Life in lockdown: How to run a remote retro

Retrospectives are a crucial part of the software development process. They’re an opportunity for teams to reflect together on the work delivered, consider how ways of working could be improved, and agree on new processes to use moving forward.

A good retro needs to be productive, result in actionable outcomes and ensure genuine improvements are made every time. To achieve this, the facilitator needs input and engagement from all team members.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent shift to remote working, running retros faced a new challenge. With collaboration at the core of the process, how can Agile development teams run effective retros remotely?

Without the ability to reflect face-to-face, maintaining focus, participation and energy can be difficult. But there are things that teams can do to ensure retros are as successful as they have always been – even when done virtually.

Fostering collaboration

Over-communicate as much as possible. To foster collaboration through remote retros, it’s crucial to encourage team members to be explicit. As our main method of communication is now via emails and Zoom calls, social cues and body language are harder to read and understand.

Checking in regularly is important. ‘Safety checks’ can be done at the beginning of each retro and involve an anonymous vote, which helps to understand how your team is feeling. These votes should make it clear who is doing well and who may be struggling. Safety checks should be followed by an energiser exercise to open your team up, encourage collaboration and foster team spirit.

Be visible. As previously mentioned, it can be hard to read people through phone calls and emails. Encouraging your team members to turn their cameras on during video calls helps increase the human element and, if everyone’s visible, they are more likely to be engaged and contribute.

When working remotely, it is worth checking in with your team to assess how they like to communicate best. Catering for everyone is important and using their preferred methods of communication will help your team feel comfortable and relaxed.

Since the shift to remote working, hundreds of new technologies have come to the fore, all claiming to help with our adjustment to working from home. When conducting retros, be sure to choose the appropriate tools that will allow for easy remote collaboration and help facilitate open, honest and transparent communication.

Removing barriers

As Zoom calls become the new favourite way to communicate, we now have a screen acting as a physical barrier between team members. This can make it difficult when it comes to ensuring team members remain involved and engaged throughout a retro.

There are four steps that can be taken to break down barriers caused by remote working:

The shift from working in an office setting to working remotely can change the way a team collaborates, and any agreed ways of working may no longer be suitable. Having a foundation in place for working together whilst remote is key to the success of your team and the work you deliver, so it’s important that set some ground rules, clarifying how your team wants to work together to achieve their objectives. Once done, make sure you stick to this way of working. For example, if it has been agreed that meetings will start and end on time, then it’s important to adhere to this.

The next is to summarise throughout your retro. To avoid any confusion or crossed wires, regularly confirm what has been agreed and make sure everyone is on the same page. Summarise the discussion and points agreed at the end of each section of a retro and write them up to share with your team afterwards.

Facilitating better conversations almost certainly ensures teams get the most out of their retros. However, if you have a larger team, it can be difficult to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. Consider implementing breakout rooms in Zoom or creating individual Hangouts to encourage input from all team members.

Perhaps the most difficult of all is to manage conflicts. No one likes confrontation and in a work setting, it can be extremely difficult. When a conflict occurs, it becomes a barrier that can hinder the success of your retro, as well as have a serious impact on team morale. Conflicts are likely more common right now as the impact of extended periods of remote working and life in lockdown take a toll. If you notice this affecting communication and collaboration in your retro then be prepared to manage conflicts that may arise.

Maximising engagement

Retros are only successful when they have maximum input from your team. To maximise your team’s engagement, start your retros by setting the scene. Let people know why they are here and why their contribution matters, and focus on the outcomes of the session. Minimise distractions and set clear roles, like timekeepers, and scribes. Roles like these will not only help keep your retro on track, but they give people an active part to play in each session.

Keeping team members focused is another crucial way to maximise engagement. Try using interesting themes, games and music between each section of the retro to keep energy and focus high – the more creative, the better. Ensure you ask open-ended questions that elicit discussion throughout, and ask specific people for their views if they have not been actively participating. But most importantly, if you want to keep people engaged and motivated, you have to be a shining example of the kind of energy you want to see from others. 

On completion of your retro, review the team’s actions and ensure that each person has ownership of specific tasks. Check-in with the team before you wrap up the session to make sure everyone feels happy and comfortable with their workload. An anonymous poll after each session to gather feedback is a great way to check-in with employees and to get feedback as to how sessions can be improved going forward.

Running a remote retro isn’t easy, but with a clear vision, format and understanding, it can be achieved – and to great success.

Kelly Cook, Agile Coach, AND Digital

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