Maybe you call it a daily standup. Maybe it’s a daily huddle, or even a status meeting. But has your team stopped to ask if these daily meetings are really working for them?
Today’s episode digs into the benefits and pitfalls of the standup – from aligning with your team, to leading with empathy, to meetings that really could have been an email.
You’ll hear from Marshall Walker Lee in defense of daily standups, with support from Matan Talmi, the co-founder of Spinach.io, and Kate Sullivan, head of legal at EasyJet. New debater David Shaw says ditch the synced meetup, with support from corporate humor comedian and Supermeme.ai co-founder, Sanjeev Yencee.
Christine: Marshall, David. Hello!
David: Hello, Christine.
Christine: David, I see you’re literally standing up for this recording. Very meta.
David: Well, Christine, it seemed like the right thing to do.
Marshall: Uh, anybody else feel like I'm already winning this debate?
Christine: Y'all, welcome to Work check, an original podcast from Atlassian where we debate whether today's workplace practices are still working for us. I'm your host and judge, Christine Dela Rosa. And I like my standups like I like my family gossip: Keep it on a need to know basis, please.
Christine: Which brings me to today's debate, should remote teams ditch the daily standup meeting? Today's debaters are Atlassians Marshall Walker Lee and David Shaw. So good to see you both. Thanks for joining.
Marshall: Always delighted to be here.
David: Happy to be here too.
Christine: Alright, before we dive in let’s define terms. A quote unquote “daily standup” is a group huddle. It’s often held in the morning, where teams get together to share progress and get aligned. They’re called standups because, you guessed it, everyone is supposed to stand, to keep the meeting short – 15 minutes or less. While the daily standup is originally a ceremony within Agile teams, today we’re talking about any team that uses a standup practice.
Many teams use three questions to run their standups. Pop quiz! Marshall, David – what are those three questions?
David: Oooh ooh, pick me Christine! I know this, I've got this.
David: I think the questions are: what have you done since we last met? What are you gonna do until our next meeting? And what, if anything, are you blocked by?
Marshall: Check, check, check.
Christine: Since, David, you're the one to respond, you get five Christine Points!
Marshall: My Christine Points Bank is dreadfully low.
Christine: I mean, I also keep an invisible leaderboard, but neither here nor there. All right, so David, welcome officially to the Work Check debate stage.
David: Thank you, Christine, I’m excited to be here – not just because this recording is getting me out of my team’s daily standup meeting, which is happening as we speak.
Christine: A nice little clue there about why you might be arguing we should ditch the daily standup. Tell us: What's your personal connection to this topic?
David: So I've been doing daily standups for about eight years now continuously. And in the beginning, I was actually a big fan. I found in-person standups very energizing. We’d start the day with it, tossing a ball around to decide who goes next, and left us feeling like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s get into the day.”
David: But when we shifted to a remote or hybrid model, standups went from being an energy boost to an energy drain. They happen later in the day, everyone is on camera so they’re usually sitting, and it’s really easy to be distracted and for the standup to drag on. It’s literally an example of a meeting that could have been an email.
Christine: Okay, coming out swinging, I like it. Marshall, you are arguing why we should keep the daily standup practice. What's your experience here?
Marshall: Yeah, so I wanna start off with some context setting. I am not an expert in Agile, but I have worked on Agile teams off and on for more than a decade as a team member, as a team leader, and occasionally as a not particularly effective Scrum master.
In all of these years, I have almost always worked on teams with at least one remote member. And I have seen a tonne of value coming from the daily standups. Maybe it’s not as energizing as the ball tossing David described – that can really only happen in person. But even in a remote and hybrid environment, I think it’s extraordinarily valuable to break up your work into weekly or daily chunks, and be able to articulate your goals to your team and have your team hold you responsible. This not only keeps you aligned but it fosters understanding. You really get a sense of your teammates day-to-day work experience, and can help and support each other more effectively. So I’m happy to be arguing in favor of all standups.
Christine: All right. I, of course, have my own experiences of standups, but I'm here to just listen to the two of you, your guests, and the arguments that you're making. At the end, I'll declare who has moved me over to your side. And with that, let’s get into the debate. David, please start us off.
David: Thank you, Christine. So one of my big problems with the daily standup today is that it's just inefficient.
For one, it’s an interruption. It used to be that the standup was first thing in the morning. We’d all start our day with this energizing meeting then be left to our work for the rest of the day. Now, with remote work, we’re spread out geographically over many different time zones. So finding a time that suits everyone is a lot harder. It’s no longer first thing in the morning, it’s a few hours into the day. Can’t start something big or complex that’s gonna require deep thought, because I know that in a half an hour or an hour, the standup will come to interrupt me.
