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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.
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.”
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:
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.
Bonus: Download the Working Agreement Template to start your team's agreement today.
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?
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? 🤔
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:
This will help others think about the retrospective and what they need to prepare to have an effective and productive discussion.
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.”
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.
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:
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,
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.
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