Chapter 16 Peek-A-Boo
. . . in which team members will not show their faces on the video in an online retrospective, and the facilitator learns why and finds ways to make it safer for people to show their faces
Sarah has prepared for the next online retrospective with a shared document, and she has reminded all of the participants that there is a retrospective and which document they will be using. Everybody but Bo is online in the meeting on time. It turns out that Bo used the link from the last retrospective instead of the one in the calendar invitation, but this is soon sorted out via chat, and everybody is present 3 minutes after the scheduled start time. Sarah had asked the team members to turn on their video in the invitation to the meeting. She quickly realizes that only half of them are on video, so when Rene, Andrea, or Kim is talking, only a black screen is visible to the participants.
Sarah starts the retrospective with the usual round of questions for everyone. Then she starts to gather data on the shared document with virtual Post-it Notes. While she can see most of the team on video and thus evaluate whether they are concentrating on the task, she is unable to judge whether Rene, Andrea, and Kim are writing or doing something else. After 10 minutes, she asks the team to look at what was added to the document and to say out loud what they think. At first there is silence. Everybody is waiting for someone else to start speaking, and then, when Andrea begins, everybody else starts speaking at the same time.
With some difficulty, Sarah facilitates the rest of the retrospective into an agreement on a new experiment for the team to try out until the next retrospective, but she has a sneaking feeling that Kim never really participated and perhaps was occupied the whole time with a task unrelated to the retrospective.
In online retrospectives, many people choose not to appear on video. There can be many reasons for this choice, and we will dive into them later. If you are like me, you find it much easier to facilitate a retrospective when you can see the people who are participating. Their facial expressions give you small clues as to when to change the activity, when to slow down, or when to speed up the discussion. Their expressions can also warn you right before they become angry or choose to opt out of the retrospective. However, when you have no input other than an often muted microphone, it is really hard to do your work well.
A facilitator often allows the participants to opt out of the video. This could be because the facilitator wants to be nice and not force team members to do something they feel uncomfortable about. Or because the facilitator fears not getting to facilitate the retrospective if he or she makes demands. Or simply because the facilitator does not see the need for it him- or herself.
Without being able to read facial expressions, it is hard for the facilitator and everyone else at the retrospective to see when someone is bored, getting angry, sad, or simply wants to say something. Even in an offline retrospective, silence can be hard to interpret, but someone who is silent and also not visible is extremely difficult to read. One of the consequences is that it is easier for the participants to hide and turn their attention to other tasks rather than take part in the discussions during the retrospective. By doing so, they cannot take part in decisions, and the team can end up deciding on actions that the nonparticipants think is a bad solution. In addition, their colleagues do not have the benefit of the nonparticipants’ input, and the sharing of their different experiences to create a whole picture is lost.
The most aggravating consequence for the facilitator is that the nonparticipants often do not listen, so questions or whole parts of discussions need to be repeated for them. This unnecessary repetitiveness can destroy the planned agenda, which is an important part of a retrospective, particularly an online retrospective. More important, team members who do not participate show disrespect to their colleagues by not listening while their teammates share thoughts and experiences.
The most obvious symptom is that people have not turned on their video, so they appear as a black screen, perhaps with their name or initials on it. Because people find it easier not to be mentally present at the meeting, you will hear comments such as “Please repeat that” and “Oh, were you asking me?”
As in other antipatterns, the right solution depends on the context. The context, in this case, is the reason the participants choose not to appear on video. You could, of course, ask them during the retrospective, but you might not get the real answer when they have to answer in front of everybody else. As with the antipatterns that revolve around personalities, you have to tread carefully here and perhaps ask them directly outside of the retrospective or make it possible for them to answer anonymously. There is also, as always, the possibility that they do not know why themselves—it just does not feel right for them.
The first thing to do is to explain to the participants why it is important that they share a video of themselves with you and the other people in the retrospective. Reasoning with them might convince some to start their video, because they perhaps had not considered that people would want to look at them. I presume that my readers are all very beautiful people and want to be seen on video, but not everyone sees themselves in a positive light.
I often hear people say that they don’t want to be on video because they are in a coffee shop or in a car, and it is not possible. This excuse for not being on video is one I do not accept. It shows a much bigger problem that has nothing to do with video. A retrospective should be taken seriously and given 100 percent of the team members’ attention. It demands focus in order to be valuable. This is also why I ask people not to be on their phones or computers while we have an offline retrospective.
