Life at Cleo

Making remote retros not suck

By Fell Sunderland

Gif of Cleo employees on a Zoom retro

As a member of the Money team at Cleo, I have a standard collection of meetings as part of our 2 week sprints. Before we moved to remote working for everyone’s health, these meetings were primarily a face to face affair. Stand-ups happened around our desks, and retros happened at the end of a sprint with us all in one room, occasionally with some team members dialling in from home. For this blogpost, I’m going to focus on retros.

I had found the retro format that we used (normally some variant of Start/Stop/Continue/Less/More or other relatively common retros) very positive. I was able to speak my mind, and most team members would raise a point or two during the course of most meetings.

However, when we moved to remote work, we started finding a lot more clashes when talking in these meetings. People would start talking at the same time, and without body language and with lag, these awkward interactions would happen a few times each retro, leaving the time we set aside feeling rushed. It also left members of the team unable to make their points well, particularly if their internet was less reliable, or they had the distractions of also needing to care for small children. So, I searched for a solution.

I came across a collection of blog posts by Chelsea Troy (here is the one I found first) on the topic, and reading them rang very true to me. She writes that the unspoken rule of how meetings work normally, a style she terms caucus, can be stated: “The first person to utter something gets the floor”. As a fast and confident speaker, I realised that this was certainly something that I was benefiting from in face to face meetings, and something that I ought to be doing more to mitigate.

So I proposed to my team that we try to run retros in the style that Chelsea suggests: using a moderator. Chelsea describes a moderated conversation like so: “In a moderated conversation, folks get the opportunity to contribute by asking the moderator for a spot instead of participating in a speed-based elimination contest that starts over every time another person’s monologue is coming to an end”.

I suggested that since I was proposing this new style of meeting, and I felt it was likely that historically I’d taken up more than my fair share of space in retros, I would moderate the first meeting in the new style. The team agreed to me moderating, and so the next retro, we gave it a shot.

I took control of the virtual meeting room, muted the team, and reiterated the agenda:

  • 5 minutes to write things we wanted to talk about from the last sprint
  • A pause to ask for elaboration if we felt any written points were unclear to us.
  • 5 minutes to vote on what things we wanted to talk about as a team.
  • We would then talk about the 3 most important things as voted on by the team, with any interested party getting their chance to talk.

The primary way in which this varied from previous retros is that I adhered to the principles suggested by Chelsea, using the tools available to me in Zoom. I could mute and unmute people, allowing me to ensure that everyone was given space to talk without interruption. The team virtually raised hands and formed a queue to talk, sometimes joining the queue again if they wanted to reply to something someone else raised. I prompted specific members of the team to speak on a topic if they’d written a point, or if they had relevant experience. As the moderator, I tried to avoid being opinionated.

It worked. As one team member put it: “I found it super useful. We have always suffered from long retros where the loudest people contribute the most. It was interesting hearing what quieter members had to say when they felt empowered to speak up. Can't imagine retros any other way now!

Members of the team who had been spoken over before got a chance to speak their thoughts to completion, and chatty team mates spoke succinctly, aware that the next person would not get to speak until they finished. Despite the clunkiness of managing the teams ability to communicate, we finished comfortably inside the time we set aside, with all points that had been raised fully discussed. We’ve run a few more retros in this style since the first one, and it stays a successful pattern for ensuring that everyone gets to speak their piece and be heard. In the next retro we ran, the new format even came up as a positive!

If you’re having trouble with remote meetings, particularly with team members speaking over each other or team mates not being able to be listened to because they don’t feel comfortable interrupting, then I thoroughly recommend trying to introduce moderation. However, we haven’t introduced it to all our meetings, only to longer ones where there is a more solid structure to allow the organised flow of conversation.

After all, as Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation”.

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