11 Nov Best Practices for Virtual Breakout Sessions
Well-designed breakout sessions can help build consensus, formulate new ideas, and generate solutions around key issues. So what are some best practices for virtual breakouts in meetings to ensure they produce results?
Organize in Advance
As with any event, it’s important to know participants’ expectations in advance. With online events, it’s also a good practice to let participants know in advance what is expected of them. If they are to appear on video, they will want to prepare their setting and present themselves in their best light. You may also want to supply etiquette tips as part of registration, including ways to reduce distractions.
To most effectively maintain control over your breakout sessions, pre-determine topics to organize “birds of a feather” breakouts rather than deciding on-the-fly discussion topics in the larger session.
Once these topics are determined, require participants to sign up in advance. Knowing the number of attendees is vital for determining how many virtual breakout rooms you need and how many participants will be in each room. Keep groups small to allow participants to feel more included while reducing the temptation to talk over each other.
Asking a few simple questions during registration can also help you gauge your participants’ comfort level with online events and the platform being used.
Ask presenters to provide material in advance to have it uploaded and ready to present. This can prevent having a presenter with open documents containing sensitive information share their screen for all the room to see – and be recorded for the event’s permanent record. Ensure content is relevant to the breakout session, and that any instructions for use are clearly spelled out. Especially if material includes exercises and activities, be sure these are provided – and ideally tested – in advance.
When your event is global, consider the various time zones of your participants to avoid requiring anyone to attend a midnight session, whenever possible.
Have a Moderator/Facilitator in Each Breakout
To better manage an online event, have a moderator/facilitator in each session; ideally, have a “host” facilitator for the main session, and separate facilitators for breakout sessions.
An experienced and skilled facilitator knows how to manage participants during a session by engaging them and keeping them on time and on topic, all while reducing tech challenges and conversation conflicts.
Since virtual meetings are still new to many participants, facilitators must also be prepared to help the less experienced members of the group become acquainted with the technology.
In addition to juggling participants and technical challenges, breakout facilitators should also be prepared to summarize the discussion with the main event moderator so that breakout content can be shared when participants rejoin the larger event for a wrap-up session.
Test Your Virtual Technology
Technical issues can be distracting at a live event, but online, they can completely derail your virtual gathering. To prevent problems before they occur, test your platform in advance using various members of the team. Do a quick dry run of the various components of the event, from switching between main and breakout sessions, to ensuring collaboration tools are working correctly, to side-chatting through problems during a live presentation.
If you are recording the main event and breakout sessions to share later, be sure you understand how the app’s recording feature works. For instance, an app may allow the main room to be recorded to the cloud and shared, but the breakout rooms may need to be recorded individually on the facilitator’s local computer and then posted and shared via a link.
Whatever format you choose for presenting information, consider whether it matches the goals of the breakout. Using a digital whiteboard for a planning session may be ideal for brainstorming, but a PowerPoint slide may be enough when simply covering a predetermined list of topics. Same with exercises or games: Activities that work well with in-person events do not always transfer directly to the online realm. ‘The simpler, the better’ tends to be a good rule to follow for remote events. While gaining creative input or relieving stress may be your goal, if the technology proves frustrating, you are defeating your purpose. Some participants may be comfortable juggling screen time with printed documents at their desk, but you may lose much of your audience if you try to have them multitask while using an unfamiliar online platform.
Once the breakouts are completed – ideally at the same time and with all goals accomplished – bring the small groups back together for a wrap-up session. Have a format for sharing the takeaways from each of the smaller sessions, and allow enough time for each breakout to share their results. These report sessions should include action steps, which are vital for achieving the objectives of the event.
In addition to the wrap-up session, collect the information from the breakouts and share it with participants post-event through follow-up emails. If part of your objective, be sure to include a list of roles and responsibilities, a schedule for action steps, and a proposed date for the next event.
Finally, as part of the follow-up, include an option for participants to provide input on the breakouts so that you improve them moving forward. What worked, what didn’t, what ideas would make the next experience better?
Kara Dao is the Senior Director, Client Engagement and Operations at JDC Events. She has a degree from George Mason University and over 2 decades of leadership and executive experience in the events industry. Kara is certified by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, has her Certification in Exhibition Management (CEM) and has served as a Mentor for the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE).