Start free trial

Back to Academy

Retrospective 101

Retrospectives with remote and distributed teams

Let’s imagine a team sitting around a table about to start a retrospective. At first, it’s a retrospective just like any other. There are flip charts and sticky notes and even coffee and doughnuts!

But then, something very strange happens. Jane, one of the team members, turns her chair around so that her back is facing the rest of the team. And she refuses to turn back around.

It’s a small change. And yet it impacts the retrospective in a profound way.

Sure, Jane will still be able to hear the discussion, but she is no longer able to see the rest of her team. All of the nonverbal cues that the rest of the team subconsciously internalizes are out of sight. Jane won’t see glances between teammates, changes in facial expressions, or subtle shifts in chairs.

In short, there is no longer a level playing field.

In fact, if Jane actually did this in real life, you’d be so confused, you’d stop the entire retrospective simply to find out what in the world she was doing.

And yet, something similar happens to many teams on a regular basis.

I’m talking about remote teams. In particular, two types of remote teams. First, teams in which only a subset of people are remote (while the rest are collocated). And second, fully remote teams in which some people have video turned on and others don’t.

In either case, these remote teams suffer from an unlevel playing field just like Jane’s team

But remote work is here to stay. So how can we overcome these challenges to help teams work together to maintain unity and encourage participation across all team members regardless of their physical location? Read on.


Never run a retrospective before?

Try Retrium. It guides you through the retrospective process

Start today for free!

Create a level playing field

If one person is remote, everyone is remote.

What does this mean?

Put simply, it means that if one person on your team is working remotely, everyone on the team should behave as if they’re working remotely, too. In the example above, when Jane turned her chair around, everyone should have turned their chair around.

We get it. It may feel unnatural to chat with someone over Zoom when they are sitting next to you. But hear us out.


In a 2008 paper for the Encyclopedia of Communication, Communication Inequality, Shoba Ramanadhan and Dr. Kasisomayajula Viswanath examined the impact of communication inequalities on teams. Their research found that teams that more regularly experience moments of inequality have a lower understanding of projects, timelines, and relationships compared to others in the group that do not experience communication inequality.


In other words, when everyone has different access to the discussion, you create holes in your team’s knowledge. 

If you have ever been in a meeting with someone with an expressive personality, you know how many ideas can be conveyed in a smile while looking down, or a grimace and a subtle sigh, or even a subtle shift in gaze. Everyone should have the same level of access to these expressions we choose to convey.  


“Otherwise everyone else has an in-person experience with facial expressions and body-language cues except for those dialing in. It’s almost as if you are having a conversation in another language.” 


-Sam Laing  "Top Tips For Distributed Meetings." Growing Agile, https://www.growingagile.co.za/2017/06/top-tips-for-distributed-meetings/


So how can we be more inclusive and keep everyone on the same page? By making sure everyone has the same level of access to the conversation. 


Conversations on shared chat channels should be encouraged. Adoption of video conferencing tools should become a universal practice to the point that folks automatically open individual apps during team discussions. 

What else can you do to make sure each teammate is fairly being heard?


Mark Kilby, agile guide and co-author of, From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams: Collaborate to Deliver, suggests using a pairing technique to ensure everyone’s voice is heard.

The pairing technique pairs someone who is remote with someone who is in the room with the goal of giving the out-of-room teammate an in-the-room voice. The person in the room actively advocates for the remote team member.

For example, if the remote participant is having trouble being heard or getting the group’s attention, their partner speaks up and draws the group’s attention to the remote teammate’s contribution. 


While this technique does not provide access to the body language and silent cues occurring in the room, it may provide a middle ground for those teams that lack the resources for everyone to act remote.     


To reduce any resistance, try acting as if the full team is remote as part of an experiment. Give your team a SMART goal to try the next five meetings recreating remote conditions for everyone anytime there is a remote call. Then you can retrospect 🤩 to see how it impacted the team. Remember, you can always go back to the “old way.”



Establish Working Agreements

Retrospective conversations are meant to be a bit challenging. After all, you are looking at the issues and problems your team is facing. Sometimes that can lead to difficult conversations.

Add in screen delays, different communication styles, and if you aren’t careful, tempers will start to flare. 💥 Or people might stop talking entirely. 😱


Working agreements help strike a balance for how teams and team members best work together. So you can still have effective retrospective conversations.

