Before the pandemic I facilitated 50 interactive in person workshops throughout the United States each year. When everything moved to Zoom, I joined facilitators and teachers everywhere in trying to find creative ways to keep participants engaged. Thank goodness for breakout rooms! They offer a lot of opportunities to mix up the format and provide small group activities. However, there is a learning curve to facilitating with Zoom breakout rooms. After 20 virtual workshops in the last six months, I am sharing some of my lessons learned and top tips.

Note that these tips are written with Zoom in mind, but many translate into other platforms.

First, a note about agenda design and using features like breakouts:

If you plan to use breakouts for an activity during your workshop, I recommend using breakouts very early on, definitely within the first 10 minutes, maybe even five minutes in, for instructions. Use them for a very short amount of time, just 3-5 minutes. Give them something very, very simple like, “You’re going into this breakout. All I want you to do is take turns saying your name and where you’re from, and what the weather’s doing outside.” Something that’s really easy to remember. That short intro in breakouts gets them familiar with it, and it gets them to understand how to mute and unmute, and what it feels like to go into a breakout. That way, when you use breakout rooms later for the more involved exercise, they already know what to expect.

If you haven’t done it before, here’s one of Zoom’s step by step training videos on how to put your participants into breakout rooms:

The top questions I get about assigning breakout rooms:

I’ve heard that you can pre-assign breakout rooms… How do I do that?

Unless you have an enterprise account and everyone’s zoom account is connected to your enterprise account, you can not premake the breakout room assignments.

What if some participants are calling in by phone, does that change anything?

If someone needs to call in for audio using their phone, but they’ve also logged in on a device like a computer for the video, by Zoom standards they are two people. So if you don’t know that a specific phone number and a specific person are linked, then you could send their audio to one breakout and you could send their video to a different breakout. I recommend having your moderator find out at the beginning what phone number belongs to what person. They can either rename the phone number or just make a note to themselves so that they get the breakout assignments correct. You would also want to manually assign the breakouts instead of using automatic assignments.

How can I communicate the activity instructions to the groups?

  • You can type instructions into the chat window ahead of time, before you open the breakout rooms and then all the participants will have them to refer to. However, once they rooms are open, you can no longer use the chat feature to reach participants in breakout rooms.
  • You can send a broadcast message to all breakout rooms with updates and instructions, but there is a character limit and it only shows up on the screen for a limited period of time.
  • When in a breakout room, members can click on “Ask for Help” to let you know that they need your assistance. Make sure to let members know about the Ask for Help button in the control panel below before you open the breakout rooms.
  • Slide sharing and the group chat will stop working once members are in breakouts, so you must give them instructions ahead of time.
  • It requires a bit of planning, but if you can decide on group representatives ahead of time you can give the assignment instructions ahead of time to one member from each group. Just send them an email where you warn them and you say, “Okay, about halfway through, we’re gonna go into a breakout session. You’re gonna be in group three. I’d really love it if you would just read these instructions for everyone when you get into that group,” and it gives them a little bit of authority and it also just helps things go a lot smoother because it is somebody’s role to speak first.
    • If you send the assignment to one group member, consider prompting the whole group ahead of time about expectations of roles. You could say something like, “Please don’t make them be the one who has to talk the whole time or has to record out, they’re just going to read the prompt and get you all going. But once you’ve had a chance to discuss it, pick somebody else in the group who’s going to be the one to actually share what you talked about.” If it was a group of four, you have one person who’s talking at the beginning, one person who’s agreeing to share out, so hopefully, you’ve got more than 50% engagement.

How do you know if the participants were engaged during the breakouts?

  • You can often tell by how quickly they return to the main session when you give them a 1-minute countdown until the breakout rooms close. You can also see if they come back with cameras on and looking like they were just speaking or if they are very silent when they return.
  • In general, it helps to do a “pulse check” at strategic points throughout the session. You can do this with a quick reflection question or check in question or you can have a short check in survey that you have participants complete during a mid-point break. This is another benefit of adding in short breaks, because often you will get a little interaction from a couple of people during the break and that can give you a sense of how it is going so far.

This one you only need to know if you plan on recording your session and sharing it afterwards with participants…

If you are recording the session and plan to share it, keep in mind that it will keep recording the main session while the participants are in breakout rooms, so be sure to go back and edit out those segments before you share it.

Another workaround for that issue would be to pause the recording and then restart it when you have the group return from breakouts. I have tried doing this and inevitably I forget to restart the recording, so I don’t recommend doing that if the recording is important.

Really advanced…

If you want to recreate a situation where participants have some freedom of movement and can choose which breakout room to attend based on topic or location or anything else, it is possible but it is difficult and fraught with peril.

The basic steps are:
1) Create breakout rooms and rename them by topic. Also include a room that you label “Lobby” or something else general.
2) Assign each participant as a cohost (I believe you have to do this one by one). If you have a large group this will take time. Consider giving everyone a 3-5 minute break while you get it sorted.
3) Open the breakout rooms and move everyone to the Lobby breakout room.
4) Once there, members should be able to click on the Breakouts icon on the control panel and then see a list of rooms that they can join. They will be able to join rooms and join another room on their own without you needing to move them. The HOST is also able to move people to and from any room.
Warning: once you make everyone into cohosts they will have other powers like muting and unmuting and sharing their screen, so be careful with when and how you use this option.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for my extended family, because we live all over and we can’t see each other right now. We used to have these wonderful family parties, and I was joking that we should basically recreate a house party on Zoom by having the breakout rooms labeled “Kitchen”, “Living Room”, “Dining Room”, “Back Porch” etc. My dad is the most introverted person ever, so every time he got dragged to a family party, he would bring a book and he’d find some hidden place in the house and go read his book. In our virtual family house party we will have to have a breakout room that just says, “This is where John is reading a book.”

If you have made it this far into this post you may be wondering if you can get some help in facilitating your workshop. If you are looking for a facilitator, contact me using the contact form on this website. If you are comfortable leading your own workshop, but could use a moderator, I recommend Kelsey Hontz with Moderately Kelsey. Do not attempt to leading an engaging virtual workshop with a large group with breakout room activities by yourself.