Breakout rooms are a powerful tool to be able to use with online meetings. They’re great in the same way that startup companies can be so much more nimble and efficient than big, ponderous organizations. At the end of the day, it’s just easier to work in smaller groups.
But, beyond the productivity aspect, breakout rooms are an excellent way to make online meetings more engaging, more personal, and—even though this might seem impossible—more fun.
Not surprisingly in today’s zeitgeist, Zoom is synonymous with online breakout rooms. Still, there are many other video conferencing platforms that allow for some version of dividing a meeting into smaller subunits. Looking at product release roadmaps, one can surmise that it’s an influencing factor in purchase decisions.
However, let’s be clear: using breakout rooms is not a magical panacea. You still have to be thoughtful about how and when you use them.
One of the biggest missteps in using breakout rooms is simply putting too many people in one. For example, a large meeting of 30 attendees may break out into two groups of 15. Meetings with a lot of people are tough under even the best circumstances. As the number of people in a meeting increases, it becomes more and more like trying to herd cats.
The reality is that in many larger meetings, there isn’t someone in the room who’s adept at handling a big group of people. If you were in a perfect, in-person meeting space, would you guess that the meeting would be better and go faster with five people in the room or 15? Now, step back and think about putting a bunch of people in an online room with all the inherent challenges there. In that case, you often have to deal with tech issues and lag, you don’t know who’s talking or who wants to talk, and it’s hard to read the room to see if there’s agreement. The more people you put in a room—even a sub-room—means it’s less likely they’ll be able to self-organize successfully. The bottom line is that if having a lot of people in a meeting in person is difficult, it’s more challenging to do that online—even in a breakout room.
Instead, for participatory meetings (rather than presentations or conferences), think about capping breakout rooms at six people.
The other major misstep with breakout rooms is that meeting participants are often dropped into them without a clear sense of what to talk about or what they’re doing. In these kinds of online meetings, there’s a lot of awkward looking around, nervously waiting for someone to talk, and hoping that a discussion catches fire. Business meetings can be similar if you’re just sending people out to another space to talk about something. This is exacerbated by the fact that the person who is ostensibly leading the full meeting is not only absent from this metaphorical separate table, but is also not even within earshot in the same room.
To address this, detailed prompts and directions reign supreme. This is a degree more than what one might expect in a face-to-face meeting. What can you tell attendees to ensure that when they are in the breakout room, they can function independently and have a sense of purpose? If it’s a networking event, even prompting people to respond to a question like, “How are you dealing with the pandemic?” makes it easier on everyone as opposed to hoping a compelling conversation will emerge. If it’s a business meeting and you break the larger group into smaller functional committees like operations, finance, and sales, what do you specifically want those groups to accomplish in the time when they’re on their own? Do you want them to come to some sort of agreement within their breakout as to whether or not to move forward on a decision? Do you want them to each develop part of a proposal and have that text ready by the time the group reconvenes? A big pitfall in many meetings is a lack of clarity and direction; when meetings are happening online, out of the virtual eyesight of the leader, this is only trickier.
By all means, use breakouts. But remember that using them is a means to an end, not the end itself. There are many ways to improve those breakouts, but a good starting place is to use smaller groups and to give clear directions. Even these little tweaks can make breakouts, and the bigger meetings in which they’re nested, better for everyone.