Some people say that they do not want to share their surroundings with their colleagues. In these situations, I try to make the team use a collaboration tool that offers the possibility of a blurred background, so that only the person is visible. There are many reasons for not wanting to share a home office with colleagues. Perhaps it is messy, cheap, or overly luxurious; perhaps political statements or risqué art decorate the wall, a number of weird books line the shelf in the background, or a spouse is walking around half-naked. No matter what it is, it can be blurred out.
Then there are those who choose to work from home without makeup or without shaving or without clothes on. This could be a part of another problem. Some people find it hard to motivate themselves to work from home, and in these cases, it can be helpful for them to dress up as they would do for work to get into work mode. For some, it is enough to just dress.
Some people do not like to see themselves on video, and since most collaboration tools show you yourself on video together with everyone else, that can feel uncomfortable for them. The reason we see ourselves on video in such a tool is that we want to make sure that we are not doing any of the awkward things we might do when we are alone. Seeing ourselves helps to keep us civilized. Those who do not fancy looking at themselves during the retrospective can opt to hide the self-view. If not, they can change the tool they use or can use a Post-it Note to cover that portion of the screen.
I acknowledge that 6 hours of video meetings each day can be exhausting—I have experienced that myself. I sometimes change my video meetings to phone meetings, especially if it is only with one other person, and if possible, I take a walk outside while we talk. For retrospectives, though, I always use video due to the importance of body language.
I recently learned of a theory for why it is exhausting to have long video meetings. It is based on the fact that cognitive dissonance makes us uncomfortable. When we watch people talk with us but are not actually together with them, our brain sends contradictory signals, and we feel uncomfortable in our attempt to make sense of the situation. The two worldviews—that we are together and that we are apart at the same time—create a contradiction in our mind.
Another interesting example of cognitive dissonance is that if you do a favor for someone whom you dislike, you experience uncomfortable dissonance until you start liking that person better. The logic of your brain is that if you do that person a favor, you must either like the person or be crazy. And the brain chooses the former option most of the time. This is also known as the Ben Franklin effect.
In summary, find out what problem interferes with each individual who is reluctant to appear on video and try to solve it. If you are unable to convince people to turn on their video or you learn that there is a good reason for them not to be on video, ask them to at least upload a picture of themselves into the collaboration tool so that you can talk to their face and not their initials.
Of course, there are exceptions. If people rush to the meeting and it is either no video or no attendance, the attendance without the video is preferred.
Since this antipattern is found only in the context of online retrospectives, everything described in this chapter applies to these.
I had been facilitating retrospectives for a team for more than a year. The team was co-located all the time, and all retrospectives were done with everyone in the same room. Now times changed, and they all had to work from home.
We started doing our standup meetings online, and I noticed that some of the team members chose not to show their video. For the retrospective, I asked them to be on video, and most were on video in the beginning, but when they noticed that not all were, they disappeared one by one.
I asked them why they chose not to be on video, and they gave me multiple answers. For one, the bandwidth from home was insufficient. I wondered about that, since it had already worked for some meetings, but I chose not to question it. Another person did not want his colleagues to know anything about his private life. For him, these were two very different worlds that should never meet. I had always sensed that this person shared a lot less about himself with the team than did the others, and now I learned why. I believe that we go to work as whole human beings and that who we are at work and who we are in the rest of our lives greatly influence each other. It was interesting for me to learn that some people are unconvinced that such an influence exists. A third said that he disliked having people’s faces so close to him on a big screen, that it made him uncomfortable. I thought about mentioning that he could minimize the window or put it underneath another window, but I felt the time was not right.
Since I assumed this situation was not permanent, I decided to let it go and just asked those reluctant to appear on video to upload a picture of themselves in the tool so that at least I could look at that when I talked to them and when they talked to me. If this was a team where I knew we would be working online permanently, I would have tried to be more persuasive. We had three more retrospectives like this, and most of them were on video most of the time. Sometimes you just have to choose your battles with a team, and I had enough to work with here.
I have had numerous retrospectives where everyone is on video, and I have had a lot of interesting discussions and a lot of fun. Most of the teams I have worked with have come to the understanding that it helps the team when everybody is visible.
Sometimes, a video meeting can even have benefits that a meeting in real life does not have. Figure 16.1 is an example of me facilitating a Six Thinking Hats retrospective. The screenshots are from the time when a Google Hangout could enable you to put on different headgear. I also used a beard sometimes to hide my double chin. I really miss that.