Daily Meetings with Remote Teams (Stand-ups Don’t Work, But Daily Cafes Do)

Standup meetings often don’t work on remote teams because of different time zones and the diversity of work. The daily cafe is a better meeting place, intended to address culture and complex conversations.

Compared to collocated teams, work-life on remote teams can be a challenge. People working on distributed teams need different ways of informing each other, different ways of making decisions, and different ways of staying connected.

For many collocated software development teams, a standard practice is the daily scrum (or daily stand-up meeting). It is a brief team meeting intended for the entire team to stay up-to-date and to quickly resolve bottlenecks, usually guided by three standard questions:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • What is blocking your progress?

The Problems with Remote Stand-up Meetings

Some experience reports suggest that the daily standup doesn’t work well with distributed teams. In many remote teams, the nature of the work is more diverse, and the team is more loosely coupled than in collocated software development teams. This generates annoyance and impatience with the three standard questions. Why should the social media marketer tell the back-end developer, in a face-to-face meeting, which email campaign she was working on yesterday? And why would we assume that the user experience designer can help with the technical problems that are reported by the app developer?

Why should the social media marketer tell the back-end developer, in a face-to-face meeting, which email campaign she was working on yesterday?

Another problem with daily stand-up meetings is the mandatory synchronization of verbal status updates. Most remote teams are distributed across multiple time zones. Maybe it makes sense for someone to report their status to team members at 9:00 am in New York. But for someone in India, the question “What will you do today” is quite useless at 6:30 pm.

For someone in India, the question “What will you do today” is quite useless at 6:30 pm.

Quite often, remote teams consider daily stand-ups a waste of their time. Peer-to-peer status updates are interesting and relevant, but people on distributed teams have recognized that asynchronous messages can work as a fine replacement. Slack bots and other specialized tools ask team members to inform their peers about their work-in-progress, at a time that makes sense in their own time zones, and this seems to work just as well and costs people much less time.

However, because of the switch to asynchronous status updates, many distributed teams have ditched their daily meetings entirely, reserving their face-to-face discussions instead for weekly meetings. But that’s a typical case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The Benefits of Remote Daily Cafes

People seem to forget that get-togethers are not only about information exchanges. Regular meetings are also about the social and complex aspects of team performance. With a remote team, the primary focus of daily meetings could be building relationships, straightening out the hard issues, and growing a great team culture. A daily face-to-face chat about two or three complex issues is an excellent way to bring a team closer together. Isn’t that why, in all cultures around the world, people enjoy having a coffee or tea together? Isn’t that why friends, acquaintances, and business partners meet in cafes?

Isn’t that why, in all cultures around the world, people enjoy having a coffee or tea together?

Some people would say that complex topics can be addressed spontaneously, in on-demand meetings. They would say there is usually no need to schedule a daily cafe with friends. And I would answer that this is true, when it involves just two or three people and when any of them can easily text each other and say, “Hey, are you available today for a quick call or coffee?” But try to organize spontaneous meetings with a group of four people or more and you’re facing scheduling issues, calendar clashes, meeting overruns, and a huge loss of productivity.

It’s much easier to have a dedicated, “daily cafe” time slot reserved for “anything that comes up”. Once you have this, you will notice that team members will schedule fewer chats for three or four people because it’s easier to bring up an issue in the next daily cafe. Teammates can still choose not to attend this daily meeting if they prefer to focus on a critical issue instead. The daily cafe functions as an option to socialize and talk about things that matter, and as a hint not to postpone such conversations for more than 24 hours.

It’s much easier to have a dedicated, “daily cafe” time slot reserved for “anything that comes up”.

The Daily Cafe at Agility Scales

On our team, the daily cafe is a chat about things that are best discussed face-to-face, briefly, between three or more people. We’ve decided to organize it at 18:00 (6 pm) CET which means that, for most of us, it kind of wraps up the day. Personally, I like that better than morning calls because any issue that comes up during the day can still be discussed the very same day.

The daily cafes are very informal. Some of us like to join our daily cafe with a warm or cold drink in hand, a spouse in the background, or a cat or a baby on their lap. It’s even possible that someone is having dinner, as I once had when I was in transit at an airport.

We follow a standard guide (available in our Mind Settlers app) which helps us to keep our meetings smooth and brief. The static version of the guide is available here: Run a Daily Cafe with a Remote Team.

Here are five things we learned from meeting at daily cafes for three months:

  1. Our guide specifically starts with a mandatory five-minute chit-chat because, as highly motivated and productive professionals, we noticed that we had the tendency to immediately start discussing the important and complex topics. But we needed to remind ourselves that non-work-related conversations are important too.
  2. We don’t send out agendas. We create a list of topics on the spot, at the last responsible moment. It is very similar to the lean coffee format where participants offer topics for discussion, vote on them, set a timebox, and then work their way down the list.
  3. There are usually 3 or 4 topics suggested for discussion, which take about 10 to 20 minutes to discuss in total. Anything big is delegated to fewer people in separate calls, whenever necessary. It’s not uncommon for a team member to say to another, “OK, let’s hang around after the call to discuss the details.” We are all conscious of not wasting everyone else’s time.
  4. We developed the ritual of rating every meeting at the end because we want to keep our daily cafes effective. A low score from any team member will immediately lead to the awareness that there might be something we could improve.
  5. Finally, we find it useful to write down any action items explicitly. The act of writing them and then posting them on Slack seems to be sufficient as a reminder and to get team members to commit and get those things done.

Conclusion

For our team, daily cafes work much better than stand-up meetings. We don’t see the point of only telling each other, “This is what I did yesterday and this is what I will be doing today.” We do that on Slack. We prefer discussing things such as how do we iteratively evolve our business strategy, what are the main insights from our alpha testers, and which team members will attend a workshop? It’s like a small lean coffee every day.

For our team, daily cafes work much better than stand-up meetings.

It is true that the whole team has to keep the time slot for the daily cafe free, as much as they can, which can be annoying in the beginning. But once you get used to it, it’s much more preferable than any on-demand scheduling of remote calls. And that also makes the daily cafe much more effective at addressing culture and complex conversations.

Also Read

This is the static version of a guide that is available for you in Mind Settlers, the app that will develop an agile mindset with dynamic, evolving practices for coaches, consultants and agile teams, in a playful, feedback-rich environment.