COVID-19 has accelerated the trend towards remote workforces, with companies small and large finding that workers can be just as effective without sharing an office. Still, collaboration can present a challenge, and not everything can be efficiently communicated via email or messenger tools. To compound the challenge, research suggests that long virtual meetings can exacerbate stress and reduce productivity at higher rates than in-person meetings.
Fortunately, Agile practices such as daily standups can be just as effective for a remote workforce as they are for in-person teams. A42 Labs has operated with a remote team since its inception, and here are some tips that we’ve come across to make sure that our team is on the same page, with as few interruptions as possible.
The Value of the 15-Minute Meeting
A standup is a quick daily meeting in which project team members provide updates on completed tasks and in-progress tasks, and identify any blocks to productivity. The goals are to keep team communication flowing, make sure everyone is aware of what is going on across the team, and identify challenges as quickly as possible.
Brevity is key to an effective standup: meetings should be 15 minutes or less, and be task-orientated. When problems are identified, they can be taken to smaller follow-up discussions afterward among the key stakeholders. Standups also aren’t the place to make major product decisions or perform significant troubleshooting.
So how does an organization make sure that a standup stays on track and keeps its focus? The key ingredients are time discipline and effective facilitation. The team should have a clear agenda entering into the standup, with each member receiving no more than two minutes to answer the agenda questions. If your team has more than eight people, break into sub-groups to stay at or below the 15-minute time limit. You may also need to split the group to best accommodate schedules if your team is scattered across multiple time zones.
Staying on Track
Since time is of the essence, the meeting agenda can (and should) remain simple.
It’s helpful to introduce some gentle nudges to instill that sense of time discipline in your team. When first implementing standups, use a timer to make sure that participants get used to the constraints. Audio cues like tones or songs can be a great way to delineate the beginning and end of the meeting. In addition, a shared Kanban board can help people stay on track.
It’s also useful to incentivize timeliness among your team: Standups are commonly performed in a round-robin style, with the last person to attend being the first one to report. The current speaker decides who goes next, until all attendees have spoken. If a speaker goes over their allotted time, or veers off-topic, the facilitator should offer to discuss the issue after the standup meeting.
Don’t be Rigid: Modifying Standups to Serve Your Teams
At A42 Labs, we have two different standups. We have an office-level daily standup each morning, followed by project-level standups. Since team members are usually working on different projects, the office-level standup has a slightly different scope than ones where the team is collaborating on a project.
During the office-level standup, each team member answers the following questions:
- What are you working on today?
- Have you come across anything interesting to share?
- Do you need help from anyone in the broader team (outside of project-specific needs)?
Our project-level standups vary depending on the project. These are much more specific to the project tasks at hand and should have a more traditional format, where team members answer the three most common daily standup questions:
- What have you accomplished?
- What are you working on?
- Are there any blockers or obstacles in your way?
Since our teams are remote, we ask the project manager to share the online task/Trello board during our virtual project-level standups. We can then ensure that each team member has at least one task card in the “Doing” list/column.
A42 Labs developed this approach through a process of trial and error, working out a system that best addressed the needs of a remote data science team. This speaks to one of the most important principles: don’t be too rigid! If you’re working with a new team, you may begin implementing your standup in a traditional way to see how team members interact with each other. But no matter the situation, you should consistently survey and listen to your team’s needs and challenges, and change the format accordingly.
Not all standups should be facilitated and set up in the same way across different types of projects and organizations. Every team of individuals works differently, and as A42 Labs has found, what works for product development may not be as effective for a team working on separate data science projects. To make standups most effective, you need to customize the approach according to your team, rather than imposing strict rules.
If your organization is looking for assistance with its data science projects or approaches, contact us at email@example.com to learn about how our team can help.
This blog has been edited by Paul Davis