Working agreements create an opportunity for the team to play an active role in deciding how and when they want to work together. A great working agreement is for the team, by team. Not only does this increase team buy-in, it also allows for team members to speak out on their unique needs.


What should you include in a working agreement? 


Here are some of the topics you may want to include in your working agreement for team retrospectives: 


  • Do you have a value or mission statement? Set the stage by including the values or mission statements that define the purpose of the group in your working agreement. 
  • Does your team always start each retrospective with good news? Make sure you add that to your working agreement for retrospectives. 
  • Do you find members of the team are interrupting others while they’re sharing ideas? Include a section in your working agreement on decorum guidelines. 
  • Are you using tools like Slack, webcams, or project management software in your daily lives or during your retrospective? Are team members turning off their webcams? Be sure to add guidelines for use, too! 


Creating a working agreement encourages psychological safety in your retrospectives. Not only does it hold each team member accountable for the retrospective procedure, by creating a working agreement together each person has the knowledge of why that guideline is in effect. And, as they say, knowledge is power. In this case, the power to work together and focus on an effective retrospective. 😄

Your working agreement should remain highly visible and be treated as a living document that each team member can regularly access and suggest updates and amendments that everyone can decide on as a group. Review and adapt it regularly to ensure it remains relevant and applicable to the team as it grows, changes, and is subject to outside influences.

Never run a retrospective before?

Try Retrium. It guides you through the retrospective process

Start today for free!

Bonus: Download the Working Agreement Template to start your team's agreement today.

Be Prepared

Have you ever been to a retrospective meeting where no data, or notes, or even an agenda was brought along? 😱 (And if so, you really need to share the 5 Phases of an Effective Retrospective with the facilitator of that meeting!) Just because a team is remote, does not mean that your responsibility to prepare for a retrospective - or any meeting - is voided or revised.


What should you prepare?


An Agenda


One of the best ways you can prepare is to send out an agenda beforehand. 


But wait! Part of the retrospective is coming up with notes inside the meeting. How can I send out an agenda when we don’t know what others will say? 🤔


Great question! 


The agenda for a remote retrospective will look a little different than other meeting agendas. In Chapter 3: Facilitating Open Discussion, we talked about how allowing others to prepare their answers in advance can improve engagement amongst introverted team members during retrospectives. An agenda helps people prepare for the retrospective and helps Set the stage. You want to send enough information about the retrospective that everyone is prompted to begin brainstorming before the retro even begins. 


Here’s some of the points you can include in your agenda: 


  • the technique(s) you are planning to use, 
  • the goals from the last sprint, 
  • and a timeline to manage expectations for how much time will be spent on each phase of the retrospective. 


This will help others think about the retrospective and what they need to prepare to have an effective and productive discussion.  

Retrospective Agenda from Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen


Reminders 


Aino Corry, agile coach and author of Retrospectives Antipatterns,  encourages teams to use reminders to help your team start the retrospective on the right foot.


Corry recommends sending two reminder emails out: the first 24 hours before the retrospective and the second reminder should be sent 15 minutes before the retrospective. These reminders can help each participant start thinking about what topics and data they need to prepare for the discussion. Aino uses a special technique in that 15 minute reminder email. 


“I like to send out an email reminding others to stretch and get water before the retro. We get stuck behind a screen so often. By reminding [participants] to get up, and start getting in that mindset, they can come into the retro fresh.”


-Aino Corry, Blaming and Naming: Recognizing and Avoiding Retrospective Antipatterns

In an office setting, you can ask people how they’re feeling about the upcoming retrospective in the break room. It's easy to see when others get up and walk to the meeting. But as members of a remote team, we don’t have those casual encounters and visual cues that it’s time to go. And it is only becoming easier to ignore those five minute reminders from our calendars.😬


By sending out a reminder a day ahead of the meeting, you’ve sparked the participants to prepare notes and encouraged them to be mindful of topics they may forget during the discussion. And the email you send 15 minutes before the retrospective begins reminds teams to take a moment to stretch, get water, step outside for a breath of fresh air, or do whatever anyone needs to do to switch gears. This also helps to ensure that participants get to the retro on time and - most importantly - are in the right mindset to discuss and grow.


Create a Reflective Environment

Your retrospective is a place for teams to explore new ideas and cover difficult challenges. That doesn’t change when you go remote. In order to successfully face those challenges as a remote team, it is important to create a safe environment that facilitates reflection (of course!) and creativity.


In The Remote Facilitator’s Pocket Guide, authors Kirsten Clacey and Jay-Allen Morris emphasize the importance of “crafting your container.”

