, they recommend making the effort to find periods of time that work for everyone. But even with preparation, the occasional last-minute meetings can be difficult to make work. In that case, they recommend planning ahead:
“But in case of last-minute meetings, make sure everyone on the team has overlapping time blocks open. That way, if and when a meeting needs to happen, you can get everyone in the same (virtual) space, even if they’re thousands of miles apart.”
Slack also recommends a few tools that can help your team stay in sync:
- Every Time Zone lets you see what the current time is in different time zones.
- The World Clock Meeting Planner creates a table of suggested meeting times using your team’s different locations.
- Worldtimebuddy uses tables to display times in different locations you input.
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. Conducting great meetings is 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.
As a general rule, after 15 minutes, the average person’s mind is going to wander, which doesn’t help with setting focus.
But . . .
Even 15 minutes may be too long for smaller teams. Because of the mind-wandering effect, even for larger teams, 15 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. It’s a great piece of software, but it may not be the best way to communicate with your coworkers. Vox recently added research to this assertion, showing that employees at large companies are sending each other an average of 200 messages per week, and that although group chat is eating away at time spent on email, it hasn’t reduced time spent on communication.
Technology is helpful — to a point. Eventually, the productivity gains they offer will lead to a point of diminishing returns, and you’ll start working for the tools, instead of the other way around.
Group chat is the opposite of a standup meeting. Standups are quick and effective, whereas group chats tend to drag on for hours, meandering through different topics as people drop in and out. On the topic of Slack, Sarah Peck, founder of Startup Pregnant says, “If we don’t think critically about how we use the tools, we’re going to be the same exact people in a new place. We won’t be more or less efficient if we don’t think critically about our choices around how we behave with the tool.”
Instead, consider organizing your team’s workday 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.
It takes, on average, 25 minutes to regain focus, so every interruption incurs a productivity sacrifice. To reach their highest levels of productivity, creatives need to enter a “flow state.” When you’re “in the flow,” your concentration can become so focused that distractions disappear, time seems to slow down, and your creativity reaches new heights.
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 can be a great thing, according to business coach Caroline Castrillon, who argues that most successful entrepreneurs and CEOs are introverts.
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 that people attend. 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.
Empower your extroverted employees.
Empowering your more introverted employees shouldn’t mean assuming your extroverted employees are all set.
Remote work can be an isolating experience. Extroverts without stimulation might get distracted or find work less fulfilling if most of it involves sitting in front of a computer, quiet and alone. Once you do have a meeting, extroverts might overwhelm it, now that they have the time to speak.
Ensuring that your whole team is happy means ensuring that introverts and extroverts both receive the right kind of attention for them. Here are some ideas to engage your extroverted employees:
- Give them opportunities to mentor other employees. Giving your employees the chance to mentor others is a huge growth opportunity for the mentor and the mentee, as well as an engaging activity for an extrovert.
- Develop virtual team-building activities that encourage different employees to be involved and communicative.
- Offer a fund for coworking spaces so your employees can find the working environments that fit their styles.
Remote work offers the chance for you to enable your employees to shape their working spaces to their needs. There’s only so much you can do in an office, but well-planned remote work policies can get everyone engaged in the ways that suit them best.
Embrace Asynchronous Communication
A remote standup doesn’t mean that your team communicates for just 10 minutes each week and that 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 encourages your employees to be more self-sufficient. When people can’t tap a coworker 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.
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.
In a Zapier post, Conrado Lamas, CMO at Carts Guru says:
“Work is infinite. There is always something to be solved–and when you have an office routine, it’s easier to leave what you do at the workplace. When you work from home, your office is where you live. So I’m constantly closing small pending tasks late at night before I go to bed or early in the morning, when I really wanted to be reading the news.“
Finding equilibrium when work is always only a tap away can be difficult. A commitment to asynchronous communication is a signal that your company is more interested in good work than hours worked. The more asynchronous your company is, the less your employees will need to feel tuned in.
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 Tettra. 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 flowcharts 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.
Any 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?” Team members respond with the tasks they accomplished or the projects they made headway on. iDoneThis collects all of 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.
8 Keys To Running a Successful Remote Meeting
Get all of the details to running a successful remote meeting from Hubstaff’s in-depth infographic.
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.