Remote Collaboration

Harriet Wilmott

Oct 6, 2022

Use standups to spark collaboration (instead of wasting your time)

Nothing is more frustrating than dropping out of your flow state and joining a 30-minute meeting just to give a status update.

We've all felt this way at one point

If the point of a standup was just to give a status update, most teams would do them async and standups wouldn’t be as ubiquitous as they are in the industry. The reason we can’t just get rid of standups is that, if they’re done right, they’re invaluable to engineering teams.

What does a good standup achieve? At the end of the day, it’s all about surfacing opportunities for the team to collaborate and solve problems together.

Things that happen in good standups:

  • Someone is working on a problem that someone else can help with, they notice and talk afterwards.

  • A project is taking longer than estimated, they flag it and the team talks about how to adjust the plan (change scope, get help, etc.)

  • Create better awareness on the team about what everyone is working on.

  • Regular team interaction, which leads to psychological safety and people asking for help more.

Why is it so hard to have a standup that sparks collaboration?

  • People don’t know how much or what detail to give in their status updates to help people realize when there’s an opportunity to help out. Not enough detail (e.g. “I’m working on X project”) is not enough for people to notice how they could help. Too much detail and people zone out and stop paying attention, and won’t notice how they could help.

  • People rarely think they’re blocked. Engineers are really creative and will keep thinking of new things to try, even when we could have used help days earlier.

  • People are uncomfortable asking for help, usually because we assume everyone is busy Doing Important Stuff and we’re the only ones who are lagging behind and we should really hide that fact so no one notices we don’t belong here 👀

  • Engineers are usually spending all of their mental capacity solving hard problems and become totally absorbed in their current problem, which means they forget about the estimated task timeline. It’s also easy to fall into the “this is the plan, so we’ll do it however long it takes” trap. Task timeline estimates are usually the last thing on someone’s mind in a standup.

How to solve these problems and foster more collaboration with standup

The good news is that these are solvable problems! The bad news is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for every engineering team, so you’ll have to experiment with your team to figure out what works for you. Start by aligning on the goals of the standup and take it from there. Check in periodically to see if your process is still working for you.

Here are some ideas to try:

Problem: People giving too much detail, making others lose focus

Solution: Try async updates via Slack. People are lazy and won’t type much, so you actually need to encourage giving more detail, but it’s unlikely you’ll have to tell people to spend less time on it. Or, if you still want to do synchronous updates, limit the time each person can talk in standups to 2 minutes.

Problem: People not giving enough detail to spark collaboration

Solution: Ask people to elaborate if their update is just “working on project X”. Ask them what’s the biggest challenge they’re tackling right now.

Problem: People don’t think they’re blocked

Solution: Don’t ask if they’re blocked, ask if they could use help (not if they need help).

Problem: People are uncomfortable asking for help

Solution: Normalize it by making it part of a daily practice, celebrate when people ask for help, and build psychological safety on your team by spending time together casually (e.g. coworking independently on your project in Remotion rooms).

Problem: Engineers always forget about task timelines because they’re so focused on the problem

Solution: Make it someone else’s responsibility to ask them regularly if the task is still on track (in a not-micromanagey way)

How we maximize collaboration in standups at Remotion

Here’s our daily standup agenda right now at Remotion (it’s a constantly evolving process):

Daily async updates in slack on a team basis (e.g. TypeScript engineers).

We have a Zapier bot post in the team channel:
Hey ts-devs! Let’s sync up in a thread:

  1. What did you do yesterday?

  2. What do you plan on doing today?

  3. What could you use help with?

  4. How are you feeling today?

The “how are you feeling today?” question is an opening for people to share a little bit about themselves, make the update more human and is also an early warning system for burnout on the team. If people start saying “Tired” a lot, something needs to change.

Synchronous team standup on Mondays

More detailed (but still less than 3 minutes per person) updates about what people are working on and if they could use help with anything.

Team-wide discussions about:

  1. What we’ll be doing that cycle or how things are going.

  2. Tricky architectural decisions.

  3. Upcoming projects and who will work on what.

Whoever is leading the meeting is in charge of asking people if their projects are still on track.

Good standups won’t solve all your problems - building a more collaborative team requires you to change your cultural norms

In my experience, the high value moments, when one engineer is talking about something they’re working on and another engineer realizes they can help, often happen in hallways or break rooms. It’s really hard to recreate those moments on a remote team, but here are the essential ingredients:

Psychological safety (people feel comfortable asking for help)

This is a whole thing. Read this, we like it.

Setting cultural expectations that people should ask for help and work together

Example: proactively encourage casual collaboration, jams, etc. in standup or other meetings.

Space to casually work independently in parallel (fosters spontaneous conversation AKA the secret sauce)

We create this space using coworking rooms in Remotion. We use these types of rooms:

  1. Company-wide rooms (e.g. Coworking Lounge) for people to work independently and unmute for casual chats.

  2. Team-specific rooms (e.g. TypeScript eng) for people to work independently and sometimes unmute to ask for help or chat.

  3. Project-specific rooms for people to pair and work closely together on the same project.

Over time, people will get to know each other better, have more casual conversations, and end up feeling more comfortable asking for help. You can set up these coworking rooms in Remotion for free.

Have feedback or other thoughts about standup? Let me know at harriet at remotion dot com or on twitter @remotionco.

Harriet Wilmott

Oct 6, 2022

Use standups to spark collaboration (instead of wasting your time)

Remote Collaboration

© remotion inc 2022

© remotion inc 2022