8 Local Tech Leaders Share How to Run Better Team Sync-Ups

October 13, 2020
Piaggio Fast Forward
Piaggio Fast Forward

For most engineers, sync-ups are an essential part of their daily agenda. They allow teammates to discuss progress, address pain points and simply connect with each other. Yet, these team huddles are not always as productive and engaging as they should be, so it’s up to leaders to make sure their teams stay on track during sync-ups. 

With the right strategies, leaders can help their teams get the most out of their daily meetings. By setting goals, maintaining structure and encouraging participation from each team member, leaders can turn these often aimless huddles into meaningful moments for collaboration. 

Given the fact that many teams are working remotely, connection among team members is especially important. For some leaders, this may mean setting aside a few minutes for casual conversation at the start of each sync-up. For others, this could simply be a matter of asking team members to keep Zoom’s video feature on throughout the meeting. 

Whether you’re a self-proclaimed “scrum purist” or an Agile rule-breaker, successful syncs don’t have to be a stretch. By taking simple steps, leaders can ensure their teammates feel both empowered and informed at the end of each huddle, setting the stage for a productive week for the entire team. 

Built In Boston caught up with eight local tech leaders to learn how they’ve mastered the art of the successful sync-up. 

 

Bobby Lough
Engineering Director / Agile Coach

Vestmark aims to make life easier for those involved with wealth management. The company’s SaaS ecosystem enables financial advisors and institutions to manage and trade their clients’ portfolios. 

Engineering Director and Agile Coach Bobby Lough discussed how his team of “scrum purists” benefits from setting goals and keeping sync-ups short and structured. 

 

What does a typical sync-up look like for your team, and how do you structure those meetings to ensure they're as productive as possible?

Vestmark's teams are made up of “scrum purists,” so our daily scrums occur at the same time each day and respect a 15-minute timebox. While people are joining the meeting, we keep it light with friendly banter mostly regarding stuff outside of work. A little positive energy can go a long way. This has become especially important during the pandemic because we are not co-located. However, once the meeting starts, people are committed to recapping the past day and planning the coming day.

During the daily scrum, each person on the team answers the three standard questions before picking another team member to provide their update. The team is encouraged to ask each other questions so they can unite to overcome whatever challenges come their way. If any update or a line of questions gets too deep into the weeds, someone on the team says "elmo" (enough let's move on) to move that conversation to the “parking lot,” where it can be discussed after all team members have provided an update. Adhering to this structure keeps our daily scrums succinct and impactful.

 

What's one thing you've done to improve the effectiveness of your stand-up meetings?

We have found that it’s important to set the stage. A daily scrum can quickly devolve into a status meeting, in which team members attempt to justify what they did to earn their paycheck yesterday and how they intend to earn it today. When daily scrums become status meetings, people tune out and just wait for their turn to talk. To counteract that, our scrum masters open the first daily scrum of the sprint with a quick reminder of the purpose of the meeting, the scrum values (courage, focus, commitment, respect and openness) and meeting norms, as well as the sprint goal and the value it can bring to each person in the meeting. Those points, as well as the three questions, are included in the recurring meeting invite, so the “what” and “why” of the daily scrum is top of mind. This has helped teams at Vestmark maintain focus and find each daily scrum beneficial.

 

A little positive energy can go a long way.”

What's one strategy you've found to be critical for keeping employees engaged throughout these meetings?

To add a unique element to each daily Scrum, I encourage teams at Vestmark to set a goal for the day. The previous day's goal is mentioned at the start of the sync-up to provide a foundation for people's updates. Then, after each team member has provided an update, the team collaborates to determine what they want to complete for the next daily scrum.

The goals provide a focal point for the team to rally around throughout the day. Discussing yesterday's accomplishments energizes the team and allows everyone to visualize how they want to accomplish today's goal. The practice of setting a daily goal provides a value-driven artifact of that planning, which emboldens the team to seize the day. Daily scrums are an opportunity for the team to observe where they are at, orient themselves toward a shared objective and decide what action to take over the coming day. Our daily scrums do not feel repetitive or boring to the team because they have become so valuable.

 

Alka Deshpande
Software Development Manager

According to reports, cyber criminals are projected to steal an estimated 33 billion records in 2023. That’s why VMware Carbon Black was founded. The company specializes in cloud-native endpoint protection, helping large organizations protect themselves against cyber attacks.

Software Development Manager Alka Deshpande told us why he prepares for each sync-up beforehand and how his teammates connect during these meetings. 

