Writing by Peter Hilton

Lean coffee on-site for remote teams

A flexible in-person activity for a distributed team - 24 August 2021 #remote

Cup of coffee

unsplash-logoJean-Louis Aubert

Teams who work remote need to spend a few days together every few months, to make remote collaboration effective. If you haven’t seen your colleagues in person for a long time, then get out of the building first and do a city walking tour. After that, you’ll want some more focused discussion about your work together.

A good on-site for a remote team creates space for good discussion and avoids over-planning. Instead of an over-constrained workshop, use a day together for an agenda-free meeting.

Lean coffee

The lean coffee format creates space for focused discussion, without limiting what you talk about. The following elements work best together for a team catch-up:

  1. everyone proposes discussion topics
  2. everyone votes for topics to discuss
  3. each topic gets a short time box for discussion
  4. when the time runs out, everyone votes whether to either give the topic extra time
  5. the format requires little facilitation effort.

See How to host a lean coffee for more detailed instructions.

Adapt the lean coffee format

Lean coffee makes it possible to facilitate a discussion among a group of people who don’t know each other, without needing preparation or choosing topics in advance. With an existing team that works well together, you can adapt the format, to make it less strict and let it use more time. A less formal and intimidating format than a classic lean coffee event may in turn make it easier for all team members to participate.

Lean coffee gives each topic a short time box, typically less than ten minutes, to prevent one person dominating the agenda. When you have more time, and a team that naturally chooses topics that everyone finds relevant, you can give each topic more time, say 10-15 minutes to start with.

Go out for lunch

Participating in a long series of short discussions uses a lot of energy, so as well as frequent breaks, take a proper lunch break. Eating together forms the canonical team activity, of course.

Leave the building for lunch, if you can, for some fresh air and a change of scene. Time away from your meeting room helps everyone ‘reset’, and will allow you to start fresh in the afternoon.

Start the afternoon with a clean board

To start fresh after lunch, start with a clean ‘board’. Remove the unused topics from the start of the day, and do another round of proposing topics and voting.

The morning’s discussions, and a lunch break to reflect on them, may inspire new ideas. If you don’t generate new topics, you risk spending the afternoon on less interesting topics that didn’t attract enough votes at the start of the day.

End the day with a mini-retro

Conduct a short and simple retrospective meeting, for 20-30 minutes. Use the retrospective to improve future team events, but also to give everyone some closure at the end of the day.

You should probably make some notes during the day, or at least photograph the whiteboard. But if you don’t, at least record the retrospective to refer to when you plan the next event, especially if that will happen months later.