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Almost everyone I know is working remotely or has experienced it. This move from work offices to home offices has brought challenges for managers in keeping collaboration fluid and productive. The distance can pose some inconveniences and challenges for teams to communicate and collaborate. Leaders must take advantage of technology and use this to bridge their teams and the greater organization. It’s already difficult to keep everyone engaged in an in-person meeting. The difficulty doubles when conducting remote team meetings. So, it is a must that managers and team leaders know how to keep meetings engaging and productive. Managers can use a variety of meeting styles to facilitate their meetings. One of the meeting styles that I like to use when conducting remote team meetings is Lean Coffee. But how do you pull off a remote Lean Coffee meeting?

What is the Purpose of Lean Coffee?

Leancoffee.org defines Lean Coffee as a structured but agenda-less meeting. The same definition translates to remote Lean Coffee. The difference primarily lies in the tools used to execute the meeting. But before we tackle how to implement a remote Lean Coffee, let’s address the elephant in the room?

“Why would you want to have an agenda-less meeting?”

This is a common apprehension of most managers when they first hear about Lean Coffee. The words agenda-less can suggest thoughts of disorder, chaos, or confusion. But Lean Coffee meetings are not totally agenda-less. In Lean Coffee meetings, participants get together and decide as a group on what topics will be discussed during the meeting.

A common reason why people disengage from meetings is that they don’t always see the benefit of the meeting to them. The agenda is usually prepared by the meeting facilitator and people just need to follow that agenda. But what your team members have a specific item they want to bring up? How will their voices be heard?

This is where a Lean Coffee setup will help. 

In Lean Coffee, everyone is given the chance to bring forth their items for discussion and everyone votes on what items they want to discuss first. This democratizes the meeting and makes it a collaborative event for everyone. 

How to Facilitate a Lean Coffee Remotely

Here’s the typical in-person Lean Coffee format.

  1. Gather your Lean Coffee participants in a room.
  2. Have everyone list the topics they want to discuss.
  3. Give topic proponents 1-2 sentences to describe their topic.
  4. Have everyone vote on the topics and what gets discussed first. Each participant gets 2 votes.
  5. Get talking.

This depicts the high-level flow of a Lean Coffee meeting. In an in-person Lean Coffee, participants are given a pen and sticky notes to list their topics. One sticky note per topic is required. 

To facilitate a Lean Coffee meeting remotely, you need a visual tool to help everyone be on the same page as to what will be discussed. This is where an online Kanban tool will be very handy. 

Here are the steps to facilitate your next remote Lean Coffee and make sure you have a productive meeting.

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Before the actual meeting:

  1. Setup your online Lean Coffee Kanban board.
  2. Setup your online conference room.
  3. Send your meeting invites to your participants.

During the meeting:

  1. Get your remote Lean Coffee participants in an online conference room. Video conferencing is preferred to keep engagement. 
  2. Present your Lean Coffee Kanban Board and explain the structure and mechanics of Lean Coffee. If it’s the first time that the team is using the Kanban board tool, make sure to demo how to create Kanban cards.
  3. Start getting topics by encouraging participants to create their topic cards and line them up on the To Discuss column.
  4. Have those that filed Kanban cards explain their topics in at most 2 sentences.
  5. Have the participants vote on the topics. Each participant still gets 2 votes. Note each vote on the card.
  6. Tally the votes.
  7. Start discussing the topic with the most votes and go down the list by priority (number of votes).

Virtual Lean Coffee for Distributed Teams

Doing a remote Lean Coffee is a great alternative to the usual team meetings. You might find this meeting style useful for brainstorming and innovation-driven discussions. I also find this style useful for problem-solving meetings. We often see this format used in conferences and corporate meetings to break the ice and encourage participation. I also find this meeting style effective when running retrospectives. It encourages the team to voice out their opinion and ideas. It also ensures their points are heard by everyone. 

It can be difficult to build rapport when your teams are distributed. A remote Lean Coffee meeting can be a technique that you can use to encourage your teams to speak up and be heard. On the other side, it’s also a chance for those “powerful voices” to take a step back and let other team members grab the microphone. Using a visual tool like an online Kanban board makes it easier for everyone to get on the same page and understand the topics at hand.

If you’re planning to run your next meeting Lean Coffee style, you can try out our Lean Coffee Kanban board template. It’s an easy way to kickstart Lean Coffee on your next remote team meeting. 

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About the Author: Lena Boiser

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Lena Boiser is an Agile enthusiast. Starting off her career as a Software Business Analyst in 2010, she eventually performed other roles including Project Manager and IT Business Manager. When she was immersed in Agile methodologies in 2014, Lena found her way through honing her craft and eventually became a Certified Scrum Product Owner. In 2017, after 7 years of working in the corporate world, Lena started her own remote consulting practice. Today, she provides project management and Scrum Product Ownership services to various businesses including software development companies, e-Commerce business owners, and small to medium sized companies. She believes that even teams working remotely can harness the benefits of Agile in order to deliver results for their companies. In her free time she likes to write. One day she could be writing about Agile, the next she could be writing anything about fashion or travel.