What are the best tools to use for retrospectives with a remote/distributed team? That question came up on LinkedIn today, as it frequently does.
Whenever I hear this kind of question, I wonder what’s behind it.
Is this question coming from a highly-successful remote/distributed team whose retrospectives are already great, wanting to make sure they are the best they can possibly be? Are the team a bunch of creative collaborators who make an effort to keep every retro fresh and exciting, even as their work together matures?
Or, is this a remote/distributed team which barely deserves the word “team”?
Here’s the question to ask: Is this team seeing and hearing each other regularly on video meetings, including their retrospectives?
If not, alarm bells should be ringing.
It may be that their idea of a “retro” involves all being available at the same time, sending each other written messages via an online tool. Or clustering round a spider-phone shouting down to the remote person.
For this kind of team, the question should not be about “tools for retrospectives”. Your top priority is getting them into face-to-face contact, via Zoom or another online video tool.
The thing is, human beings have evolved to operate in the real world. It’s part of the amazingness of being human that we can find ways to communicate remotely – smoke signals, snail mail, text messages, Slack or whatever.
And for most people, sight is a very dominant sense. The people and things we can see take priority over the ones we can’t see. “Out of sight, out of mind,” is very often literally true.
When team members see and hear each other frequently, every part of team working improves. Conversations become more natural, not least because body language cues can be seen. People engage with each other. Multi-tasking during meetings is dramatically reduced. The team becomes a real team.
Ideally, make the set-up “one remote, all remote”. Everyone calls in from their own laptop in a separate quiet place. That provides a level playing field where everyone can really join in.
And make sure everyone can access the video conference system easily and spontaneously. New uses will evolve!
One manager of a distributed team told me recently how he set up a “virtual open office door” using video. At specific times, his Zoom video call is switched on and any member of his team knows that they can just drop in, without an appointment. Very quickly, he found he was seeing a lot more of his team members. He was having informal “water cooler” conversations, just as he used to when they were all in the office together. He was hearing about potential issues earlier. And when, as sometimes happened, two team members joined the call at once, a three-way conversation was easy and comfortable, too.
There are some great tools for remote/distributed retrospectives out there: Retrium, Mural, FunRetro, LeanCoffeeTable and many more. But they really are no substitute for relaxed face-to-face contact over video.