And context switching from work to meeting-mode has some big productivity costs. A joint report from Cornell University and Qatalog from 2021 found that on average, it takes almost 10 minutes to get back into a workflow after context-switching. That can really add up.
Christine: Hmm. Interesting. David, I did my very best not to interrupt you cause I did not want to be an example of what it was like to have to context-switch to my questions. But now that I have the floor, I do have a question. Do you think the standup is any more of an interruption than any other meeting?
David: That’s a good question, Christine. I think the key word here is “daily.” No other meeting on my calendar asks that I interrupt my work flow every single day. So I think it’s more efficient on the whole if we skip the daily standup and only meet on a case-by-case basis.
Christine: Yeah, I can understand that feeling of interruption, especially if your work needs a lot of deep focus time. But I also think that remote teams specifically have more flexibility now than they ever have before. So I wonder if they can just design around the standup? Marshall, what do you think?
Marshall: So I completely agree that the standup meeting, like any meeting, can be an interruption. But if we’re going to start triaging meetings from the schedule, this would not be the first one I would kill. I think that standups, again done well, can lead to way more efficiency for teams. The purpose of the standup is to bring the team together, to share development surface blockers, to move the work forward. This is a critical meeting when it’s done well, and I think that our calendars, or at least mine, are cluttered with meetings that are significantly less critical than the daily standup. So if we're worried about being interrupted and we're working on a team with a fairly heavy meeting load, I think we can start somewhere else when we're pruning.
I would also suggest that a good daily standup actually removes the need to have a lot of ad hoc, case-by-case check-ins. Or even worse, in my opinion, a bunch of Slack messages that turn into long threads that you end up checking in on throughout the day, and maybe responding to a dozen times, instead of sharing once for a couple of minutes in the morning or the afternoon.
David: Look, I take your point about Slack threads. Completely agree. More generally though, I think it’s way more efficient to have the odd ad hoc meeting to talk through a blocker in the moment, rather than waiting til the next day to tell my team I’ve been stuck for a whole day.
Marshall: Well, I can see how that's true, but the purpose of the standup is large scale alignment across the whole team. And actually, I think if you encourage people to call a meeting anytime they're experiencing a blocker in the moment, you might end up having a lot more distractions, and a lot more context switching than you would if you simply held the standup every day at the same time.
This type of coordination eats a lot of our time – according to data from Asana from 2022, remote or hybrid employees are spending 58% of their time on work coordination, rather than the actual skilled work that they get hired to do. So a standup is really just a 15-minute meeting once a day to get most of that coordination done.
And this is a good opportunity to introduce my first guest. Matan Talmi is a co-founder and CEO of Spinach.io. His company helps development teams run more effective dev cycles, starting with the daily standup.
Matan: The daily standup is kind of like this metronome, or you know, the drum beat on the dragon boat that keeps everyone synced up and helps row together, towards a common goal. In my experience, daily standups done right can be a very impactful tool, to get the team rowing together towards that goal. Those 15 or 30 minutes could be the best ROI you can get on meeting time. The reason today teams spend so much time on the coordination is because it's critical. It's very important. And the daily standup is a quick and effective way to get that alignment, without investing too much time.
Marshall: So I'm not endorsing the idea of a 30-minute standup, but I do love this idea that a standup is a way to get the pulse, the heartbeat of your team. It can feel pretty challenging to get a measure of how the team is really feeling about the work, feeling about the way that they're collaborating, and daily standups are a great, relatively low-stakes way of doing this. You get to see and feel and hear the team culture, the teamwork practices coming to life every day.
Christine: I really resonate with this Marshall, and three Christine Points for your guest’s dragon boat reference. I do not think you knew this about me, but I used to compete on a dragon boat team so that metaphor really lands for me.
Marshall: Oh we’ll have to talk offline.
David: Lucky guess, Marshall.
Christine: I like thinking of standups as an opportunity to do a vibe check on the team. So not just having alignment on goals, but making sure everyone is feeling aligned every day. And David, for those who don’t have wall-to-wall meetings everyday, I can sympathize with the idea that a daily standup, when not everyone is in the same 9 to 5 schedule anymore, can totally be disruptive.
David: Yeah, I’ll add to that. Marshall, I love this picture you’re painting of a daily standup where we’re reflecting our team culture and getting aligned. But in my experience, since daily standups have become remote, it’s harder to do this and they’ve become a lot more performative. We seem to be going through a set of meaningless updates just to fill the airtime. We've evolved into giving longer updates, you know, perhaps driven by the need to, to match the person who went before us.
