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Effective Breakout Facilitation and How to Avoid Breakout Loneliness

After months facilitating, producing and attending live virtual events, I have observed a recurring range of mistakes we often do as meeting hosts that can have an impact on the effectiveness and success of the event. One of the areas that frequently catches us is how to set up and deliver an effective use of the breakout functions available to create smaller group and promote collaboration.

“There's nothing more heartbreaking than going to a breakout and be there on your own looking at an empty void”

Anonymous Meetup Particpant

These are a few tips for facilitators running events that can transform the impact of your sessions and the overall experience of the participants:

Offer the “Right to Pass”

The most common mistake I see is forcing people to go into breakouts and collaborate whether they like it or not. This can make a number of participants very uncomfortable and affect the psychological safety of your session. Some of your participants may be willing to just be passive actors in the session and not engage in a breakout room. Remember that many people are attending public events after long days at work. They may simply not have any “spoons left” to engage with others. Also consider that in our globalised world, participants may be capable of understanding the language used in the event, but they may not be comfortable speaking it.

So, I suggest that offering the “right to pass” is something you absolutely must do.

How to offer the right to pass? First of all, make sure that you set up the breakout rooms to ask the participants to join the breakout (do NOT send them automatically to a room). Introduce the concept of the right to pass and ask people to stay behind in the main lobby if they don't want to join a breakout or if they don't want to participate in the activity you are proposing. If they have their video on, they can also use a “right to pass” Virtual Meeting Card to give you a visual feedback.

I do this in every public event I facilitate and at least 10% of the participants exercise their right to pass. Plan for this and think how your session design may be impacted.

As a side note, if you want to have a private chat with your co-facilitator or producer during the breakout, then your team can go into a breakout room.

Further Reading:

Breakouts with at least 4 people

Particularly for public events, when you design an activity that needs people to work in breakout rooms, I suggest you don't rely on activities that only work with 2 or 3 people. Why? Building on the “right to pass” conversation, it is often the case that people either don't join the breakouts or they don't really participate even if they join the breakout. So, if you plan the breakout activity for just 2-3 people, you are taking the risk that people will end there on their own with no one to work with. This is what I call “Breakout Loneliness“.

One thing to pay attention to is participants that have a slow connection or big latency in their system. This can affect how long it takes for people to appear in the breakout room. This is the Star Trek tele-transportation gone badly. In one Exceptional Remote Training and Facilitation (ERTF) class, we had participants with slow rural connections that consistently took 2 minutes to join the breakout rooms and to return back to the main room.

To set up the size of the groups, click on the Breakout Rooms icon and select enough groups to ensure there are at least 4 participants per room. Personally, I prefer to allocate people to rooms manually, except when I am working with very large (*) groups in public meetup events.

(*) To us, a very large group would be anything above 40 people. For training, we believe that anything above 12 participants is detrimental to the learning experience

Further Reading:

Self-organising breakouts

If you are using Zoom version 5.3 or later, then you have the possibility of using its long-awaited Self-Select Breakout Room feature. If you allow participants to self-select and join breakout rooms of their choosing, then participants will be able to view and select which breakout room they want to join freely. Self-organisation comes to Zoom!

Please note that participants that do not use the desktop or mobile app will not be able to use this feature and you will need to assign their breakout room manually.  

Alternatively, consider other tools such as Sococo where people can move freely and can create spontaneous meetings. This is one of the key features we wanted to enable in the design of the Lean Agile Global virtual conference. Create the water-cooler conversations!

Further Reading:

Move people that end up alone in a breakout room

I've seen many facilitators struggling with this scenario: You have opened the breakout rooms and after a little while, a participant returns to the main room to say that she is on her own. That's the Breakout Loneliness in action. Naturally, the facilitator offers to send this participant to a different breakout room and then proceeds to struggle completing that task.

The problem often is that the facilitator is looking for the participant in the wrong place! Instead of looking at the Unassigned list of participants, you need to look for the participant in the breakout room you had allocated her. As soon as you find her name, it is a simple job to move the participant to another room that contains active participants.

Please note that participants who have not been assigned to a breakout room, or who have not self-selected a room, will remain in the main room when the breakout rooms are started.

Pro tip: When participants are in breakouts, monitor how the breakout rooms look. Any participant that has not joined a room will be greyed out and will have a “(not joined)” label next to the name. If you spot people on their own, I suggest moving them quickly to another room or visiting that breakout room to check if the person is really on her own.

Further Reading:

Re-joining a breakout room

This is a common event that many facilitators struggle with. It often happens when participants are in a breakout room session and there is a participant that did not initially join the breakout room (Pressed the “later” button when first invited to join the breakout) or has returned to the main room to ask a question and now wants to return to the breakout.

In that situation, the facilitator can't trigger the pop-up window offering the participant to join the breakout room because the participant has already been assigned. In this case, what you need to do is to help the participant locate the “Breakout Rooms” icon in the control bar at the bottom of the Zoom window and once the participant presses that icon, the option to join the assigned room (or self-select a new room) will be presented to the participant. Simples!

Further Reading:

Clear and simple instructions are fundamental

Keep things simple! A common mistake I see time and time again is the use of overcomplicated instructions and activities. if you hear yourself saying “do X *AND* do Y *AND* do Z”, stop right there. Complex instructions mean that your participants will struggle to remember what you want them to do.

Make sure that your instructions are as clear and simple as possible. Also, use supporting tools to ensure the participants can read the instructions when they are in the breakout rooms. At a minimum write down the instructions in the Zoom chat (actually, get your producer to do it!). And consider using tools such as Mural, Miro, Jamboard or a plain old Google Doc or PDF. Anything appropriate that allows the participants to refer to the instructions when they are away in the breakout rooms.

If your mind is not clear about the activity, your participants will be lost and struggle to know what to do

One of the most effective ways to make an impactful and effective facilitation of a complex activity is a technique by Paul Tevis that turns a multi-step activity into several single-step activities. Paul's approach is to ask groups to do a single thing in a breakout. He then brings people back to the main room and issues a new single-action instruction to do back in breakout rooms. And so on. This is an extremely simple and effective technique where participants retain a lot of focus on, and clarity about, the task.

Provide a timer and a countdown clock

It's simple: Provide a clear timebox for each activity or people will not be able to know how much time they have left to complete the activity. If you plan to allocate 5 minutes, then create a timer for 5 minutes so that the group has a feedback mechanism of how much time they have left to complete the task.

If you don't create a timer, you will be taking two risks. One is groups racing ahead and not giving the activity the attention they could. Or most likely, groups that waste a lot of time setting up and then get caught out when the time is over.

Finally, providing a 30-second (or 60-second at the end of breakout sessions lasting over 10 minutes) will allow the groups to wrap up their conversation in a timely manner. Without the countdown, many groups will return to the main room mid-sentence and, perhaps, not able to get mental closure for the activity.


Breakout Rooms are one of the most popular and effective facilitation techniques available to us when running virtual sessions. However, it is imperative that we carefully think how we plan to use them and that we know how to manage the use and setup of these features in a competent manner that facilitates an awesome experience for the participants.

“Successful remote working results from a finely tuned, consciously chosen combination of skill set, mind set and tool set.”

Lisette Sutherland

If you want to level up your virtual facilitation skills and learn how to design Exceptional Remote Training and Facilitation, please get in touch and we may be able to help!

Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

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