Don’t let slow Internet connections ruin your retrospectives

In the 10 years Mandy Ross has lived in (and worked remotely from) Hood River, Oregon, she’s experienced the full gamut of Internet connectivity issues: 56k modems (in the early years), 10 Mbps Internet speeds (“And maybe 1 Mbps up, if you sacrifice a chicken and dance to the gods,” she says) and countless frustrating hours on the phone with internet service providers, which she’s had to change multiple times.

In the early days of working remotely, Ross, now director of marketing for Sococo, an online workplace experience for distributed teams, was traveling often.

“Because remote work was such a new thing, I was traveling every other week,” she says. “When something was wrong, the solution was to get people to the city where the problem is.”

Then, she wasn’t using tools that required a lot of bandwidth, but when she joined Sococo and became more invested in online tools, she realized 10 Mbps wasn’t going to cut it.

The engineering team at Sococo have often used Ross as a test case. “Whenever they wanted to stress-test something, they’d pull me in because of my Internet connection,” she says. “They wanted to see what it’s really like for an actual person on the other end of it.”

In fact, Sococo ended up developing features because of Ross, including the ability to change bandwidth options to turn video and screen share on and off.

Ross knows what it’s like to encounter delays, interruptions and infrastructure challenges while trying to communicate with team members all over the world to get stuff done. She also knows that, in spite of all those issues, we’re at a point where, with the right tools and good planning, distributed teams can be (and are) productive and successful no matter where they’re located.

Where teams encounter low-bandwidth environments

Teams encounter two main types of disruptions at work: human interruptions and infrastructure interruptions, says Jesse Fewell, author of “Can you hear me now? Working with global, distributed, virtual teams.”

“Human interruptions happen when you get sucked into meetings or your manager wants to bounce things off of you,” he says. “Infrastructure interruptions are much more disruptive because they’re more unexpected. You expect disruptions from managers and meetings. You do not expect power to go out or the Internet to go down.”

When it comes to infrastructure, Fewell describes what is, essentially, an infrastructure hierarchy of needs: “People, organizations and municipal governments will optimize for electricity first, then audio, then video, which is still seen as somewhat of a luxury in the global workforce.”

City infrastructure is an important factor, but it’s not the only cause of disruption. Internet interruptions come in lots of shapes and sizes. They occur when people travel and have to rely on Wi-Fi on planes and in airports, hotels and local businesses. They affect people who are co-located but step out of the office for a day, working from their phone. The list goes on: weather events, service-provider issues, equipment failure, even working from home as a parent when your kids are slowing down your Internet. These are all realities many employees confront regularly.

As more organizations become champions for remote work, they don’t want unexpected infrastructure issues, weak Internet connections or low-bandwidth environments to get in the way of progress.

Thankfully, doing so is more possible than ever.

How connectivity issues affects communication

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Internet connection problems can be frustrating for teams mainly because they interrupt the flow of communication they need to get stuff done. Here are a few of the ways that happens:

They cause information decay.

Speed and responsiveness are important for two main reasons, according to Nielsen Norman Group:

  • People like to feel in control of their destiny rather than be at the mercy of a computer’s whims.
  • People don’t perform as well if they have to wait, and the more time that passes, the more information decay occurs in our short-term memories.

Psychologists Peterson and Peterson conducted a well-known experiment in the 1950s where they gave participants a trigram, which is a set of three consonant letters (for example, ADW). The participants were then asked to perform an interference task, which is an activity to prevent them from coming up with a technique to better remember the trigram.

The researchers found that after 3 seconds, participants could recall the trigram about 50 percent of the time. Recall dropped about 20 percent for every 3 seconds added, until it got to 5 percent success after 18 seconds.

Even quick disruptions can have negative effects, and the longer a disruption lasts, the more chance there is that a team will get off track.

They hinder synchronous communication.

Poor connectivity can cause teams to fall back on asynchronous communication, or intermittent communication that doesn’t require real-time interaction, such as sending an email, or posting a to-do in a project management app. While asynchronous communication is perfect for some tasks, teams also need synchronous communication or real-time interaction for things like retrospectives.