I recall working on a tricky bug for, you know, it literally took me two and a half days to figure out where the problem was. So my update for two days was, I'm still working on bug X, but the person before me had spoken for two minutes so I thought, well, I should speak for two minutes. You’re performing productivity, or even worse – competing with your team to see who has been the most productive.
David: And it turns out, I’m not the only person who feels this way – remote stand ups are so performative, they’ve inspired satire. Now’s a good time to bring in my guest, Sanjeev Yencee. He is a product manager and co-founder of Supermeme.ai, who makes corporate humor videos – calling out all kinds of performative behavior in standups.
David: Here's a clip of the stand up personality he calls the “Busy Looker”:
Sanjeev Yencee: Okay. Uh, so, uh, can I go first? I have a meeting coming up next. Okay, thanks. So my update is that I have a meeting coming up next.
David: There's the “Lister.”
Sanjeev Yencee: Okay, here are my updates. So I, I sent that email, uh, I finished that deck. Thank you. Uh, and, uh, I sent one more email and I updated the color and the font, uh, on the document. So that's two updates. And I sent one more email. Wait, I'm, I'm not done yet!
David: And then there's the “Always Blocked.”
Sanjeev Yencee: Okay. So I'm, I'm waiting for a customer to get back to me, so I'm blocked on that one. And, uh, the vendor was supposed to send a code. Uh, I haven't received that yet, so I'm, I'm blocked on that. And I'm blocked on this other thing because I haven't started working on it yet, so I'm kind of blocking myself. So, so, yeah, that's, that's my update.
Christine: These are too real David.
Marshall: Real power move, bringing a comedian to the debate.
David: Yes. So I think we've all heard updates similar to that, that Sanjeev's making excellent fun of there. So we got in touch with Sanjeev to ask why he thinks standups have become so performative.
Sanjeev Yencee: So in an asynchronous standup, I'm a lot more comfortable just typing out and saying, “You know what? Today's a light day. Just like a couple of emails,” and things like that. But in a synchronous standup, it becomes very hard to put that out there because when you hear yourself saying, it sounds like you're not working on anything, you're kind of whiling away time. So you tend to come up with things, maybe things that you've worked on before, maybe things that, you know, don't take a lot of time, but you're trying to stretch it out to make it look like it's a lot of work.
David: And for that reason, Sanjeev prefers the asynchronous standup.
Sanjeev Yencee: Whereas if it's an email or if it's a chat message, you get time to think. You can really, like, dig deeper and formulate a more accurate response, which is a lot more efficient from a consumer standpoint.
David: Yeah, so I think Sanjeev's sort of given us some examples of where standups can go wrong. And now that we're doing it remote, we seem to have lost that capability to be just naturally ourselves and just do what we need to do. Like when we were all standing in the circle, it was much more honest and genuine. Now that we've removed that from the situation and you're just staring at a screen, it's lost a bit of its magic, and I haven't been able to get it back in my team.
Christine: I mean, regardless of the outcome of this debate, I'm sorry to hear that, first of all, David.
David: I know, it’s crushing.
Christine: Ok but Marshall, I know that you specifically have been on many teams with many different standup practices. So have you seen that kind of performativity?
Marshall: Ok, so I have been on some teams in the distant past that developed some bad standup habits - for instance, performing busyness in the standup. But in retrospect, I actually think that that was valuable. Because daily standups can act as a kind of canary in the coal mine for helping us understand our work culture and whether or not we’re aligning with our values. If you are showing up to standup and just performing busyness, this is a red flag. This might be a sign that you have a more significant problem affecting your team’s entire Agile practices ecosystem.
Marshall: Yeah, and it’s the job of the Scrum master, and honestly of every single person on the team, to squash this mentality – to make sure that we’re not just showing up and performing busyness. We need to come to standup with honesty and vulnerability. We’re here to foster psychological safety for our teammates, otherwise, it’s not just our standup but it’s all of our work that’s at risk.
David: Well, I, I feel like I have to address Marshall's big red flashing alarm that perhaps my team has bigger problems. I’m certainly confident in saying that my team is performing very well outside of the standup, so I don't think in this particular instance it's a sign of bigger problems that we need to address. We could just do it asynchronously and get the same sort of value now. And we've really struggled to get that value we used to get when we did them in person.
Marshall: Yeah, I'm curious, David. I feel like in my experience, the async standups, which, you know, for listeners who aren't familiar with this practice, probably looks something like everybody contributing a couple of lines of text to Slack – those tend to exacerbate the worst qualities of a standup. You're not in any way obliged to read other people's standup check-ins, maybe it comes in at a time that you don't even notice, and by the time you get back to the Slack channel, it's buried under 50 other messages. I actually think good standups do a lot more than provide updates. In fact, they're a great way to level the playing field between managers and individual contributors, between team members at different levels of seniority.