“The container you create will elicit a certain kind of behavior. If you put people in a boxing ring, it is most likely they will box. If you put people in a bounce castle, it is quite possible that they will play. So what can we, as facilitators, do to create and maintain containers that enable playful learning mindsets?”

Your container is more than the physical space. It is the words you choose, the vibe you create. Which means that even if your team members are spread out across the globe, you can still be crafting your container for successful retrospectives.

There is no such thing as a “perfect retrospective.” But as Kirsten and Jay-Allen explain, there are ways that you can encourage more playful and inquisitive behaviors that can help your team develop new ideas and discover creative solutions. 


You can do this by:

  • Creating and encouraging enthusiasm 
  • Encouraging a growth mindset when discussing problems
  • Using visualizations and metaphors that connect with the team’s experiences 
  • Using  techniques that promote your team’s psychological safety
  • Use music, gifs, and different media to break the routine 
  • Use different retrospective techniques to inspire the team to view problems from a different perspective 

By planning ahead, you are more likely to create an open and playful space where your team feels confident that they are in a safe environment- even for difficult conversations.

Include the Specifics

Another way teams can create an open environment for retrospectives is to include a specific guideline in the team’s working agreement that requires participants to turn on video cameras during meetings.

It is important to note that turning on your camera may not be best for every team every time. For one, it might not be possible for all teams because of equipment or bandwidth limitations.


Kids, roommates, significant others, and even pets may lead some team members to feel uncomfortable turning their camera on. The whole team should be comfortable with camera decisions, so this really needs to be bottom up agreement and not dictated by someone.

What is the value of keeping cameras on?

If you think back to the example at the beginning of the chapter, by turning on your camera, you’re allowing the person (or people) that turned their chairs away from the table to see, opening up the opportunity to pick up on nonverbal cues.


As explained in a blog for CLiCKITPodcast  turning on your camera, 

  • Communicates confidence
  • Captures non-verbal cues as well
  • Improves engagement
  • Keeps remote teams even more connected


As a facilitator, when everyone has their camera on, it is easier to see head nods of approval to move forward, or looks of contemplation to slow down. Plus, having your camera on introduces another level of accountability as team members are more likely to focus on the meeting, instead of getting distracted by other tasks.

Getting Past Web Meeting Fatigue

We get it. The temptation to do other work during meetings can be overwhelming. Especially when you have been staring at a screen all day. So how can you get past web meeting fatigue and keep engagement high? 


Here are a few ideas we use and love. 


Start with a pulse check or icebreaker. Plan a few minutes at the start of your meeting to check-in on how everyone is doing. Did they have any wins since the last sprint? You can even prompt a conversation about everyone’s favorite dessert to set the tone for the meeting and excite engagement. 


Keep the meeting going with Non-Verbal Tools. ELMO cards, lenses, filters, or even sign language are some of the tools teams use to help keep meetings moving and realign focus during the discussion. 


Take A Break. For some teams, quarterly or annual retrospectives can take 2-6 hours. When your retrospectives are scheduled to last longer than an hour, plan breaks ahead of time, tell the participants when they will happen, and stick to them. Conversations can be picked back up easily and it’s important to protect and preserve the team’s engagement which can begin to drift if they haven’t seen anything but a screen for hours.


Start and end by reviewing clear cut goals and action items. If your team is struggling to understand why they are there instead of focusing on their work, engagement is going to be low. In Chapter 7: Psychological Safety, we discussed starting each retrospective with the Prime Directive. Take that a step further by reviewing the specific goals for your team from the last sprint and review any new goals created at the end of your prior retrospective. This helps your team easily acknowledge and become invested in the progress being made from each meeting.  


Use Polling To Gain Feedback. How did your retrospective go? The answer to this question might surprise you, so be sure to ask it! Use polling between techniques for longer retros or at the end of the meeting to prevent the retrospectives from becoming stagnant. Polls are also a great way to keep participants in the experimentation mindset for the next meeting. It’s also a great Close The Retro technique.


Share the Pain. Hosting the meeting. Writing notes. Facilitating conversation. These small responsibilities can add up. For teams with a designated facilitator such as an Agile Coach or Scrum Master, these positions may fall to someone who does not actively participate in the team discussion by design. But for smaller teams, this work may fall on someone who should be participating. So share the work. Make sure scribe, hosting and facilitating duties rotate through the team so no one member is consistently working on multiple tasks.