Synchronous communication is vital to progress because it provides teams with immediate responses and feedback, allowing people to clarify and add context to their statements right away to help improve understanding. That is crucial for problem-solving and for allowing retrospective facilitators to gauge team members’ attitudes and make sure everyone is contributing to the conversation.

It also allows for casual social interaction and interpersonal communication that helps with team-building and creates a sense of belonging.

Researchers at George Washington University have found that distributed agile teams that can effectively combine asynchronous and synchronous communication can be just as effective in producing quality work as co-located agile teams.

How to plan retrospectives to work around connectivity issues

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During agile retrospectives, the focus needs to be continuous improvement. The more time wasted dealing with technical difficulties, the less time teams have to focus on positive change and action.

Here are a few ways you can plan your retrospectives to avoid the headaches that come with connectivity issues:

Use the right tools.

“In my pre-Sococo scrum master days, I was trying to run retros remotely,” Ross says. “It was hard to measure engagement. Any friction to collaborating with people makes you wants to give up sometimes.”

The right tools can seriously reduce that friction, letting you focus entirely on the retro, your team and continuous improvement.

Retrium, for example, is a tool designed to work seamlessly in low-bandwidth environments. After the initial download for Retrium, the amount of data it takes to run the app is extremely low (mere bytes), and it feels instantaneous.

Even better, if infrastructure issues strike, Retrium is designed to work completely offline. While offline, you can record your thoughts, and the moment you get your connection back, Retrium syncs up, and you’ll see everyone else’s ideas.

Pairing Retrium with a video chat that performs well in low-bandwidth environments will give your team more options when you run into interruptions.

“Having tools that are low-bandwidth friendly means you’re not going to be thrown off when the power goes out, the Internet goes down or there’s a fire drill,” Fewell says.

Blend synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Retrium allows teams to communicate through or around connectivity issues by letting teams switch between synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Distributed teams can take advantage of asynchronous communication to brainstorm ideas and synchronous communication to discuss issues, prioritize items and determine actions.

Retrium allows for asynchronous brainstorming, letting your team members add issues as they think of them leading up to the retro, and saving you time when you actually meet.

When your team is ready to discuss and vote, Retrium pairs with the video chat service or video conference tool of your choice.

By allowing teams to continue work in times of interruption, Retrium reduces the negative impact delays can have on teams. Instead of radio silence during periods of low connectivity, your team can still be productive.

Have a backup plan.

Researchers studying team communication delays during space missions found that communication delays had the same effect whether teams were using text or voice-based communication. The difference-maker for high-performing teams was when teams could adapt to the constraints and establish a shared understanding of the task at hand.

Having the right tools is important, but another important key to managing interruptions and delays is to create a shared understanding of how to use those tools and how teams should respond and adapt to unexpected situations.

Get everyone on the same page, and create a backup plan for what happens in case one of your team members is in a low-bandwidth environment or has trouble staying connected.

“I heard a story about one company in Florida that had a rule that when they get a hurricane warning, all their offices go home, not just the Florida office,” Fewell says. “They want everyone to share that sense of unity.”

Fewell says team working agreements prevent bad connections from becoming major obstacles to progress. “If something goes down, we have a backup channel,” he says. “Maybe a cell tower is still functioning and we can hop on our phones, or maybe we just accept that the collaboration is done and move forward. Maybe the agreement is that the people still on the call continue the call. Have those conversations in advance about working agreements or team norms so we minimize disruption.”

 

More people are turning toward remote work because it allows them to live and work where they want. Organizations that can help distributed teams work around delays and interruptions make it possible for their employees to live anywhere they choose and still communicate effectively with team members, be productive and do great work.

As more companies embrace distributed teams, organizations that plan for connectivity issues and low-bandwidth situations will rise to the top, with teams that are flexible enough to quickly maneuver around interruptions and keep moving forward.

Photo credit: Photo by Fre Sonneveld; Photo by Florian Pircher; Photo by Milada Vigerova

Genevieve Conti