No More Angling for the Best Seat; More Meetings Are Stand-Up Jobs
Companies Ban Sitting to Speed Things Up; Ralph the Chicken Decides Next Speaker
Atomic Object, a Grand Rapids, Mich., software-development firm, holds company meetings first thing in the morning.
Employees follow strict rules: Attendance is mandatory, nonwork chitchat is kept to a minimum and, above all, everyone has to stand up.
Stand-up meetings are part of a fast-moving tech culture in which sitting has become synonymous with sloth. The object is to eliminate long-winded confabs where participants pontificate, play Angry Birds on their cellphones or tune out.
Atomic Object even frowns upon tables during meetings. "They make it too easy to lean or rest laptops," explains Michael Marsiglia, vice president. At the end of the meetings, which rarely last more than five minutes, employees typically do a quick stretch and then "go on with their day," he says.
Holding meetings standing up isn't new. Some military leaders did it during World War I, according to Allen Bluedorn, a business professor at the University of Missouri. A number of companies have adopted stand-up meetings over the years. Mr. Bluedorn did a study back in 1998 that found that standing meetings were about a third shorter than sitting meetings and the quality of decision-making was about the same.
The current wave of stand-up meeting is being fueled by the growing use of "Agile," an approach to software development, crystallized in a manifesto published by 17 software professionals in 2001. The method calls for compressing development projects into short pieces. It also involves daily stand-up meetings where participants are supposed to quickly update their peers with three things: What they have done since yesterday's meeting; what they are doing today; and any obstacles that stand in the way of getting work done.
If employees are late to this meeting, often called a "daily scrum," they sometimes must sing a song like "I'm a Little Teapot," do a lap around the office building or pay a small fine, says Mike Cohn, president of Mountain Goat Software, Lafayette, Colo., an Agile consultant and trainer. If someone is rambling on for too long, an employee may hold up a rubber rat indicating it is time to move on. Companies make exceptions to their no-sitting rules if a worker is sick, injured or pregnant—but usually not for workers outside the office telecommuting on Skype.
One Microsoft Corp. development group holds daily meeting in which participants toss around a rubber chicken named Ralph to determine who gets to speak next, says group member Aaron Bjork.
As Agile has become more widely adopted, stand-ups have spread along with it. VersionOne, which makes Agile-development software, polled 6,042 tech employees around the world in a 2011 survey and found that 78% held daily stand-up-meetings.
Office outfitters are responding by designing work spaces with standing sessions in mind. Furniture maker Steelcase Inc.'s Turnstone division, for example, recently introduced the "Big Table," a large standing-height table designed for quick meetings.
Mitch Lacey, a Bellevue, Wash., tech consultant and a former Microsoft employee says that some of his former colleagues used to hold stand-ups in an unheated stairwell to keep meetings brief.
Holding meetings before lunch also speeds things up. Mark Tonkelowitz, an engineering manager for Facebook Inc.'s News Feed feature, holds 15-minute stand-ups at noon, sharp. The proximity to lunch serves "as motivation to keep updates short," he says.
Sometimes people cheat a bit. "We have some very good slouchers and leaners," says T.A. McCann, founder of Gist, a Seattle contact-organization tool acquired last year by Research In Motion, which holds a 10 a.m. stand-up three days a week.
Obie Fernandez, founder of Hashrocket, a Jacksonville, Fla., software design firm, says his team passes around a 10-pound medicine ball during stand-ups. For newcomers unaware of the practice, "it's pretty mean," he says, "but really the main thing you want is to avoid people pontificating."
Participants frown upon late arrivals, and some data-obsessed engineers have even computed the costs of tardiness. Ian Witucki, a program manager at software firm Adobe Systems Inc., calculated the cumulative cost over the course of a typical 18-month product release cycle of starting the stand-up just a little bit late every day.
The total—about six weeks of work for two employees—equaled the amount of time the firm could spend building one major feature on each product, he says.
Soon after, the team imposed a $1 fine for latecomers. Now staffers run down the hall to make it on time, says Mr. Witucki.
Jason Yip, a principal consultant at ThoughtWorks in Sydney, Australia, plays music such as Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up," to round up colleagues. "It acts like a Pavlovian bell," he says.
Meanwhile, the Starr Conspiracy, a Fort Worth, Texas, advertising, marketing and branding agency, signals its daily stand-up—which it calls "the huddle"—with a few bars of the song, "Whoomp! (There It Is)," says partner Steve Smith.
"I'll be at a football game, hear the song and all of a sudden I have the urge to huddle up," says Mr. Smith.
Steelcase's Turnstone unit, which has been doing stand-up meetings for about a decade, for years played Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," to begin meetings. It recently switched to Elvis's "A Little Less Conversation"—a reminder to keep meetings brief, says general manager Kevin Kuske.
There are occasions when even a stand-up takes too much time.
At Freshbooks.com, a Toronto-based company that makes online accounting software, teams try to do daily 10 a.m. stand-ups. But on days when everyone is too swamped to gather around the company Ping-Pong table, team members will shout out their status updates from their desks, which are arranged in a circle.
They call those meetings "sit-downs."
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