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I am a software developer in a small team of seven. We are not an Agile (with a big 'A') team but are experimenting with some aspects of agile. One of these is the daily "standup" meeting. The difficulty here is that for two days of the week we have at least one person working from home so the full team isn't available in the same room. What is the best way to carry out a daily standup in this situation?

Some facts that may be relevant:

  • We all work in a single open plan room.
  • We use Skype in our company.
  • We don't have any video conferencing capability.
  • We all work the same hours so there are no timezone complexities involved.
  • The development manager is one of the people who works from home one day a week.

Things we have tried:

  • Conference call using Skype: This is tricky for those in the office because you can hear people speak in the room and then a split second later through the headset. This can e very distracting.
  • Conference phone: Awful experience. Hard to get them to work and poor quality audio.
  • Text-based updates using Skype. This is not as engaging and is no different than just firing off a status email in the morning.

I have seen other questions about remote collaboration but they are mainly about completely remote teams and/or teams that span multiple time zones. We are not affected by either of these problems.

What can we do to make our standup meetings better in these circumstances?

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migrated from Dec 6 '12 at 3:19

This question came from our site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development.

Perhaps you need to invest in a better conference phone? WE have remote workers (both local working from home and geographically separated) particpate in meetings all the time using a conference phone - we can hear them just fine and they can hear us just fine. – HLGEM Dec 5 '12 at 14:49

If your company supports/allows 'work from home' then you need to make every effort to include those working from home in these meetings. Omitting someone from a meeting because they are working remotely and you don't have the basic resources needed to accommodate them is both insulting and counter productive.

Investing in a good quality device like the Polycom CX 100 mentioned in another answer is cheap compared to the loss of productivity and morale.

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I would strongly recommend using a small Polycom device with Skype. The Polycom CX100 Speakerphone has an echo cancelling feature that is very effective and the sound quality is exceptional.

You can use this device with Skype during standup meetings with people present in the room and remote staff can use a headset. This is the best way I know to maximize sound quality and minimize echo on a small budget.

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Our company is also using the Polycom CX5000 in some of our conference rooms and this would make an ideal tool for stand-up meetings. The 360-degree camera is automatically following the person who is talking.

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It sounds like, first and foremost, you have a serious technical conferencing issue that transcends standups. I've worked in a variety of remote teams and the only time I've seen issues as bad as you are describing is when I was forced to work on 20 year old defense grade encryption technology for our 3-way team communications.

A couple thoughts:

Culture - Work at Home

When your group offers a culture of work at home, it's critical that both management and the work at home people take ownership of technical communications. The standup cannot be the place you do your technical debugging - you need some scheduled time to find a solution to conference calling that doesn't take away from team meetings and you really can't rationalize having a huge work at home offering until this is ironed out.

Sorry if that means you manager can't come in... but this is a big deal. I haven't seen teams succeed without a way to get fast verbal communication between multiple parties in a pinch. IM is great, but I've never seen it work as the only answer.

This also comes down to a commitment to purchase equipment. Most offices I've seen with a high work at home offering make the shift to providing better equipment to the end points at the cost to niceness in the office.

Conference call technology and issues

I almost wonder if you don't have a serious bandwidth issue. I don't want to get into how your phones and data services are wired, but problems on both Skype and conference calls are new to me.

I've used both very successfully including:

  • point to point with Skype around the world (Boston to India, California, and Canada, all using ADSL or Cable Modem at the end points, unpaid accounts) using video. And not just for conference calls, but for classes that involved a high degree of movement and a need to coordinate voice and movement across the channel. Choppy Skype suggest you have a bandwidth choke or seriously poor equipment on one or both ends.

  • Conference calls - it seems every office I work on uses this phone and I haven't had any problems with it. Granted, I work in a lot of big companies, so I don't know if they make any special arrangements for the conference room phone lines. The one thing I notice is that remote workers also need a good phone on their end. They may need a landline, and they need to be aware of the noise in their environment, possibly going so far as to be very active with mute/unmute.

  • Open plan rooms - need extra testing - different conference phones react to ambiance noise differently. You may want to make sure you buy them with a good return policy while you try them out. The noise of computers in an open plan room means that you need a phone that will muffle the white noise continuously while keeping voices clear.

This hits on another cultural aspect - work at home with standup meetings has to be treated just as seriously as stand up meetings in the office. At home workers need to plan to be in a quiet area, undistrubed, where they can focus and not have lots of noisy interruptions.

Tricks for standups across multiple spaces

I've run some non-colocated Agile teams, and I now run a standup for a not-really-Agile team where we have 2 work at home people at some points during the week. Here's my lessons learned.

  • Protocol needs to be clean, moderator needs to be more active - if people get long winded, cutting them off is even more important, because you can't tell if the on-the-phone people have totally glazed over or are looking intently.

  • Call on people - you can't tell what the "circle" is, so call on people - it wakes up the people on the phone. Also get the whole team into the habit of naming the people they want an answer from. "I'm having a problem with X, Bob, Sandy - any ideas?"

  • Make sure everyone, everywhere gets equal time

  • Get people condensed as much as possible. Just because 3 people are at home, does mean the 3 people in the office should not huddle around a phone/computer. It helps with conversational traffic flow and reduces the number of end points dialing in, which improves call clarity.

  • Make sure everyone shares phone ettiquitte - muting rules, ways of eliminating the "everyone speaks at once" problem, and other things - you may even end up with a team "how to conference call" set of tips.

  • Don't let your remote workers be 100% remote - they need to plan a time to be around the in the office folks. One thing that helps us is a "in the office day" where no one gets an ongoing waiver for not being in that day. Obviously mileage varies with the state of the team. When I had a guy on the other side of the country, he flew in once a quarter and hung out for a week or two, instead. This sounds like general policy, but it's actually crucial for standups - people need to see each other's reactions from time to time, and doing so let's them form a mental picture of the guy on the other end. This empathy is what you miss most when trying to run a standup efficiently with remote people.

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When development goes fast (as often happens in small agile teams) a daily meeting is a real requirement to keep everybody in synchro.

I have seen small agile teams where one or two of the members decided to change their development pathway (for very good reasons) and the rest of team kept working on the obsolete pathway until they crashed against some failed test or some failed build a few days later. Frankly, this kind of communication failure must be prevented.

Unfortunately, writing news down (for e-mail, on Skype, whatever) requires time and this is exactly what a small team normally does not have.

My personal suggestion is to hold the meeting (a very short one) every day, no matter if someone is missing. This way, it is likely that the missing people will get the news form the people who was able to attend the meeting.

It is better having 10% of communication failure that 90%.

Of course, any relevant decision/information should be also broadcast to all of the involved people by e-mail (so it will get stored and indicized in the user's machine)

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You are certainly making a good argument for daily meetings but I am not sure you are answering the question on how to make those meetings effective given the circumstances. – David Segonds Dec 6 '12 at 3:37

We have done this for the last three years or so using Skype. We had to play a little bit with the setup and in the end had to have a machine configured near the Sprint board.

(We use the one that runs our CI radiator and the screen projector when we need it for closedown demonstrations)

  • we have a dedicated Skype account set up
  • its always logged in, and always turned on
  • it is set up to "auto answer"
  • we have speakers on the Skype machine for sound
  • we use a (decent) webcam (with mike), on a extension cable, on a tripod

This removes the "echo" problem and allows a more natural integration with the "missing" person; people talk towards the camera, and if needed we can project the "missing" person onto a larger screen.

The "missing" person just "turns up" to the standup like everyone else....

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