As predicted some time ago and recently catalysed, the popularity of remote working continues apace.

Whether partially or fully remote, the benefits of such a workforce are hard to ignore –

  • increased productivity and reach
  • decreased costs
  • access to a diverse talent pool
  • better retention and employee satisfaction

Within the context of agile, the retrospective is critical to the success of a team. So, given the increasing popularity of a remote workforce, it stands to reason it’s important for an Iteration Manager or Scrum Master to be able to facilitate an online retrospective as effectively as they would one that’s face to face.

With this in mind, we’ve put together the following to share our tried and true tips for running effective online retrospectives.

What makes an effective online retrospective?

Here at TeamRetro, we practice what we preach, running regular retrospectives in order to improve our product and our team.

From our perspective, regardless of the medium of their delivery, an effective retrospective has the following characteristics –

  • has a regular cadence
  • operates with a shared understanding of what’s expected of the team
  • allows all voices to be heard
  • occurs in a safe, judgement-free space
  • adheres to the allocated time
  • is easily and concisely documented
  • supports team morale
  • delivers a clear set of actions for the next sprint, and a shared understanding as to who is responsible for their delivery

Ensuring these outcomes are delivered in an online environment boils down to two key elements

  • An online environment supportive of retrospectives
  • Appropriate online facilitation techniques

Here’s how to do it.

Step 1 – Prepare the online environment (Set the Virtual Stage)

Consider the space in which you and your team run your face-to-face retrospectives –

  • You may be using a whiteboard with team members taking it in turns to stand up and add to it, or perhaps sticking post-its onto a board.
  • Participants may offer a quick explanation or comment as they add each of their points, before the team discusses things more broadly. If an impasse is reached, it’s possible things are talked through until a consensus is reached.
  • It’s possible you know it’s time to wrap up when you see people heading for lunch, or hear a knock on the meeting room door.

Clearly, while the above may work for those of the team based in the office, the same cannot be said for those working remotely; the above obviously needs to be translated into a virtual space. While this may require some investment, an environment that supports both co-located and remote participants equally, is a valuable risk mitigation treatment on many levels.

Choose your online retrospective tool

Online retrospective tools have been developed with both remote and co-located teams in mind, and offer an organized process for running a retrospective.

There are a myriad of tools but overall they should be designed to –

  • make facilitation easy
  • secure, fast and reliable
  • address common retrospective anti-patterns
  • shape a safe, equitable space
  • easily capture inputs from all participants
  • record and track action items
  • gauge meeting effectiveness
  • present ideas one by one to ensure everyone is focused
  • augments with your video conferencing tool
  • Integrate action items into your workflow

Choose your communication tool

Will you be using video conferencing, teleconferencing, or will you be relying on VoIP?

The mechanism your team uses to complement your online retrospective tool will inform the facilitation techniques used to support the retrospective process itself.

For example we use video conferencing and an internal messaging system such as Zoom and Slack to support our real time online retrospectives.

  • Our screens are on and microphones are unmuted (this means that our facilitator can see we are engaged).
  • From time to time, links to documents and other files are shared on a dedicated and secure messaging channel.
  • The scrum master may share their screen throughout the retrospective as needed.

Consider a dry run

Delivering retrospectives to a remote workforce is very difficult to do on the fly; without the convenience of co-location it can be difficult to convey last minute decisions, delegate the Scrum Master role, change times etc. These things are also incredibly frustrating and isolating for the team.

The importance of planning and following through cannot be understated. While some discipline may be needed to deliver this, the return (saved time, focused retrospective, team alignment) will be worth it.

In order to ensure the virtual space is suitable to facilitate retrospectives, it’s helpful to ensure –

  • all participants know how to use the technology, so a dry run helps.
  • the technology works, so home VPNs and low connectivity can be addressed beforehand.
  • there is an easy and agreed process for people to follow.

The simplest way to achieve this is to rehearse or walk through a retrospective. This way your team can demonstrate both the retrospective tool and communication mechanisms work, and they know how to use them!