 

What does a typical sync-up look like for your team, and how do you structure those meetings to ensure they're as productive as possible?

Daily sync-up meetings are quite fun for my teams. We reserve a half-hour window for these meetings. The meetings are run on Zoom with the video feature turned on. The first 10 to 15 minutes of our meetings allow everyone to share what they worked on the day before, what they plan to work on the day of the meeting and if they have anything blocking them from making progress. As an engineering manager, my job is to make sure that I address any blocker issues so my team can successfully complete their work. 

Fifteen minutes prior to the daily sync-up, the scrum master asks for “parking lot” items in a designated Slack channel. The parking lot items are topics that take more time to discuss and are addressed after the status discussion. If more time is required, the parking lot items are discussed in a separate meeting. 

Besides working on software development, we also make sure our production systems are functioning efficiently every day. Any production issues for the previous day are discussed in this meeting as well. Our work items are planned out in a Jira board. We also meet once a week to groom our upcoming work items.

 

What's one thing you've done to improve the effectiveness of your stand-up meetings?

I make sure that I am well prepared for standups. I also make sure that our Jira boards are updated at all times. Everyone’s time must be used very efficiently. Team spirit and collaboration are crucial for the success of these meetings. We use Zoom and share the Jira board on the screen. Everyone in the team gets to speak, voice their concerns and share their successes.  

This has enabled us to deliver high-quality software on time for our customers.

 

Sync-up meetings are about more than just work. We connect as a team during these meetings.”

What's one strategy you've found to be critical for keeping employees engaged throughout these meetings?

We do briefly talk about how everyone is doing. We share pictures of hiking trips and fun activities that folks have recently done. We support each other if someone is going through difficult times. Sync-up meetings are about more than just work. We connect as a team during these meetings. I also provide key information about organizational news during our sync-ups. This way, our daily sync-ups don’t become boring.

 

Eric Spear
Senior Vice President of Engineering

Flywire wants to make cross-border payments as seamless as possible. The company’s platform allows for fast and secure international payment processing, featuring competitive exchange rates, fraud prevention and 24/7 multilingual support. 

Senior Vice President Eric Spear shared why his team prefers consistent sync-ups and how they use problem statements to sharpen the focus of their meetings. 

 

What does a typical sync-up look like for your team, and how do you structure those meetings to ensure they're as productive as possible?

My general philosophy around update-oriented meetings like standups is that they must have a degree of consistency. Having them at the same time with the same members creates the foundation for a safe space that allows everyone to talk about the good and bad. The next piece of advice is to have an agenda so everyone can prepare for each sync-up. In my opinion, a standup is not meant for reading off a list of things to do but instead serves as a space to solve problems and empower teams. Lastly, as a leader, you need to be genuine. For me, I like my engineering team meetings to have a lighthearted tone, which makes it more comfortable while also allowing for lane changes when we need to address a serious topic.

 

What's one thing you've done to improve the effectiveness of your stand-up meetings?

The one thing I have done with my team regarding standups is that I have taught each participant how to write a problem statement. Problem statements tend to be used by management consultants for effective communication to address a specific topic. It’s amazing when you empower team members with this simple tool. It sharpens the focus of the meeting, allowing everyone to share a common goal and yield a solution.

 

A standup is not meant for reading off a list of things to do but instead serves as a space to solve problems and empower teams.”

What's one strategy you've found to be critical for keeping employees engaged throughout these meetings?

Always keep the meeting dynamic. Assign the agenda of the meeting to various people on the team each week. By giving others responsibility for the meeting, they can get out of their comfort zone with an added benefit while tailoring the meeting so it can evolve and provide more value.

 

Jen Fowler
Certified Scrum Master PSM I

OneView Commerce seeks to “pioneer digital transformation in retail” with its API-first, headless transaction engine. The company’s platform allows retailers to build POS, commerce and digital experiences quickly while reducing regret spend and increasing speed to market. 

Certified Scrum Master Jen Fowler told us about the importance of time management and how her team keeps their Zoom cameras on during sync-ups to connect with each other.

 

What does a typical sync-up look like for your team, and how do you structure those meetings to ensure they're as productive as possible?

Our daily sync-ups serve as quick meetings that allow all team members to highlight current work, discuss what they’re working on next and raise awareness about any impediments, which is crucial. One critical aspect of the sync-up is to review specific deadlines and reminders about important meetings while reinforcing scrum practices to ensure we are working on continuous improvement. All our scrum leaders engage right as the session gets started by finding out how the team is doing, mentioning current events and sharing anything else that gets people involved and ready to participate. 

