Keeping a team working harmoniously despite the distance can be challenging. It’s important to check the team’s health regularly especially when working remotely. In software projects where the Agile Scrum methodology is used, one medium to assess the team’s health is called a retrospective. It’s a regularly occurring meeting when the team comes together to reflect on their work and how to improve it. But how do you do a retrospective when your team is working remotely? How do you mimic an in-person meeting virtually and get the same results or even better? How do you successfully pull off a virtual retrospective?

What is a Virtual Retrospective?

In the Agile Manifesto the 12th principle states, “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” 

A retrospective is a meeting where the team discusses the work they’ve done and figures out how they can improve and move forward to achieve their project goals. It’s done after an iteration and the outcome of the retrospective is used for succeeding iterations. The goal of a retrospective is to uncover effective practices that the team is already doing or could be doing. It’s also an avenue for the team to zero in on inefficiencies and issues and collectively discuss what actions are needed to resolve them. It’s a way for teams to continuously improve and evolve. 

A virtual retrospective is simply an online version of the physical retrospective meeting. It’s made possible by using video conferencing and online collaboration tools. Just because your team is not physically together doesn’t mean you’ll skip the opportunity to reflect on your work. A virtual retrospective is important to establish team trust, accountability, and commitment within a virtual team. 

6 Tips for Conducting a Successful Online Retrospective

Create a Safe Space

Establishing a safe environment is important in any retrospective, especially in a virtual one. It’s easier to warm up to other people when you’re in the same space. So this can be a bit trickier when done remotely, especially for your first virtual retrospective. 

Virtual retrospective facilitators should remind everyone that their ideas and opinions will be respected. Norman Kerth, author of Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews, came up with the Prime Directive for retrospectives. It states, 

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

When this is properly communicated to the team, it sets the tone and helps establish the right culture and mindset. Team members will be more open to communicating with respect and honesty even when the retrospective is done virtually. 

Aim to have everyone’s voice be heard in the first 5-10 minutes of the virtual retrospective. You can do a quick check-in exercise like ESVP or an icebreaker to get everyone in a talking mood.  

Always Use Video

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Virtual retrospective facilitators should aim to create an atmosphere that would mimic an in-person retrospective as best they can. If you’re having a virtual retrospective with just audio, how can you expect your team to build rapport? Sure, it may still work but it will take longer than when you can see each other during the meeting.

Also, when you don’t see the facial expression of the person you’re talking to, the conversation can be misinterpreted. The last thing we want to happen is to create tension or conflict. Always using video during your virtual retrospectives and any other remote team meeting will be more effective. You can expect the team to be more attentive and engaged. 

Establish a Shared Context to Gather Data

You need to bring everyone on the same page when conducting a virtual retrospective. This can be a bit trickier since the team is not co-located. So you need to be extra resourceful and creative. A good retrospective format for gathering data is to have the team recall their experience via a timeline. Have each team member note their observations and feelings throughout the sprint. Encourage them to take note of events that stood out for them during the most recent iteration. Have them plot their observations against the timeline. 

There are many effective formats for gathering data during an in-person retrospective and you can adapt them in a virtual retrospective setting. In most cases, it’s all a matter of ensuring you have the right online collaboration tools. Some retrospective formats require physical interaction so either you modify it to suit your virtual retrospective or just go with formats that can be done online.

Use a Structured Format to Analyze Data

After letting the team share their observations, it’s time to discuss what it all means. Now, there could be a lot of different topics shared so it’s important to group out recurring themes. Retrospectives usually run for an hour or an hour and a half. So you need to focus on which topics you’ll discuss. Grouping similar topics into themes will allow you to make your list more manageable.

The next thing you need to do is to decide which topics to discuss and in what order. There are many ways to do this. The most common one is to have the team vote on it. Having a structured format to prioritize and analyze the data helps the team focus on the discussion instead of wasting time in selecting which topic to discuss. A structured format also enables you to keep the flow of discussion smooth and have ample time to discuss the most important topics. Fun Retrospectives have many retrospective formats you can use or take inspiration from for your next virtual retrospective. Change up the formats you use from time to time to spice things up and provide a different perspective for your teams. 

Create an Action Plan

After analyzing the data, you need to think of “what’s next?” A successful virtual retrospective will have the team thinking about what they need to do with all that they’ve uncovered and discussed. A fruitful discussion would have generated insights and action items for the team. All these will feed into the next iteration and possibly the entire project as well. 

For your virtual retrospective, it’s best to take note of your action items during the discussion and have it displayed on your retrospective board. Make the discussion action-centered so you can elicit more inputs from the team. Make sure to determine who is responsible for what and make any deadlines clear. After the meeting, share the action plan notes to everyone in the team and make sure to review the progress on those action items on your next virtual retrospective.

Assess How Effective the Virtual Retrospective Was

Now, the virtual retrospective is coming to a close. But before you end your meeting, take a few minutes to get the team’s pulse on what they thought about the retrospective. Ask the team if they found the session helpful and effective. You can search for other ways to get feedback on your virtual retrospective and you’ll see some fun and interesting approaches. 

The last thing we want to happen is to make the team feel that the retrospective is a waste of time. The feedback you’ll get will help you continuously make a better virtual retrospective experience for them in the succeeding meetings. 

Using a Virtual Retrospective Board

A virtual retrospective board is an extension of your discussion. Most teams use online whiteboards for this as there are many free and paid options online. Some apps are made specifically for virtual retrospectives. You can also check your video conferencing tool as they may have a built-in online whiteboard so you can save on costs. 

A virtual retrospective board allows your team to stay aligned throughout the discussion and encourages participation and interaction. This will help you make the virtual retrospective more effective and successful. 

Perform a Team Health Check Virtually

While remote work certainly has benefits, some challenges come with it. If left unnoticed, it could take a toll on your team. Virtual retrospectives are one of the ways you can establish better working relationships that result in a healthy team. How do you know if your team is healthy? It’s when you see them fully engaged and working harmoniously.

Project success relies heavily on a fully engaged and cohesive team. A virtual retrospective is an opportunity for your team to communicate openly. It’s a way for them to see that their voice matters and their ideas and opinions can materialize. All these will push them to perform better, stay engaged, and work towards the project goals and objectives. 

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