Everybody should be showing up to standup with as much vulnerability and honesty as they can muster. And when leaders are forced to participate and make their own work visible, it encourages a tremendous amount of psychological safety and a feeling of connectedness amongst the team members. And you know, this is a great time to introduce my second guest, Kate Sullivan. She's the head of legal at EasyJet in the UK and she's been using Agile and standups for over a decade with legal teams.
Kate Sullivan: A great thing to bring to this whole process is a bit of vulnerability, especially if you are the senior person in a senior position and being able to openly say at a standup, “I said I was gonna do this yesterday, but actually I didn't, my whole week's been messed up. It'd be good if I planned for this a little bit better next week.” It gives permission for the rest of your team to be able to do that as well.
Marshall: Yeah and asynchronous standups don’t let you have that connection, and they definitely don’t let you have the vulnerability that Kate appreciates about the synced standups.
Kate Sullivan: We experimented with having a daily document that would basically run like the conversation of a standup. Um, that was a dreadful idea. We all hated it. It was extra admin and a pain in the butt. And also, it didn't go at all with the key tenets of the Agile manifesto, which is valuing people and relationships and interactions over documents. So that was a terrible idea.
Marshall: Yeah, so the daily standup atomizes a lot of the critical challenges that all teams face. We need to be able to work closely together in a high trust environment and still perform at a very high level. And the standup is a chance to come together to get a little bit better at doing all of that every single day.
David: Yeah. And look, I definitely agree, particularly as a senior engineer, that you've gotta be prepared to put your hand up when you've made a mistake or you're underprepared so that juniors can learn, “Oh, actually, hey, that's okay to do that.” But I feel that the standup setting doesn't necessarily encourage that or make that possible, because you are there to report progress. And if you haven't got any, or you’ve made a mistake, it can be really hard to do that.
Marshall: Hmm. Yeah, that's a really interesting point of view. I don't know that I would describe the purpose of the standup as reporting progress. I think of the standup as an opportunity every day to make sure, number one, that we're all rowing in the same direction, to give people a chance to pause and inspect what they've been planning to accomplish and what they think they're actually going to be able to accomplish. And then, as a senior person, as a lead, to give myself an opportunity to remove any blockers that get brought to the surface.
Christine: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about standups as a tool for developing new team members, but that totally makes sense. And with that, it is time to move on to our final thoughts. Marshall, why don't you start us off?
Marshall: Okay, so as somebody who is just sort of constitutionally opposed to dogmatic thinking, I think there are a lot of opportunities to bring an Agile mindset to the way that we do our standups, and maybe to expand the possibilities of what a standup can be. I'll give you just a couple examples. I've been on teams where we did our daily standup first thing in the morning, which is very traditional. I've been on other teams where we did our daily standup at the end of the day, because it was the best thing for the team. So there's a lot of ways that we can evolve the standup to meet the needs of hybrid and remote teams. But I think we're making a big mistake if we throw the baby out with the bathwater here and say that, you know, the way that standups were originally designed to be run, the traditional way of doing it, isn't a great fit for this new way of working, so we're just gonna stop altogether.
Christine: No, that's a great point. But I guess the question is, can we evolve the practice to make it valuable enough to keep it on the calendar every day?
Christine: David, what do you think? Is evolving it a lost cause? What are your last thoughts?
David: Look, I completely agree with Marshall's point, that if something's not working, we need to evolve it rather than just throw it away. I guess my point is, you know, we've had two and a half years now of remote standups and we've been trying different things to make it better, to work on it. And so far, we haven't succeeded. It's not to say we won't, but I feel like we've had a long time to try and address these issues. I think there's some things that are very hard to overcome. I think the in-person communication where we can pick up on all those subtle body language signals and all of that, it's just harder over Zoom. But I think I'm at the point where I think after all this time, if we haven't figured it out, it's quite possible that remote standups are not working simply because we cannot overcome the difficulties of that format. And maybe we need something else.
Christine: This has been a really tough deliberation because it comes down to how you run our standups. And I am hearing from you loud and clear, David – we need to keep working on how standups are run. But ultimately, I think that if we're looking at the purpose of the daily standup, it’s to get aligned. And for that reason, I think we still need a synchronous standup and I don’t think the asynchronous version does the same thing. So for those reasons, Marshall, you are the winner of today's debate!
Marshall: Alright, I’m doing it, Christine, I’m standing up!
David: Well played.
Christine: Ah, still very polite.
David: I'm furious on the inside.
Christine: For anyone else that wants to dig into the details of this episode, you can see the transcript and more at atlassian.com/blog. And until next time, I'm Christine Dela Rosa and this is Work Check, an original podcast from Atlassian.