Asynchronous daily standups (how it works)

I’ve been working remotely for almost a decade and I’ve had my fair share of daily standups take place. If you’re unfamiliar with how a daily standup works, you should read this article.

The long story short is that a daily standup was introduced as one of four scrum ceremonies (weekly retrospective, daily standup, sprint planning meeting, and the sprint review meeting). T.hese ceremonies exist to keep projects on track.

How a daily standup is supposed to work

In an ideal world, a daily standup consists of the following questions, with a team size of no more than eight people, and lasts a maximum of fifteen minutes:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • Any blockers?

I’ve found this cadence to be very helpful, but unfortunately there’s a lot that can go wrong.

How a daily standup actually works

 I’ve seen daily standups drag on for far too long, with 1-1 conversations happening while everyone else waits. Yes, the meeting is only supposed to happen for a short period of time, but this is oftentimes untrue for even the most disciplined teams. This is easily the most expensive of the scrum ceremonies, as they happen every single day.

So much fun….

As a remote employee, I’ve seen times when a coworker joins a daily standup meeting at 8pm, due to timezone differences. This didn’t seem like a great idea.

I’ve also experienced standups where people would dive into WAY too much detail about a particular challenge they were working on solving. 

I’ve also heard from coworkers who intentionally avoid working on tough engineering challenges because of the context switching that needs to happen. “I save all my tough engineering challenges until after the standup is done.”

Finally, there are times when five minutes after conducting a standup meeting, someone who didn’t attend the meeting asks, “what is everyone working on today?” If this doesn’t drive you nuts, I don’t know what will.

Benefits of asynchronous standup meetings

In the next part of this article, I’m going to try to convince you why asynchronous standups are a great solution to solve many of the problems mentioned above, especially for remote teams. With that being said, this process will introduce a couple of challenges you should be aware of and navigate around.

Easier for distributed teams

A key advantage to a remote workforce is the ability to work when it makes the most sense for you (within reason). For example, I enjoy getting started working early in the morning, while that may not be true for someone else. For remote teams, a key advantage is the flexibility of schedules. I’d argue that a daily standup meeting at a particular time (every single workday) is not playing to the strengths of a remote-friendly team.

Ability to reference

Next up, a daily standup that is documented is something that can be referenced by others, which prevents the question, “what are people working on?” If the standup is conducted asynchronously, it helps improve ambient awareness, especially if it’s conducted over Slack.

Time savings

I don’t want to make everything about saving time, but asnyc standups are much more efficient from a time savings perspective, especially if you consider context switching costs. A fifteen-minute meeting is NOT just a fifteen-minute meeting. You can read why here.

Better data

When people have time to think and compose a written message, the response will be better than what they might say when put on the spot in front of a bunch of people. There is a social aspect to a standup which is helpful, but if you want the best summary of what people are doing, we strongly recommend giving people some time to compose a clear message.

Now that we’ve talked about the benefits, let’s talk about the downsides of this approach.

Downsides

There’s a few downsides you should be aware of when conducting asynchronous standups.

Lag

The first downside is that there’s lag, especially when others are a blocker. For example, let’s say I complete the standup and @Bob is a blocker; it may take him some time to read and respond. If you’d like to prevent this, we recommend sending the daily standup reminder message around the same time. Try to encourage people to answer around the same time to prevent issues like this from occuring.

Missing the human element

Synchronous daily standups have a human element that is difficult to compete with. In a remote team, a daily standup may be your only interaction with other coworkers all-day long. This is definitely a legitimate concern, which is why we recommend investing in your company culture…but we aren’t convinced this is the primary “job” of a daily standup meeting.

Need to ensure participation

You may need to remind people to complete their standup. We recommend making responding on a daily basis a key part of one’s job responsibility. This is not an optional exercise, this is mandatory. If your team wants the convenience to complete these when they want, they need to participate. 

Wrapping up – tradeoffs

In conclusion, we strongly encourage that you give these a try. Don’t discount this method unless you’ve tried it – I’m looking at you, religious scrum master 😉



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