Provide Regular and Predictable Updates

12 minutes, 6 links

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Provide Regular and Predictable Updates

Common questions covered here
How often should you update your remote team?
How do remote teams stay up to date?
How often should remote companys have all-hands meetings?

Company leadership, departments, and teams can help the organization be better informed by publishing regular updates on the state of the organization.

Stand-Ups

Stand-up meetings (or stand-ups), are short meetings—typically no more than 15 minutes—with the purpose of keeping teams informed and unblocked. Stand-ups typically happen daily at the same time, and are supposed to be brief—deep discussions or follow ups are pushed to other meetings or asynchronous documentation options.*

Stand-up formats vary from company to company and even team to team, but there’s usually a predetermined list of questions that every member is expected to answer. For example, Attlassian uses these prompts to generate their stand-up structure:

  • What did I work on yesterday?

  • What am I working on today?

  • What issues are blocking me?

The purpose of stand-ups isn’t necessarily to have a space for individuals to share their status, but rather to build a shared understanding of the state of the team. By exposing everyone to the same information, every team member has the opportunity to highlight risks they may anticipate to the success of any project, and to open the space for others to provide support or additional information. Stand-ups were originally intended to be synchronous.

Jason Yi wrote about stand-ups as a mechanism to regularly synchronize so that teams:

  • Share understanding of goals. Even if we thought we understood each other at the start (which we probably didn’t), our understanding drifts, as does the context within which we’re operating. A “team” where each team member is working toward different goals tends to be ineffective.

  • Coordinate efforts. If the work doesn’t need to be coordinated, you don’t need a team. Conversely, if you have a team, I assume the work requires coordination. Poor coordination amongst team members tends to lead to poor outcomes.

  • Share problems and improvements. One of the primary benefits of a team versus working alone, is that team members can help each other when someone encounters a problem or discovers a better way of doing something. A “team” where team members are not comfortable sharing problems and/or do not help each other tends to be ineffective.

  • Identify as a team. It is very difficult to psychologically identify with a group if you don’t regularly engage with the group. You will not develop a strong sense of relatedness even if you believe them to be capable and pursuing the same goals.”

importantDistributed teams where all team members share a time zone overlap can choose to rely on daily stand-ups to converge on a shared understanding of the state of what they’re working on. If some team members are remote and others are located in an office, consider having everyone join the video call separately, regardless of location, so participation is even (being mindful of whether this isn’t disruptive to other people in the office).

Here’s a few tips for remote-team stand-ups:

  • Use video. It helps to not only have everyone join with their video on if possible, but to also use the “Brady Bunch” view that shows everyone on video as separate tiles, instead of one main video (whoever is currently speaking) as the main focus. This provides visibility for everyone, regardless of who is talking, and mimics an in-person stand-up more. Zoom provides this functionality, as do other conferencing platforms.

  • Use your documentation. Gathering “around” whatever you use to keep track of your team’s work—a kanban board or some form of project-management or tracking tool—keeps everyone on the same page and the meeting focused.

  • Experiment with asynchronous stand-ups. If you don’t have full time zone overlap for everyone on the team, all is not lost. You can use all the asynchronous tools that are hopefully already a part of your communication architecture, such as chat, a forum, or wiki. Team members can update their information there, knowing that everyone else is doing the same, and check in regularly so everyone remains on the same page.

cautionSince stand-ups were initially designed with synchronous communication in mind, some of their benefits may be lost by making them asynchronous, and you may want to explore different options to achieve similar outcomes. Asynchronous stand-ups require the commitment of all team members in posting updates to the team’s channel of choice consistently, reading everyone’s updates, and jumping in to offer support if a colleague identifies blockers. In particular, some pitfalls you may want to watch out for if you adopt asynchronous stand-ups are:

  • Inconsistent execution or review. Stand-ups work when everyone pays attention to one another’s written updates, and especially to the notes about things that are blocking them that require another person’s help. Asynchronous stand-ups may lead to different members paying different levels of attention to updates, especially if updates come at a different time each day due to time zone differences.

