Categories Virtual events

Your Easy Guide to Hosting Interactive Breakout Sessions at Work

breakout sessions: Screenshot of the Gather app

Before the coronavirus pandemic, one in five employees worked from home. By the end of 2020, more than 70% of polled Americans were working mostly or entirely from their homes. The breakout room became the star of 2020 and early 2021 as a way to create opportunities for online, small group conversations. 

Breakout rooms allow randomized or pre-scheduled smaller groups. These can be led by a facilitator within each room or by the group members. 

Whether you need a way to make breakout sessions more engaging for general work or your next virtual conference, you need to know how to roundtable. Zoom fatigue is real, and more variety in video calls can help.

In this article, we’ll go over when breakout rooms make sense to use and how to run great small group video sessions.  

When Is a Breakout Room a Good Choice? 

Sometimes, it’s a little too easy to zone out in a bigger Zoom or Webex webinar, but successful breakout sessions can take your participation rate from 0 to 60. 

Having everyone in a main digital space is helpful during a keynote presentation or when the whole group needs instructions for the virtual event. But it’s also the least personal option. 

Some activities work better in a small group setting than in the main meeting space. 

A breakout room is a good choice for:

  • Collaboration
  • Icebreakers 
  • Brainstorming
  • Real-time Q&As on specific topics 
  • More focused, intimate conversations

Preparing for Breakout Sessions 

Finding the right tech solution to start breakout sessions means thinking first about your company or event goals. Things to consider include: 

  • Will you assign people to breakout rooms in advance or go with randomized rooms? 
  • Can participants leave and go to other rooms on their own? 
  • Will you remind teams to go back to the main room with timer reminders or a chat from the moderator? 

As far as platforms go, there are tools for every budget. Look for something that meets most of your needs and has the option to customize. Tools like Gather let you run a breakout session in a way that’s equal parts productive and fun (plus, we offer a free version). 

Tip: Small group discussions can help everyone work through problems as a group. Keep it interesting by mixing up employees or departments who don’t often work together. The right combo could bring the perfect fresh perspective you’re looking for. 

5 Tips for Engaging Breakout Meetings

breakout sessions: Team having a breakout session using the Gather app

Successful breakout sessions match company culture to the right tech. From the main session with the larger group to breakout rooms, team members will love having more variety in their calls.

Set Expectations 

Breakout groups work just as well for casual conversations or spur-of-the-moment brainstorms as they do for PowerPoint presentations. For each event, pick an intention and share it with your team. If there’s a mix of options available (ex., they can choose between breakout rooms based on topics or activities), let everyone know in advance so they have time to decide. 

Give Instructions

Even if you’re a seasoned expert at breakout rooms, don’t assume everyone else is. Things like which buttons to push, how to get back to the main event, switching breakout rooms (if it applies), and what to work on in the breakout session should be part of the regular housekeeping intro so newbies feel comfortable. 

Use a Traffic Conductor 

When breakout sessions are active, keep someone in the main room for questions or to help latecomers move into breakout rooms. Think of this person as the meeting host or home base. Make sure they have their video on and the right name on their profile so they’re easy to find.

Conversations might always be a little awkward at first. When the traffic conductor tells everyone how to get to their new rooms, they can suggest conversation starters like: 

  • Changing your digital background to your favorite ‘80s movie 
  • Updating your name to your favorite flavor of ice cream 
  • Sharing your top vacation destination in the breakout room chat 

The traffic conductor is there to make sure everything works properly and help when someone arrives late or has questions. 

Ask the Team What They Want to Cover 

Polling team members can help you make sure you’re covering the topics that matter most to them. Just like you’d have a natural conversation at the watercooler in the office or in the hallway at a live conference, leave some room for topics of interest to attendees.

This way, your digital gathering can change on the fly. If you had a whole presentation prepared about TPS reports but your team is begging for help with marketing strategies, show you’re listening. Give them input on breakout rooms — what do they feel is most important to discuss?

Don’t Keep It All Business 

Screenshot of a virtual conference room customization screen

If you’ve got topics to cover or need to keep most of the breakout session time business-focused, that’s fine. But there’s no faster way to drive virtual events into the ground than hours of PowerPoints. 

Breakout rooms can also work fun in between the business items like: 

  • Scavenger hunts — each breakout room is its own team
  • Competitions and games — one room for word games, another for Pictionary
  • Icebreakers — in smaller groups, there’s time for each person to share
  • Worker “show and tell” or learning lunches — 2-3 employees chat about a favorite photo from their past or an interesting object in their home
  • Bringing in industry experts for a small group feel — one breakout room is a cooking class, another is on creative writing; team members choose their favorite

Keep Video Calls Fresh With Breakout Sessions

Now that you know when and how to use breakout sessions, you can get creative. Let team members know they can suggest ideas, too! 

It can be a challenge to match the energy of an in-person breakout session, but tools are adapting to meet the needs of the modern event planner or CEO. Get inspired by launching the Gather app today and make your next virtual event with breakout rooms a great one.