It is becoming increasingly common that teams are geographically distributed and retrospectives must be conducted online. An online setting seems incompatible with the best practices of facilitating retrospectives, since facilitating is very much about reading body language, listening to the things that are not said out loud, looking at where and how people choose to stand and whom they choose to whisper with, and so on. All of these activities are harder or impossible online. Also, an important part of a retrospective is that people show respect for each other by not using their phone or reading email. This expected courtesy is hard to implement in an online retrospective.
In addition, an online retrospective must be kept short. I normally do not make them longer than 45 to 75 minutes. It is harder for people to keep their attention on the retrospective without the physical aspect of walking around that normally is part of a retrospective. Although I think this might be solved with future technology, we are not there yet. Also, scheduling longer online meetings is difficult: due to the distribution, people may be in locations where they have conflicting all-hands meetings, or they may be in different time zones, so the retrospectives must be arranged to accommodate people’s need to eat, sleep, pick up children from kindergarten, and so on.
Disregard for Preparation is an often recurring antipattern for distributed retrospectives and has huge consequences. Sometimes, the retrospective facilitator is asked to facilitate an online retrospective without much notice, perhaps because the original facilitator is indisposed, and the new facilitator has little time for preparation. In addition, if the facilitator has never facilitated an online retrospective before, he or she might not be aware of the added challenges inherent in this setting.