 

The goal is for teams to own their empowerment both in and out of the standup.”

What's one thing you've done to improve the effectiveness of your stand-up meetings?

We practice a stronger adherence to both starting and ending on time. Time management helps the team get through the standup faster and reduces the distraction from conversations that would be better as one-on-one discussions. Our scrum masters coach teams to self-organize and take the lead to move problem-solving out of the standup and into their own more effective, developer-driven sessions. Our scrum leaders share how effective coaching that is efficiently delivered is critical in today's disrupted environment. The goal is for teams to own their empowerment both in and out of the standup.

 

What's one strategy you've found to be critical for keeping employees engaged throughout these meetings?

We usually have cameras on at the start so everyone shows up present and engaged, which is helpful when someone is coming from being heads-down in their work. From there, we try to keep it light. We joke around with each other, keeping things interesting and fresh. Candid Zoom shots and banter shared on the call or in team chats keep a sense of humor at the forefront and help make sure that things stay interesting. Most importantly, our teams are fully committed to shared responsibility. This commitment keeps everyone more engaged, both during sync-ups and elsewhere.

 

Arthur LaVita
Software Engineering Manager

Piaggio Fast Forward is on a mission to “support a sustainable mobility ecology with healthy lifestyles and social connectivity available to all.” The company aims to accomplish this with its lightweight smart vehicles, which are intended to help people move better, further, faster and more enjoyably. 

Software Engineering Manager Arthur LaVita discussed how his team splits their sync-ups into segments to optimize teammates’ time and foster engagement. 

 

What does a typical sync-up look like for your team, and how do you structure those meetings to ensure they're as productive as possible?

Like most people, we quickly made a decision to turn our remote sync-ups into video meetings to make them feel as close to the in-office experience as possible. The structure of the sync-ups quickly started to change, as they were the only daily touch points when all 12 team members got together. Meeting participants began to ask technical questions, debate implementation, discuss pull requests or share their past-day interruptions in detail. Creating other opportunities for total team touch points during the day would have negative impacts on progress, but we had to ensure that these daily sync-ups did not turn into unstructured conversations. To remedy this situation, I turned sync-ups into 30-minute meetings, composed of a 12 to 13-minute standard sync and a four-minute team and company update, while the remainder consists of “parking lot” items with open dialogue. 

 

What's one thing you've done to improve the effectiveness of your stand-up meetings?

The parking lot portion has had positive results. The team members have the opportunity to provide a quick status update during the sync portion, and the additional parking lot platform now allows the team to discuss unplanned topics. Each member is allowed to nominate a parking lot item. Members can then break off, and a smaller crew can remain at the sync-up to provide peer assistance. The whole team is present for the sync-up meetings, so it makes for a really quick conversation without the need to constantly carve out windows of time in everyone’s day. Any team member can choose to stay on the video meeting to hear the conversation if the topic is relevant to their work, ensuring the right members are participating in creating solutions.

 

If you want employees to feel connected, you need to share and provide the balance of technical update with what is moving around them.” 

What's one strategy you've found to be critical for keeping employees engaged throughout these meetings?

The four-minute team and company update really has been a huge favorite of the team and has created better attendance for the sync-ups. Without being in the office, people really miss out on the casual conversations about general happenings, staffing opportunities, high-level direction, critical issues being addressed, feedback from cross-functional teams, management decisions and employee milestones and successes. It’s never the same as being in the office, but team members get valuable knowledge and feel more connected to the business. If you want employees to feel connected, you need to share and provide the balance of technical update with what is moving around them. 

 

Armelle Dawson
Director of Software Engineering

Quick Base aims to help people of all technical backgrounds at businesses of any size improve their processes, gain real-time insights and make better decisions. Their platform enables business and IT teams to safely, securely and sustainably create an ecosystem of applications without the cost of traditional development, maintenance or deployment.

Director of Software Engineering Armelle Dawson told us how she runs sync-ups with a globally distributed team and how consistency keeps her team’s huddles short and effective. 

 

What does a typical sync-up look like for your team, and how do you structure those meetings to ensure they're as productive as possible?

The core platform team’s daily sync-ups are at 9 a.m. Eastern time. The team is scattered across several locations, with one engineer and the team coach located in the Boston area, one fully remote engineer based in New Mexico, two engineers out of the Bulgaria office and a product owner working out of Seattle. The time works well for the team, as it is first thing in the morning for the U.S. team members and early afternoon in Bulgaria. All team members have their video on for the duration of the meeting, which helps teammates connect with each other. To help with any background noises, all other team members go on mute while someone is talking. 

