“We will now put you into small breakout rooms”

A phrase we have no doubt all become accustomed to hearing over the last year. Training sessions have gone from early morning commutes, rooms full of strangers and silently judging the quality of the free coffee to a thing we call ‘webinars’ as if it was a term we always knew.

Zoom sessions have allowed the sector to continue to learn and share during this difficult year. Whilst we might not miss those 7am trains to get around the country for training, the chances for networking have become a challenge and for many is non-existent. No longer do we have the lunch que to strike up a conversation and build networks. The sea of faces on a Zoom call is not the same as the human interaction we do in person. An attempt to tackle this networking problem has been the breakout room.

You too may have noticed the uncomfortable looks on people’s faces when breakout rooms are suggested or seen attendee numbers start to decrease moments before a breakout room starts. The B-word seems to be divisive. A very simple (and not scientific) poll I ran on Twitter saw 53 votes on the following question:

“Breakout rooms in webinars/online training- Yay or Nay?”

Unsurprisingly this question divided people. 52.8% voted ‘Nay.’ Some discussion around the question brought up some interesting elements that affect people’s interaction with a breakout room. These small networking rooms have been such a reactionary response to trying to make the most out of a bad situation. But are breakout rooms inclusive for everyone or is this something that only really benefits extroverts or dare I say the loudest speakers?

If you are thinking of including a breakout room in your session the following are some simple ideas that may help your session be more inclusive to all you attendees. After all you wouldn’t want to alienate 50% of your audience, would you!

Why a breakout room?

Why are you including a breakout room? A simple question but is it one getting asked? We are all very aware of Zoom-fatigue, so if your breakout room is only there to extend the session, then don’t do it. Our time is precious after all.

Have a clear reason why you are including a breakout room, whether it is an opportunity to share ideas, to network, or to muse over issues raised in a session. Whatever the reason, be clear about it and most importantly communicate this to your attendees. The broadcasting function is great for this as it allows the host to quickly ping a message to all attendees about discussion topics etc…

Size and time matters

I am sure we have all experienced something similar to this situation: you have all managed to break the initial awkwardness of strangers being thrown together, you have introduced yourselves, had a little talk about the training session and finally one of you says “What was the task they asked us to do?.” It is normally at this moment the little box at the top of your screens say “breakout room will close in 2 mins.”

Unless everyone already knows each other a 5-10 minute session is just not long enough. We all need the time to introduce ourselves and to start feeling comfortable in order to create meaningful discussions. When planning a breakout room allow for time for introductions and small talk. If you want a breakout room, make real time for it.

The length of a breakout room session also goes hand in hand with the number of people in that group. Too big a group and you are not allowing the quieter participants to have their voices heard. Too often, one patient participant has been left with 50 seconds to communicate their views before the group are being zapped back into the main room. You could be missing some really interesting insights and this set up only really suits the extroverts in the room.

So size and time matters, get this wrong and the breakout rooms won’t achieve much and may as well not have been used. In GEM sessions, we aim to have breakout rooms last for 15 minutes and aim for groups of no more than 6 people to allow for more discussion. This isn’t always possible when a session is running over, but it’s what we aim for this time/size has been proven to work for our audiences.

Surprise breakout rooms

Every online session will have a booking page which includes a description of the session and numerous reminders will be sent out to participants prior to the session. There are ample opportunities to communicate with attendees. So why are we still having surprise breakout rooms?

If you have planned a breakout room tell us!

Be clear about what your session will involve, and if you want to set discussion topics beforehand, consider communicating this to participants prior to the session. Many people benefit from being able to prepare themselves. Catching people off hand is no way of making people feel comfortable. Preparation mentally or otherwise will likely lead to more meaningful and interesting conversations for all involved.

Extroverts v. introverts

Breakout rooms may have different impacts on extroverts and introverts,

We need to normalise people having their cameras and microphones off. No, you don’t need to give anyone a reason for why your camera is not on and nor should anyone ask. Let’s encourage an atmosphere of trust which can free people up to interact in a way that they feel comfortable.

Let’s also consider normalising the chat function in breakout rooms. Be clear before breakout rooms happen that people can choose to talk through the chat and that anyone in a group with someone doing this should make sure they are including their comments in the discussion- and no that doesn’t mean telling them to turn their mic on.

Another aspect of Zoom engagement to consider is putting people on the spot to turn off their mics and ask a question that they’d written in the chat… This behaviour might not be welcome by everyone and is equally, if not more scary than surprise breakout rooms!

Sometimes, in breakout rooms, conversation doesn’t flow so have some discussion prompts for those who may want to use them. If numbers allow have groups where you know there is someone who would be comfortable taking on a leading role.

Another tip is to think whether the breakout room can occur near the end of the session, allowing those who do not want to attend to leave before they begin without missing out on key content of the session.

The big take away

There are lots of things that need to be considered when running breakout rooms for online sessions and this only scratches the surface. If in doubt, speak to the people attending and find out what they want from the session.

The 4 key take away to remember when planning a breakout room are:

  1. Is your breakout room valuable to attendees?
  2. Inform attendees of the use of breakout rooms prior to the session.
  3. Set out a clear code of conduct for the breakout rooms.
  4. Do everything you can to ensure that people will feel safe and confident during the breakout room.

Thanks for reading and I hope to see you all virtually soon!



Sarah Cameron is Head of Heritage Learning at Carlisle Cathedral working with a range of audiences from schools, families and communities to encourage engagement with the cultural and heritage significance of the Cathedral. Sarah is a GEM North West Area Rep and always happy to chat, find her details on our Rep page or send her a message on Twitter @S_R_Cameron.