  • Obfuscating risk. If team members are used to using stand-ups as the only place to highlight risk or blockers, moving to asynchronous communication can mean that real risks get buried in written status updates when they could be called out via more synchronous mechanisms. This is a concern especially for more junior employees, who may be less comfortable switching to a chat or a call to raise something they are concerned about. (It helps to have established protocols for when and how to do this, so no one is confused or reticent about doing so.)

  • Lower psychological safety in open channels. While generally we advocate for keeping as much communication as transparent as possible, when using open channels (such as large group chats) for async team stand-ups, having executives or external team members witnessing updates may lead team members to shy away from sharing “bad news.” A private channel may work if you have concerns about people with authority impacting the content of these updates.

Overall, stand-ups can be a very helpful mechanism for keeping small, project-focused teams aligned, especially if the team has less experience working together. For a team that has set their default status to “on track,” stand-ups may become more of a distraction or time sink than a benefit. It’s up to each team to decide what’s most effective for them, and to always be open to iterating and changing based on feedback or new information.

Written Updates

The frequency of updates will depend on the size and stage of your company. If the company is very small, a weekly or bimonthly update might be enough. It can be sent via email, published to an internal wiki or forum, or both, depending on your company’s communication preferences.

importantThis kind of communication isn’t intended to be a detailed status update. In an organization that assumes everyone is “on track,” written updates are instead best focused on broad trends, events, and modifications to any goals or strategy that might impact people. They are also an opportunity for employees to hear from managers and leaders, helping foster a sense of community and belonging.

Teams that don’t generally share mission-critical information can create opt-in newsletters or publish to their wiki on a predictable schedule (perhaps with a quick message in Slack saying that it’s available), so interested parties can subscribe or check information as needed. Managers and leaders who want to share their perspective on the current state of their own team can create regular updates with additional commentary, giving insight on what they may find challenging or exciting. Lara Hogan shares how she did this at Etsy here.

cautionBeware of overwhelming employees with too many messages or too much information to consume, lest these updates turn into something that people tune out. It’s wise to put as much effort into making your internal communications valuable and easy to consume as you put into communications to your customers. This means keeping updates focused, on topic, and engaging.

All-Hands Meetings

Company all-hands meetings have become a popular way to share company-wide information. If the time zone overlap in your team still allows for everyone in your company to attend, you should be able to host these via video conferencing; but remember you’re only one team member away from being in a position where a lack of time zone overlap means having everyone on the meeting isn’t possible anymore.

The value of these meetings, more than the updates, is in the conversation and connections that can happen between different team members. Questions, clarifications, and discussions enrich the experience. Atlassian has an excellent set of guidelines for running distributed all-hands meetings. Along with making sure to keep it a two-way dialogue and not shying away from tough subjects, they cover a couple additional aspects of successful distributed meetings:

  • Time zones. If you can’t get everyone’s schedules to align during sane hours, you can aim for the best possible overlap (Atlassian got to 80%), and then record the meeting.

    • When someone from outside the time zone overlap wants to share something, they record it in advance, and then it gets played during the meeting.
  • Live streaming. This might not be necessary for smaller companies, but at Atlassian’s size, with multiple offices in different cities, it made sense to invest in their own solution. The good news is they made it available via open source, so anyone can use it too.

  • Q&A. You can ask people to submit and up-vote questions in advance (asynchronously!), and have whomever is hosting that week’s meeting answer as many questions as possible.

  • Don’t forget the fun. Your all-hands meeting is another opportunity to allow for personal connection and help build social connections among distributed teams.*

importantConsider recording all-hands sessions and making them asynchronously available by default in case anyone can’t attend for any reason.

Eventually you may want to build the all-hands content from the regular updates, or vice-versa, to make it possible to distribute a written artifact with the most important topics all in one place. This would allow you to go back and summarize all this information at the end of the month, quarter, or year, and review how the organization did over a longer period of time.

Facilitate Asynchronous Q&A

Question and answer (Q&A) spaces are double-sided information marketplaces. These spaces build collective knowledge and community spirit, and can contribute to employee engagement.

Ensuring that there are people who can answer questions (and have time dedicated to answer them completely) is important for the success of this effort. Departmental leaders and team managers can help fill this role and eventually delegate it to other team members.

Collecting common questions often leads to the creation of lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs) that you can include in your handbook. This practice creates resources that cross-reference each other and make it easier for people to stay informed.

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