Tea Time: Because We Won’t Stand For A Standup

My team has never had a standup meeting.

I know this is the standard approach of modern software methodology. At some point in the day, you have a meeting where everybody piles into a conference room and nobody sits down. A manager or tech lead or project manager makes everybody speak as succinctly as possible and then everybody flees as soon as they can be released. It’s usually held at the earliest time that you can expect people to be in the office, around 10 a.m. – except nobody who gets in before 10 a.m. can get anything done because the meeting will trash any focus gained.

I have also found that certain meetings develop a fear response. Standup meetings are like this. Just about everybody who is not a pathological liar or part-machine is going to have a bad day at least once in a while. And so there develops this little seed of fear that someone is going to call you out on it. And then there’s that time where you got a little too long-winded and whoever was running the standup called you out on it.

Nobody likes their standup.

Instead, we have tea time.

In a team, you have unavoidable communication requirements. Some of it is business-related; we go through the team and everyone explains what they have been working on and what they might be blocked on – a casual version of a standup. And some of it is that mushy touchy-feely stuff that you can’t categorize but binds a team together. It’s the antithesis of direct and precise office communication, but in-jokes and silly stories and “I’m feeling meh about this” have always been a part of people working together.

It started when we were planning, before we started development on our project. We would plan things between other responsibilities sitting in the corner of the office where there is a couch and a big-screen TV (it’s there for pair programming, which is another story). Eventually, we needed a break. Felix, our English Product Manager, says “Ken, fancy some tea?” He comes back with a hot pot of tea, teacups and Hobnobs (which are quite nice biscuits… made of oats and covered with chocolate and oh so good). Then, as we were holding our hot cups of tea, we started talking about our day like old ladies at a tea party. It was only when the tea got cold that we realized we accomplished the goal of a standup with none of the angst. So we kept on doing it.

We bought some white ornate china teapots, teacups and saucers with cobalt-blue designs on them. We bought a variety of rather nice teas… no cheap grocery-store tea. And we have tea-treats: an informal rotation of Jaffa cakes, scones, Hobnobs, cookies, and so on. On particularly indulgent days, someone will bring scones, jam and clotted cream for a real cream tea.

If you think back to basic human rituals, dating back to the days when we were cavemen sitting around the fire, sharing food has been a form of community bonding; something that relaxes that uncomfortable caveman or cavewoman that is taken out of the jungle and stuffed into an ironic t-shirt and pair of jeans and never quite figured out how to handle being a tiny little hindbrain part of a software engineer. So you can be more relaxed about things. Bad news is less bad with a cup of tea in your hand. Just ask your Granny.

The intention is that we are going to take longer on tea time than a standup. We are doing this on purpose. But it is not wasted time; just about all of us start to run out of steam around 3 p.m. After our updates, the discussions we have during tea time are not always related to the project, nor sometimes even to work. But they are all quite valuable to the team (depending on the day and the topic – some more than others!). We’re maintaining culture and esprit de corps while, at the same time, we do those tasks that everybody tends to rely upon a standup meeting for.

It’s been going on for a while now, and it seems to be pervasive at this point. People know that if they want to physically chat with us, run an idea by, or just see what our team is about… they can just drop by and have a spot of tea.

Ken was a software development manager in Rackspace's San Francisco office. He worked to make the cloud better through new services and features. He worked on cloud monitoring as a service and is in the process of developing exciting new features for the Rackspace Open Cloud. He was also “the bike guy,” responsible for making Rackspace’s San Francisco office an award-winning bicycle-friendly workplace.


  1. Wow. If your standups are as you suggest in this article, you’re doing them wrong. Full stop!

    Stand-ups where I’ve always worked have more in common with your tea-time than with the horror story-inducing meetings you allude to above. Bluntly, if someone in your tea-time calls someone out for having a bad day, the onus is on the rest of the team to remind said individual to leave his ego at the doorstoop on his way in to work.

  2. I’m very curious as to how conversations unfold during Tea Time. How does the dialog during a Tea Time progress and how does everyone involved get what they’re looking for out of the meeting (I know standups are intended for the DevTeam, but in our current incarnation our Product Owner gets a LOT out of them, and I’d hate to see that lost in the transition to something like this). I don’t suppose you’ve captured a Tea Time on video and would be willing to share, I’m really curious as to what this looks like and would love to be a fly on the wall.


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