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5 ways to facilitate better retrospectives as a distributed team

Retrium Team

When you think of a retrospective, you most likely envision a group of people sitting around a conference room, discussing roadblocks, and mapping out ways to improve their processes. However, with the advancement of technology and the desire for flexible work schedules, more teams are working and collaborating in their own space and time zones.

This is especially true for development teams. According to Gallup, 57% of the IT industry in the U.S. work remotely. In addition, software developers are within the top 5 remote jobs worldwide.

If you are on an IT team or manage one, then retrospectives are a common part of your workflow and schedule. But if you’re on a distributed team, then everyone can’t walk down the hallway or swivel around in their chair to hop into a meeting. This means a distributed team’s levels of communication, transparency, and collaboration need to be at 110%.

Retrospectives can be even more effective on a distributed team since the distance requires everyone to be intentional and clear with communication, prioritization, and time management.

You may have to put in some more effort but your retrospectives can be just as effective (if not more) than the in-person ones. Here are our top tips for facilitating even better retros with your distributed team.

1. Encourage virtual team bonding

A traditional office setting creates a natural social environment from the start. There’s the typical weekend recaps at the water cooler💧, happy hour pow-wows🍹, and bathroom sink small talk👋.

Distributed teams, however, are left with only their keyboards and screens to communicate, which can make it a little more difficult to have informal conversations throughout the workday.

It’s for this reason that virtual team bonding needs to start long before the retrospective does. Anyone can create opportunities for their team to bond virtually, they just have to get creative!

"Think about the way you would have those conversations in an office, and then try to replicate that in a virtual environment." says Brie Reynolds, director of online content at FlexJobs.

Weekend recaps

Every Monday, schedule a time for the whole team to chat freely about their weekend activities. This is a great way for team members to discover commonalities such as hobbies, life events, and passions with their colleagues.

Scott and Sally both attended film festivals this weekend? Voila - a connection is made! 👏

Pro-tip: Make this a routine in your daily stand-ups!

Coffee dates

By creating a coffee date calendar, team members can rotate by getting some one-on-one time with their colleagues to casually discuss non-work related topics.

Just how co-located teams can enjoy a lunch break or coffee run with a team member, your remote employees can bond over whatever iced, hot, caffeinated or not, beverage they’d like in their respective environments ☕

As David Horowitz, CEO and Co-Founder of Retrium explains:

"When the team is remote you need to be more intentional about un-intentional conversations."


Virtual water cooler

A less forced and more serendipitous way to connect your team is to dedicate a Slack channel for ‘water cooler chats’ - or any non-work related topics. Build remote company culture, create connections, and lighten the mood by encouraging your team to share funny memes, interesting articles, or pictures of their pets 🐶.

2. Get facetime through video calls

When co-located teams come together for a meeting or retrospective, it’s quite easy to read people’s emotions through their mannerisms, tone of voice, and by the overall vibe in the room. For distributed teams, it’s not so simple.

By conducting meetings or retrospectives through a simple phone call, participants miss out on the important face-to-face experience that you would normally get in-person. Without video, participants are unable to see the subtle facial reactions such as smiles, eyebrow movements, or head nods that indicate silent agreement and active listening.

Wendy Samter, author of Explaining Communication: Contemporary Theories and Exemplars and Professor of Communication explains:

“Non-verbal messages are trusted over verbal messages when those two channels of information conflict. Because we believe that nonverbal actions are more subconscious than verbal messages, we tend to believe the non-verbal over the verbal.”

Luckily, high-quality video conferencing allows for distributed teams to come together in a way that closely replicates in-person meetings. Moving forward, plan to facilitate your retrospective via a video conference call so everyone can feel like they are in the same room.

By facilitating regular video meetings, and conducting your retrospectives with mandatory video participation by all, you can create a more personal, natural, and human interaction for everyone.

3. Manage time zones

If your team is spread across the world, holding meetings that work with everyone’s sleep schedule poses a challenge. While it’s ideal for all participants to have their meetings scheduled during prime working hours, it’s not always possible. 🌎

Set the expectation early that retrospectives or meetings will always be held at a fixed time, every time. Alex Turnball, CEO of Groove agrees with this method:

“Some companies rotate this time. For us, it’s fixed: 10AM EST, every weekday. There are team members that have to get up early or stay up late to make this daily meeting, but it’s a small price to pay for all of the benefits of remote work. And it’s hugely valuable for our team.”

Pro Tip: To make planning meetings easy, use World Time Buddy to easily visualize time zones side by side. Also, if you click on ‘View Profile’ in Slack, you can view what time of day it currently is for that user, to ensure you’re not bothering them mid REM cycle 😴

4. Maintain a strong structure

By regularly using a few simple strategies, retrospective facilitators can easily keep the discussion interesting, engaging, and effective.

Retrospective facilitations: methods for success

Decide which retrospective exercises you’ll be using well in advance. Here are a few of our favorite facilitation techniques at Retrium:

  • Mad, Sad, Glad: Put simply, this is an exercise to allow participants to give open-ended answers on what made them frustrated, disappointed, and happy during the sprint. This is a great way to check the emotional pulse of your team.
  • Lean Coffee: This is an agenda-less retrospective, where participants vote on which topics they’d like to prioritize and then discuss them.
  • Start, Stop, Continue: This is a great way to generate action-oriented feedback, by asking participants which actions they believe should be introduced, which actions should be stopped going forward, and what they believe to be helpful and should continue doing.

Follow these best practices every time you facilitate a retrospective with your remote team as well:

  • Set Timed Discussions: Encourage open discussions, but keep the length limited so that the talkers on the team aren’t rambling on while the introverts sit quietly ⏱
  • Encourage Participation With Psychological Safety: In order for your team members to participate transparently, it’s important that they feel safe to do so. By establishing psychological safety amongst your team and throughout your retrospectives, you can expect your team members to speak up, speak honestly, and speak often 🗣️
  • Try Retrium For Free! Users of Retrium can enjoy customized structure while facilitating their retrospectives, while maintaining anonymity and guaranteeing active participation by all. During your free trial you’ll discover the wide variety of facilitation techniques that guarantee continuous improvement for your team’s methods 🙌

5. Fuel action with follow-up

Just like team bonding is essential to do prior to the retrospective, follow-up is just as important to conduct post retrospective.

Once you’ve compiled your list of improvements and the plan for making them, don’t stop there. Be sure to send out a follow-up summary of the retrospective and actionable items for each team member. This will hold everyone accountable to understand the plan and the expectations to achieve it.

By sending a follow-up email, you’re also opening the door for feedback, questions, and forgotten topics, which you should state are always welcome.

By holding regular retrospectives, your remote team can come together (virtually) to discuss what’s been going well, which processes needs to change, and create a plan for improvement.

Rock the remote retrospective

Though distributed teams require a bit more effort to function at peak productivity, the challenges are often far outweighed by the benefits of remote work, such as extra freedom, flexibility, and work life balance 🙌

By following these best practices your distributed team will be running better and more engaging retrospectives every week. And while you’re at it — get a free demo of Retrium. We built the platform with distributed teams in mind.

Up Next: Are the people with the best ideas staying quiet in your stand-ups? Discover how to encourage your team to speak up in meetings.

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