 

We get to a plan of action quickly before moving onto the next person. This ensures our daily sync-up is short and effective in unblocking everyone.”

What's one thing you've done to improve the effectiveness of your stand-up meetings?

During the sync, everyone’s turn is always the same, as we go in alphabetical order. Running sync-ups in the same order ensures a smooth transition from one person to the next. During a team member’s turn, we focus on any questions or impediments to the work in progress. We get to a plan of action quickly before moving onto the next person. This ensures our daily sync-up is short and effective in unblocking everyone. Because the team is small, most days we cover everything in about 15 to 20 minutes. 

 

What's one strategy you've found to be critical for keeping employees engaged throughout these meetings?

At the beginning of the sync-up, we often have a couple of minutes while everyone is getting on Zoom. We take this time to check in on each other on a personal level. After everyone has taken their turn, they then share any information relevant to the team. This includes updates on the business impact of what the team is working on and engineering organization news. This ensures everyone is aware of important information across the company and our department.

 

Brian Theise
Executive Lead, Technology

Online grocery businesses are growing, and Peapod Digital Labs wants to make them even more successful. The company helps local grocery brands engage with their consumers through personalized digital experiences.

Executive Lead of Technology Brian Theise shared how he keeps his team sync-ups easygoing and fun to encourage participation. 

 

What does a typical sync-up look like for your team, and how do you structure those meetings to ensure they're as productive as possible?

On Tuesdays, I host a 30-minute morning standup across our technology and product organizations. A typical standup includes about 240 people across four office locations. Before the pandemic, we would link the four locations by video. But now, since all are working remotely, everyone joins via Zoom.

I typically kick off the meetings with any general business news and will introduce any newly hired associates. We have been ramping up at a rapid pace, so any given week over the past four months, we have often had between 10 and 15 new hires at these sync-ups. The agenda is usually loose, with one or two planned topics, but we let the group steer the conversation from there. We have so many projects and initiatives with many goals and milestones being met every week, so there is no shortage of potential topics to cover. Our intent is not to cover them comprehensively. Usually, an update is kept to under a couple of minutes. Our folks are proud of their work and willing to share, so we quickly exhaust our 30 minutes. 

 

What's one thing you've done to improve the effectiveness of your stand-up meetings?

Given we are all remote, we encourage everyone to utilize their video as well as have a little fun with backgrounds. I believe the video gives people a greater sense of connection with their colleagues, resulting in greater attendance and participation.

 

Not everyone is comfortable speaking to hundreds of people, so we want to create an atmosphere that encourages participation.”

What's one strategy you've found to be critical for keeping employees engaged throughout these meetings?

We try to keep things light and easygoing. Not everyone is comfortable speaking to hundreds of people, so we want to create an atmosphere that encourages participation. Once in a while, we may also include some live music from one of our many talented musicians at Peapod Digital Labs to keep things interesting.

 

Vidya Sambasivan
Software Engineering Manager

Wellframe wants to “reimagine healthcare relationships” by helping healthcare organizations support their patients more effectively. The company uses tech to deliver the high-touch support people need, offering a suite of digital health management solutions for care management, advocacy and navigation. 

Software Engineering Manager Vidya Sambasivan told us why his team members take turns leading each sync-up and how they improve engagement during those meetings. 

 

What does a typical sync-up look like for your team, and how do you structure those meetings to ensure they're as productive as possible?

We do daily standup meetings to sync as a team. Due to COVID-19, we have moved all our standups to Google Meet video calls. We have team members logging in from different time zones during our meetings. 

We try to structure our standup meetings around three things: what we have worked on since the last time we met, what we plan to work on until we meet the next time and any blockers. We try to stick to a 15-minute standup as much as possible. Any items that need longer discussions are noted and scheduled for a later time.

 

What's one thing you've done to improve the effectiveness of your stand-up meetings?

One thing that has improved the running of standup meetings is that we take turns being the scrum master and leading each sync-up. This keeps everyone awake and cuts down on repetition. This also gives more opportunity for various team members to be in leadership roles. 

 

Asking for input from the team during stand-up meetings has improved engagement within the team and helps others who may not always voice their opinion have a chance to speak.”

What's one strategy you've found to be critical for keeping employees engaged throughout these meetings?

Team engagement is very important, especially when we follow a standard agenda in stand-up meetings. Asking for input from the team during stand-up meetings has improved engagement within the team and helps others who may not always voice their opinion have a chance to speak.

 

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