Online Collaboration Series: Breakout Best Practices

By Michael Lawrence Green & Robert “Bud” James, PhD

Online Breakout Rooms are excellent tools and are available on nearly every Web Conferencing Platform.  They can improve attendee engagement, give leaders, instructors, and participants more choices, increase team interaction, and accelerate task and project completion.

However, managing a virtual breakout room is not without challenges. These Best Practices can help online web conference leaders and educators get started and use Breakout Rooms with better results, whether you’re using Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams or another popular videoconferencing platform.

Objective of the Breakout

What do we want the participants to accomplish and experience? Follow the SMART guidelines:

Specific – What do we want the output to be? It could be an entire task, a portion of a task, an experience, or something else, but it should be specific.

Measurable – What KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) will you use to measure success? How will they know they are Done?

Attainable – Can the participants complete the effort within the assigned time and resources that are available to them? While this Breakout may simply be the launch of a larger Project, make sure the specific tasks assigned are doable by the end of the time allotted.

Relevant – Does the Breakout support the topic or assignment?

Time Bound – Have you given them a clear due date and time constraints?

People

  • Unless it is simply random, be thoughtful on who you want in each Breakout room.
  • Be clear on your reasoning for putting people into each group.
  • For example:
    • Do you want to build cross-location or cross-department camaraderie?
    • Do you want to increase a certain Team’s interaction and engagement?
    • Do you want each Team to work on tasks specific to their work area or expertise?

Communication

  • Give them a document they can use in the breakout that outlines their SMART Objectives.
  • Make sure that YOU have a way to communicate with the groups in their breakouts. Each Web Conference tool has different communication tools available to the Host.  Review them and get comfortable using them.
  • Make sure everyone understands how they can communicate with you as the Host.

Roles

  • Encourage Teams to establish role players such as a leader, scribe, timekeeper, etc.
  • We have found that establishing role players increases probability of success and participant satisfaction.

Rules

  • Establish and share the rules for the exercise.
  • Make sure they use their Webcams and Microphones
  • Communicate the ground rules on how people respectfully interact with each other.
    For instance:
    • “We’re hard on issues, not people.”
    • “Please use the Golden Rule in all interactions.”
    • “There is no failure, only feedback.”

Regular Check-Ins

  • Briefly join the Breakouts or have a Co-Host (or two) join them
  • Make sure you check in on the groups regularly to ensure that they are on task and time.
  • Have them move forward if they seem to be lagging or overly-focused on some area.
  • Be ready to assist them as needed and ask if they have questions or need any assistance.

Technology & Tools

  • Know the technology and tools required for the breakout exercise.
  • Know how to troubleshoot if there is a problem.

Debriefs

  • Allocate time for adequate debriefs from the Teams about their experience. They typically want to share, and it can give the other Teams reinforcement or a new perspective on the exercise and their classmates.
  • Establish time limits to share their insights or presentation
  • A general set of questions for a debrief are:
    • Screen Share your work (if they are collaborating on a document, for instance)
    • What was your experience?
    • Where were you challenged?
    • What did you learn?

Keep it Moving

  • Follow your Agenda
  • Give the Teams a clear timeline and milestones as needed
  • Keep your brief and debrief comments clear and concise

Plan B

  • Be flexible. Always have a Plan B just in case something happens.
  • For instance team members might not show up leaving a group too small to operate.

Have Fun!

  • Make the Breakout an enjoyable experience for both you and the Teams!
  • Make it interesting and engaging.
  • Help them make the best use of their time and effort

For more information on Online Collaboration principles, tools, and tips, Click Here.

Bud James, PhD

Robert “Bud” James, Ph.D. is a skilled orator and instructor, and in addition to teaching Scuba Diving for decades with over 4,000 dives, he is a sought-after speaker and motivational coach. He has appeared on television (TechTVUPN, & Microsoft Learn-TV) and numerous talk radio shows on various Internet security topics.  He has been on several panels and conferences as a keynote speaker and presenter (Oracle Open WorldVMworldStorageWorldMicrosoft Summit Briefing, and others). Dr. James is a Corporate Trainer and Vice President for Memory Spring, an organization focused on enhancing people’s memories, learning skills, job performance, and brain health..

Michael Lawrence Green is the president and founder of Memory Spring. He is also the president and co-founder of Delta-4, a Leadership, Team Building, and Sales Training Company. Michael has worked with thousands of people on Memory Improvement, Leadership, Teamwork, Selling, Communication Skills, Communicating with Data, The Value of Relationships, Selling, Strategic & Tactical Planning, and other skills. Over the years, Michael has been a popular speaker at many conferences. 

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Jaime Matteoli
Jaime Matteoli
3 months ago

Great article! I have a big virtual meeting coming up next month and we plan to use breakout groups, and this info is very helpful.

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