The Recipe for a Successful Virtual Standup

By: Laurel Farrer

The principles of Agile Development that started in the land of software companies are starting to leak into the rest of the remote work world. Even though I’ve never been a coder (nor anything close to it), I’ve participated in daily scrum-style standups in three of my previous jobs during which each team member reported on (1) what we accomplished yesterday, (2) what we plan to accomplish today, and (3) any potential blocks that might prevent us from meeting our goals. After these experiences I have to testify: the agile methodology is not one size fits all!

Even though the concept, rituals, and framework were exactly the same for all three teams, my experiences couldn’t have been more different. In one role, I was eager (dare I say, “giddy”) to report and communicate with my team. Another was so deeply frustrating that I would feel physically ill when I called in, and one of my colleague’s confidence and self-worth dropped so low that she started seeing a therapist after quitting that job. (True story!)

I’ve studied and analyzed these experiences at length. If all three meetings were using the same agenda, the same time limit, and the same prompts, what made one so empowering while the other was so demeaning? I didn’t find the answer until I came to Yonder and was discussing the topic with Jeff Robbins. He explained the answer was simple: standups are designed for tactical work, not strategic work. Talk about an epiphany! The team with the horrible standups had been in the early stages of a startup, so most of our goals and conversations were strategic. It was the wrong tool for the job. My manager was trying to scoop water with a slotted spoon!

In case you haven’t visited our Remote Work Glossary lately, the difference between the two work types is that tactical work requires “heads down” responsibilities on small-scale tasks, while strategic work requires “big picture” planning, problem-solving, and decision-making.

Here at Yonder, we are swimming in strategic work: article writing, podcast interviews, and roundtable discussions galore. However, we still participate in standups. “Hold your horses!” you say. “Doesn’t that just contradict everything you’ve just said?” No, and here’s why. The key to a successful standup isn’t just the type of work you’re doing, it’s the type of communication you’re using.

Here’s how we make it work. Our goals are strategic, but we are able to dissect our work into tactical tasks so that we can communicate effectively and work efficiently. For example, writing an article about whether or not your employees trust you is obviously strategic, but we break that goal down into tasks that are easily measurable and replicable, just like we were writing code. This means if you’re a strategy-based company, you don’t have to miss out on the agile methodology. You simply need to dissect your work into smaller portions that are more compatible with reporting.

Additionally, we have different calls each week that are “sync” calls to develop our strategic side and talk about big-picture goals, concerns, temperatures, and successes. These calls are not conducted in a reporting format - they’re roundtables where we talk openly and transparently.  

How can you utilize the awesomeness of agile in your distributed team? Whether your group’s work is tactical or strategic, here is what it takes to rock a virtual standup:

  • Keep it short. The idea here is to check in regularly and keep up communication. The faster we can make this meeting, the less it will impact people’s “flow” and the less disruptive it will be to people’s work.
  • Separate tactical and strategic discussions. Check-ins are for checking in about tactical work and definable tasks. What did you get done? What are you doing? What are you going to do? If longer, more strategic discussions (who, when, where, and particularly why) need to happen, save them to the end of the call - or for monthly meetings and team strategy sessions.
  • Watch your language. Keep things positive during the conversation. Celebrate accomplishments, admire goals, and focus on solving problems. Do not reprimand, insult, or be sarcastic about blocks or failures. Keep your team’s time and attention focused on their work, not licking their wounds.
  • Act quickly. If a team member is expressing concern about a block, try to solve it together as a team right then and there. If more time and attention is needed to resolve the issue, postpone to the end of the call (allowing others to drop off), schedule another 1-on-1 call before the next standup, and/or talk about it as a team during a strategic conversation.

What do you think makes a successful virtual meeting? Tweet us @yonder_io with your favorite tips!

Laurel Farrer is the COO here at Yonder. She always has a notebook and pen within arm's reach, never sits with both feet on the floor, and drives (safely) without depth perception.