Sharing does not need to be limited to work inside the meeting. If you have a global team, consider switching up what time you are meeting. Make a working agreement to change the time every other retrospective. For example, agree to alternate the time you run retrospectives so that every other one is at 8 am ET and then the other retrospectives are at 8 am IST. This way teams in different time zones can each enjoy a meeting during more comfortable business hours.  

Bonus Tip! Try switching out your facilitator even if you have a designated Agile Coach. Fresh eyes can often see the team dynamics creating hurdles in the sprint that members often avoid. It also provides a learning opportunity for someone new to try the facilitator role.


Utilize breakout sessions. Silence can mean a lot in a retrospective. It can mean everyone is thinking, no one is thinking, or there is an unclear way to start the conversation. Whatever the case may be, if it is on the list of topics the team wanted to discuss or it is a residual issue from another retrospective, odds are the team has thoughts to share that the participants may not be ready to share with the group. 


If this happens in your retrospective, breakout rooms give team members the opportunity to open up in smaller groups. Perhaps the thought that was not fully formed enough for the group just needs a bit of exploring in a smaller session.


You can also use breakout groups to participate in techniques like 1-2-4-All from Liberating Structures.

The 1-2-4-All activity follows a pattern that increases the number of participants discussing ideas as time progresses. The four steps allow participants to: 

  • Silently reflect for one minute on a question posed in the retrospective
  • Pair with another teammate to share each or your ideas and develop new perspectives in 4 minutes. 
  • Join another pair and discuss each others thoughts and the primary takeaway for 5 minutes
  • Rejoin the group discussion.


This is a great activity if you have a larger group with diverse ideas that require focus to help start the conversation. It also ensures that each voice is heard and allows for richer conversations that often go deeper than a larger group discussion.  

Having a Plan B,C,D...


Let’s face it: tools break. Internet connections falter. People forget to go on mute. Again. And one day you are writing a chapter about agile retrospectives, then 💥 your computer starts smoking (true story). My point is that you can’t prevent those small disaster moments when technology just doesn’t work. But you can mitigate the risks and downsides by having a backup plan.


For example, if your internet is down, can you use your phone to join in so you maintain both video and audio access to the conversation? Or, if your computer locks you out during a particularly daunting update, do you have a backup laptop around that you can use for that presentation you have in 5 minutes?


By planning ahead, you’re able to avoid (or at least minimize) those moments of panic where you don’t have connectivity for the presentation you’ve been preparing for weeks. 


“Opportunity does not waste time with those who are unprepared.”


- Idowu Koyenikan,

Wealth for All: Living a Life of Success at the Edge of Your Ability


Tools For Effective Remote Retrospectives

Ok now that we've gone over practical tips for remote retrospectives, there's one more thing that's critically important if your team is remote and you’re running retrospectives, you will need a tool.

I know: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

But that’s why it’s important to pick a tool that supports individuals and encourages interactions. Not all tools do.

Remember, if you were 100% colocated, you’d also rely on tools. Sticky notes. Pens. Markers. Flip charts.

Remote teams are no different. But their tools have to be.

When making a decision about what tool is right for you, there are different types of tools you will need to consider.

1. Open collaboration tools


If you are an experienced facilitator, want unlimited customization options, and have the time to build each template, you want an open collaboration tool.

2. Structured collaboration

If you are an expert in leading in-depth conversations, and only need a tool to stay organized, you want a structured collaboration tool.

3. Facilitated collaboration

Most retrospective facilitators will want this type of tool. That's because the most popular retro techniques, like Start Stop Continue, Mad Sad Glad, and Lean Coffee, are built right in to the tool. You can try this type of tool through Retrium today.



4. Deciding you don't need a tool... yet

If you are between tools and still developing an agile team, you already using this tool.


Be True to Your Unique Team

Teams and organizations are constantly developing new strategies for collaboration. With a little experimentation you can find out what works best for your team and can continue to innovate on new ideas and new agreements to help your team as it evolves. 


Be sure to subscribe for updates on upcoming chapters. Next time, we’ll take on the topic of diversity and inclusion in your retrospectives.


Where’s the next chapter?

We're still working on it! The next chapter will be available soon. Sign up below and we'll let you know when it's ready! 🚀 

Get started with Retrium

Try all retrospective templates for 30 days

Start free trial

Learn more about Retrium

Get to know Retrium with a customized walk through

Schedule demo