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Team ceremonies in hybrid mode - what to look out for in a retrospective

Updated: Apr 12

In recent months, our work norms, our daily routines and our lives in general have changed significantly. Video calls have become part of our daily lives and we have learned to connect with each other virtually. We no longer spend the first 10 minutes of meetings saying "Can you hear me? I hear you! But can you hear me? Now I can't see you...", just the first five. We're used to the new situation, and the next challenge is inevitable.  

Organisations are starting to open up, more and more places are allowing people back into the office, but everyone is still cautious - unspoken home office rules, individual preferences and our mood in the morning decide whether we start the day in the office or in the living room. This kind of hybrid mode of operation, however, again puts teams to the test, because while one half of the team will be in the office, the other prefers to stay within the safe walls of the home.

What are the pitfalls and opportunities in such teamwork?

First of all, it is important to note that the "distributed teams" setup is not an after-effect of COVID-19, for years there have been many teams (agile or not) working in different locations at the same time. The good thing is that it is easy to read more on the subject, to browse through experiences.

Experiences from a hybrid retrospective

From the point of view of retrospective team dynamics and trust, it is a rather special - one might say delicate - discussion. Even in person it is quite difficult to pay attention to these, to shape them consciously, while as a Scrum Master one is also confronted with other facilitation difficulties.

In the online space, the difficulty of the pitch is one more, but compared to the hybrid, there is one very big advantage of fully online meetings, and that is that everyone is - even if in a different place - in the same situation.

Participants can easily relate to each other as they are equally distant from each other. Everyone is present in the same 'space', we already know that when someone takes the ban off their microphone, it means they are about to speak - just like when someone in person took a deep breath or leaned forward in their chair.

However, the hybrid presence will break this common experience, there will be unwitting "insiders" and "outsiders", a polarisation will start, which will upset the team dynamics. The question is how much.

How do we know that the team dynamics will change?

There are simple signs that make them easy to spot. For example, someone in the office cracks a joke, but just under his nose, to which the people inside burst out laughing, and the focus of the meeting is lost, and everyone on the other side of the camera looks puzzled. But it can also be the other way round, when someone posts a humorous comment in a chat room, which the people in the meeting room may not be able to read.

In such a hybrid discussion, cliques are formed very quickly. Shouting at each other is just one example, but when it comes to small group tasks, the division of tasks is a given - which can easily exclude someone from a topic they would have liked to join.

In recent months, we have learned to deal with the lack of non-verbal communication - such as body language - in video conferences, we have started to listen differently, as the number of tools available to us to decode information has been greatly reduced. And when we are back in the same room with colleagues, we can easily push back and understand each other again, even in half words.

The only problem is that in a hybrid operation, the other half of the team would still need that other half-word for full understanding. These are the situations where someone on the other side of the camera asks you once because they don't understand something, and then, in a good situation, asks you again, but you're almost certainly not going to dare ask the same question a third time, especially when you've already been told by three people in the meeting room, but somehow the picture just doesn't add up. And this can lead to a strong sense of isolation as well as information asymmetry.

Remote facilitation?

The Scrum Master's role in the retro is key. He must constantly make sure that everyone has a voice, so that the whole team's opinion is heard, not just the speakers. A quieter, harder to open colleague will take full advantage of such an opportunity to get lost between the two platforms and back themselves into a corner, whether physical or virtual.

A Scrum Master who might join the meeting from home will start with almost the calmness of the underdog in terms of facilitation success. Just think, if there are more loud voices or joking individuals among the colleagues in the office, all it takes is the push of a mute button and all hell can break loose... well, not, but it's easier to ignore someone who is trying to keep the conversation going from a distance - especially when you're trying to do the opposite.

Supporting tools

From an operational point of view, it's not a simple story, everyone has been writing on post-its in person, and online we've discovered new tools like miro and jamboard. But how can we combine the two? Who writes where? How will it be visible and accessible to everyone?

Of course, there is a technical solution to this: there is a Jamboard TV that looks like a TV and when you turn it on it functions as a smart whiteboard that you can physically write on, but it's actually a jamboard that you can access online. However, it's not a cheap amusement, I wouldn't think everyone would suddenly order one of these for every boardroom. So we need some alternative solution that is editable in real-time for everyone.

One solution to this could be to have a computer in front of everyone and have everyone participate in the same way as if they were at home. But this opens another Pandora's box; if everyone on the retreat has their computer in front of them, inevitably email notifications and "oh I'll just reply to this quickly" sentences will arrive, and we'll be faced with a new problem again.

After that, what can be the solution?

Based on my experience, I recommend that we try to avoid hybrid retros, but with quite large forces. This leaves two options for the teams, either everyone goes to the office and together, the team does the sprint rounds in person, or everything remains the "new-old" and they meet in the online space. These two can even be alternated per sprint.

It will be a good feeling to be back in the office, the first joint, in person, can be something of a team-building type, rather a conversational retro, when we just enjoy each other's company again. Every two or three sprints - if you can discuss it in advance, I don't think an office visit would be a problem.

If a couple of people still come up with the idea that they have to be there on the day of the sprint round, even though you told the team to check in at the office, they should check in from a separate meeting room or room, because that way it would be as if they had stayed at home.


Author: Orsolya Fanni Németh, Senior Agile Coach, Certified Scrum Master, @ edUcate


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