Before Your Retrospective

Build cadence, by locking in a regular time slot in everyone’s schedule. Ensure all team members have made the retrospective a priority by giving them plenty of time to organize their commitments (kids etc) and double check time zones are aligned.

Draft a team agreement; these are the ‘house rules’ for the retrospective meeting itself, and a worthwhile exercise to do with your team. This aligns to building the team culture and how people interact with each other. Things such as “we won’t multitask” (which is always tempting to do during internal virtual meetings), or “always laugh at jokes, even the bad ones” could be included. The agreement isn’t written in stone, and can be updated at any time.

Choose a template that will support the needs of your retrospective and team. If you have had a particularly rough sprint, the War Stories Retrospective could help; if you’re looking for a way to help your team re-frame challenges, the Netball Retrospective may be what you’re looking for; if your team works well with a direct approach, the Working Not Working Retrospective will help them get straight to the point.

Confirm the options you wish to apply to your template. Adding a ROTI can help gauge the effectiveness of the meeting, allowing participants to add reactions, comments, or GIFs can increase participation and add an element of fun to the retrospective.

Consider the psychological safety of the space. If your team is new, looking to build up trust, or you wish to ensure personalities don’t influence the perception of ideas, having participants contribute anonymously or use an alias may help level the playing field.

Share the template to counteract recency bias. By sending the template out at the start of the sprint with the brainstorming page open, team members can add notes whenever they wish during the sprint.

(If it hasn’t already happened) circulate the action items from the last retrospective in order to remind the team of what was previously agreed upon. This will ensure no one will feel they are being ambushed during the retrospective itself.

Step 2 – Run the retrospective (Collect Data)

Warm up with an icebreaker, a simple activity, undertaking, or game that helps people foster connections and build rapport.

Then kick off with an overview of the retrospective to ensure everyone is on the same page. This can include quickly running through the team agreement and the process steps that make up the retrospective.

Keep an eye on the time, this means staring on time and keeping an eye on the clock. Timeboxing is a great way to do this.

Maximize engagement throughout the retrospective with –

  • permission-based progression (questions such as ‘is everyone happy to move on?’, ‘can we head to the next step?’)
  • requesting clarification of ideas and responses
  • checking in with quieter participants

Leverage the online retrospective tool to support the process and don’t be afraid to go back a step. The tool is there so there’s no need to remember what comes next, that’s not to say you can’t back track if needed.

Step 3 – Look for ways to improve (Decide what to do)

With the key items prioritized and discussed, a key element of the retrospective, and indeed Agile is to determine what the next steps are to improve processes, increase value, solve problems or simply experiment on.

Give the team the space and time to come up with potential solutions and proposed actions that the others can deliberate on.

Capture action items as they are proposed, confirming they have been recorded correctly at the time.

Review all action items (including those outstanding) and tick off those that have been delivered. Always align an action item to a date and person responsible for their delivery. This is a good time to talk about things that might be blocking an action or any impediments that might slow it down.

Step 4 – Wrap Things Up (Close the Retrospective)

Finish up by summarizing the main areas covered, the agreed actions, the time and date of the next retrospective, and thanking everyone for participating.

Share the summary of the retrospective along with the agreed action items.

Follow up with the team to help them stay accountable and to remove impediments

If done properly, running remote retrospectives can bring an incredible amount of value to your team.

Ready to run your retro?

Using an online retrospective tool such as TeamRetro allows the Scrum Master or meeting facilitator to focus on the needs of the team rather than the mechanics of the online retrospective. Ideas and comments can be captured instantly and prioritized for discussions. Actions can be tracked, shared or integrated and followed up at the next meeting. Each person in the team has an equal opportunity to contribute in a psychologically safe space and can be time boxed to ensure everyone stays on task.

TeamRetro takes care of the process so participants can focus on conversations and actions to take forward. There’s no need to take our word for it – you can test drive a range of retrospectives or sign up for a free trial (without a credit card).

Have a great retro!