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Retros for Remote Teams

October 31, 2019

Often remote teams can be a bit wary of Retros as the tradition ‘post-it-notes on wall’ system doesn’t work well across a video call. However, in my opinion, Retros are even more important for remote teams. That’s because it’s easy for me to see how people in the room as me are feeling from body language and exclamations of joy/horror. But with a remote team you only have calls and slack messages to infer how someone is feeling. So here are a few ideas on how remote teams can run retros.

What is a retro?

Retro is short for retrospective which had the official definition, ‘looking back or dealing with past situations’.

In the agile world retros are a time for a team to look back over the last sprint and decide on some actions they’ll take in the next sprint.

Why should we do retros?

It gives the team time to review the last sprint and set some actions that they think could improve their process in the next sprint.

As an agile company we should always be looking at how we can improve our process. But equally important for a remote team is the ability to spend quality time together as a team.

When working remotely most of your interactions are heavily focused on work and you don’t often get time to relax in the company of your colleagues and build relationships.

How should you run a remote retro?

Give yourself enough time

The first thing to consider when planning you retro is how long you schedule for it. It’s important that the team has enough time to express all their thoughts without feeling rushed. It can sometimes feel like retros take away time from other tasks but remember the learnings and actions should make you more efficient in the next sprint.

Keep it simple

I’ve worked in lots of places where people go all out with their retro themes. Pirates, caterpillars, hot air balloons. You name it, there’s a retro theme based on it. However these complex retros don’t really work remotely. They can take a lot of time to explain and can detract from the main part of the retro, reviewing the last sprint. So my advice is to keep it simple. I’ve recommended a couple of simple ideas below.

Keep webcams on

Facial expressions can really help give context to your comments. Sometimes comments can sound harsh if you haven’t got the full context of someone's facial expressions.

Start with something fun

Spending a few minutes at the beginning doing something fun makes everyone feel comfortable and allows people to express their personality a little.

Open and inclusive atmosphere

Everyone in a retro should feel comfortable to express their opinions no matter what their role or seniority.

One person facilitating the retro (doesn’t have to be the scrum master)

A scrum master should always make sure that retros are happening every sprint but anyone can facilitate the retro. I recommend taking turns each sprint so that everyone feels at the same level in a retro. In some situations it might even be a good idea to get someone outside the team to facilitate the retro.

The Basic Retro Format

  1. Start with a fun intro. Take a few minutes to do something fun. A good example for a remote retro is to ask everyone to find a GIF that expresses how they have felt during this sprint.
  2. Review the last set of actions. It's easy to set actions in retros but we mustn’t forget to review them. Make sure they have actually been actioned and if they have what the outcomes are. Did they work as expected, should we continue using them. Should you let other teams know about what you’ve discovered.
  3. Play a ‘retro game’ to review the last sprint. There are lots of ideas across the internet for fun retro ideas, however for remote retros you’ll want to keep things simple. ‘Stop, Start, Continue’ is great for a remote team. Our favourite at DVELP is ‘What went well, what could be improved’. You can find our template here.

A few last notes

  • Retros are part of the agile process, we should be reviewing the retro process itself in retros and improving it where possible.
  • Retros aren’t just for software development cycles, we should be using them throughout our business to improve are whole company.
  • Remember to always celebrate the good as well as highlight the not so good.
  • Timers are your friend. If you’re facilitating a retro make sure you’ve defined time for each phase and set a timer on your phone at the beginning of each section.


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