Earth Class Mail

Effective remote work with Status Updates

This is the inaugural post in the "remote work" tag of this blog. Earth Class Mail has employees across 4 different timezones (I myself am in Sweden), we take remote work seriously and try to be a remote-first company. I have worked remotely most of my life and so there are many things I take for granted, when we should actually make a point to talk about and question even the smallest things. Today I'm going to talk about the status update, what it is, why it exists and some challenges one might come across with it.

What's in a status update?

I've gone through most popular remote-management practices like daily stand-ups on Skype (then Hangouts). In the past few years status updates on HipChat (then Slack) have become a popular replacement for the stand-up. Status updates follow the same principles of a stand-up but can be done asyncronously across people in different timezones. I really like status updates, but they can be done well or not so well, but the tricky thing is that it can be hard to tell the difference.

It's easier to get lazy when writing text than it is when you're in a stand-up and see the other people face-to-face, so it's important that everyone is on the same page and enforce the discipline required to write good status updates.

What's a status update?

So first of all, let's establish a clear definition of what a status update is. By my (and most peoples) definition, it's a text-update posted every day in a chat channel dedicated only for status updates. In our company right now we have a #status channel on Slack where everyone posts every morning, because our team is small enough we can keep this to one channel, but in larger companies you might have a per-team channel for it. But what does an update look like?

The format can vary slightly, but it usually takes on the following form.

- list of things I actually achieved yesterday
- list of notable things that I had to do, that got in my way of
achieving what I set out to
- things i hope to achieve by the end of the day
- list of blockers that stand in your way of accomplishing your goals for today (if any)

I have seen variations where the separate Blockers field is left out entirely and instead baked into the the reasons why you didn't achieve what you set out to achieve in the Yesterday field. I think either way of doing it is fine, but having a separate Blockers field may be useful if it can be highlighted sufficiently.

What's the point?

There is a very specific goal with the status update: to keep everyone on the team in the loop and to force yourself to think about what you should be doing. If everyone knows what everyone is working on, people can plan around what's going on and adjust their own priorities based on that. Lucid Meetings has a great blog post about different types of meetings, in which they write the following about the point of the stand-up meeting.

Focus on progress and what people are actually doing, only to encourage team accountability to each other and the plan.

Written status updates have gained a lot in popularity lately, to the point where there are now several services oriented around them. Three prominent ones are idonethisTeamreporter and Status Hero, and these companies list a lot of good reasons for why you should be doing status updates.

  • Know what is going on in your team and notice upcoming problems early
  • Improve communication and become a more efficient team
  • Connect remote and/or distributed teams
  • Cut through the project management noise
  • Promote transparency & trust
  • Celebrate progress

Basically, everyone on the team should know what everyone is doing, not because of some sense of keeping tabs on people or justifying their existence, but because that's how teams can work efficiently. It's also a way for you to say to your teammates "Hey, you may not see the result of this directly, but I did this pretty cool thing that I'm proud of!" (celebrating progress). This can either be solved by a lot of public chat communication and internal monologues held in public, or it can be achieved through status updates (or, preferably, a mix of both). I may write a whole separate post on the importance of public "internal" monologues, but as we say, that's a different story.

What's the problem?

I said status updates can be done badly, and it's often hard to tell if they are. Why is that?

The fundamental problem with status updates is that getting the granularity right is really hard, and it's easy to just ignore a status update if the granularity is wrong. You want to write a daily goal, but when you're working on a large project where perhaps the goal for the day is somewhat uncertain, it's hard to really write a succinct and concrete sentence or point-list that will communicate your goals for the day, it's tempting to just write "to get as far ahead in this work as possible". The problem with those kind of vague updates are that it doesn't actually inform anyone of what's going to change during the day, it doesn't highlight what difficulties there are and doesn't let anyone come in and say "Hey, maybe I can help with that!". It doesn't achieve any of the effects we want from a status update, but it will still probably pass for an acceptable update. It's also useful for yourself to think harder about the problem, try to set out a goal even if you know it's too ambitious, just so you have some internal roadmap for the day, it will have a good chance to increase your focus and productivity for the day.

It's also really easy to write something that is too detailed. The status update is not a substitute for a todo-list. If you don't think you'll be able to get to it today, don't write it down. You're also not supposed to write every little detail that you do during the day, as that will add more noise than relevant communication. If there are recurring items you do every day (like create and study a daily metrics report) you shouldn't put that on your list of achievements every single day, it doesn't actually communicate anything to your teammates. Rather than posting that you created and studied a report, post something if there was an anomaly in a report that needed addressing, since that can have real impact to the whole team.

Status updates should explicitly not be about micromanagement or someone keeping tabs on exactly what you do in a day. The most difficult thing with status updates is to find the right resolution. The right resolution for your updates is key, but it's only one that can be found by some amount of trial and error. If it's too much detail, it becomes overbearing and doesn't tell a story of what you are doing or focusing on, it adds more noise to the public communication than it tells a story of what you are working on and where you are heading. If the goal is too lofty and doesn't actually explain what you did that day then it's equally useless, because it doesn't show progress or focus. 

Basically, if you're writing the exact same thing several days in a row, you need to be more specific, and if you're posting a bunch of (5+ items) every day, you probably need to be less specific.

If you are writing blockers, you also need to become fairly good at judging what an actual blocker is. A problem that you can work towards solving is not a blocker, it's something that you can work on, overcome and put on your achievements list for "Yesterday". A blocker is a problem that prevents you from doing your work and you yourself can not address.

What's the solution?

When you get in to the office in the morning, think back on what you did yesterday. If there's things you don't remember, they probably aren't important enough to go in a status update. Try to think of what your overall achievements were for the day, try to remember what made you think "Yes, finished this bit!". Write down those things. Look back at your status update from yesterday and see if they match up, add any major reasons for why they don't match up (if there were just many small reasons, write that).

Then sit down and think of what you're going to do today. If it's a bit undefined, try to define it further, think about what would make you happy if you had it done by the end of the day, and write that down.

Try to think about whether there might be anything that will prevent you from doing what you hope to do for the day. If you can't think of anything, all clear. If you can think of something, put that in Blockers and then go talk to the person that might be able to remove that blocker for you.

Once you get into the habit of thinking of open communication and the fact that this is intended as guidance for yourself and all of your coworkers, you will hopefully get this practice into a solid place that will make everyone feel part of the family.

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