The Morning Stand-Up: An Old Military Staple Promotes Productivity During a Pandemic

The author describes a practice he learned in the military known as the morning stand up and discusses how it can help in this new remote work era.

0800 in the colonel’s office. The morning stand-up. 

Few in the private sector have ever heard of this practice or know what it entails. However, this old tried-and-tested military standard may just be the solution to increasing employee productivity during the COVID-19 pandemic when millions of Americans are working remotely—many even without a home office, but rather, working on the couch, at the kitchen table, in a spare bedroom, or on the back porch.

How are managers and supervisors, short of invasive and undesirable electronic monitoring and surveillance of employees’ activities, expected to maintain a high level of employee productivity in this challenging environment? Gone, at least temporarily, are the days where a supervisor could simply pop into an office, call an impromptu meeting by walking down a row of cubicles, or informally check in on staff when grabbing a drink at the water cooler. 

Allow me to introduce the morning stand-up. 

As a junior lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, the first time that I was instructed to report at 0800 to the boss’s office for morning stand-up, I had no clue what the senior captain was talking about and wondered why we would be reporting to the boss’s office to stand around. Turns out, what happened over the next 20 minutes has stuck with me for the last decade. Now, I share my experience with leaders who are struggling to find ways to manage a remote workforce, meet deadlines and goals, are trying to preserve employee morale, and not damage the employer-employee trust relationship built over time in the physical workplace.

At morning stand-up, there is no sitting down. Each person in the room stands up with their notebook and a pen. The boss goes around the room and asks everyone to articulate what their top three tasks are for that day. Then, the boss has an opportunity to reprioritize or modify each person’s top three list as needed to accomplish the organization’s broader goals and mission, based on the boss’s knowledge of the bigger picture. After the stand-up, each employee goes back to their work station and diligently focuses on accomplishing the top three tasks on which the boss has signed off.

Readers may wonder if there is another stand-up at the end of the day to confirm that employees have successfully completed their top three tasks. No, there is not. Nobody wants to have to go into the next day’s morning stand-up and tell the boss that the first item on their top three list was a leftover from the day before. It happened to me once, and it was embarrassing.

When subordinates respect and admire their leaders, they naturally want to look good and not disappoint them. This was true at the morning stand-up. If we had to repeat a top three task more than once or twice, we felt like we were letting the colonel down and not living up to our fullest potential. At a minimum, a leftover task reflected that we were not being as productive as we should be. Consequently, the problem of productivity solved itself. Every day at morning stand-up, the goal was to have a whole new top three list. The implication becomes that we had successfully completed our previous top three from the day before.

During COVID-19, supervisors can embrace a modified morning stand-up and hold a Zoom video conference meeting. Eye contact and visual cues are key, so I would not recommend that the stand-up be conducted by telephone or over email.

Having a Zoom video conference with the entire team where each person discusses their top three lists would ensure that the team is on the same page and that each team member understands each other’s roles and priorities. Furthermore, it would foster a sort of togetherness in this era of social distancing. Most importantly, it would help the business leader keep productivity on pace—at least on a pace that works best with remote working.

Morning stand-up version 2.0 will help maintain employee morale, improve team cohesiveness, and provide employees with the motivation that a business needs them to have in order to meet the organization’s goals and fulfill the broader mission.

Having participated in hundreds of morning stand-ups throughout my military career, I recommend that you try giving this old military tradition a new life. What do you have to lose?

Lorek out.

Jeffrey J. Lorek is Senior Counsel at Clark Hill PLC in Washington, D.C and represents Federal and public employees in a variety of employment related matters. He served on active duty with the Air Force for 10 years, and currently serves as a Deputy Staff Judge Advocate in the Air National Guard. As an advisor, litigator, and labor and employment attorney, he applies his military officership and leadership training and skills to help clients solve problems.