Top 5 Tips for Webinar Breakout Rooms

by Dave Thomas

Breakout rooms, the virtual rooms to which you can send a subset of your class to work during a training session, represent maybe the most important element of virtual teaching. They afford the opportunity for teamwork, networking among peers and smaller, more welcoming environments that encourage your participants. At Marquee, we use breakout rooms extensively and we believe that they directly contribute to the success and high ratings that our courses receive.

But you must do them well – nothing online happens organically the way it will in an in-person session. This article is about the top 5 techniques we use to make breakout rooms a vital part of the webinar experience. We will refer to Zoom features in the article but these approaches should work for any webinar software.

1. Everybody’s Got a Job

You’ve given out an assignment, created your breakout rooms with approximately five people each, and you have used your settings so that participants will be sent their rooms automatically (we recommend this setting if possible). You are all ready to hit “Open Rooms”. Not yet! To get the most engagement out of your breakout rooms, make sure people think about the role they can play. At the start of the session, many participants don’t know each other and having a “job” in the breakout room can help people feel at ease and purposeful.

One role that is helpful to set is to have the group select a person to share their screen to build up the answer for the breakout room exercise. Around this role others in the group can contribute and stay organized.

2. Sometimes You Mix’em, Sometimes You Fix’em

Depending on the length of your program, you will want to strategically allocate participants to your breakout rooms for each work session. Random rooms are easy to create but thought should be given to constituting them with care from the beginning of your session:

  1. Diversity – try to mix by experience, gender, location, and any other factors that you think will create a diverse breakout room. If the program has a few breakout sessions, try exchanging room members rather than fully randomizing them to maintain a diverse participant mix in each room.
  2. Project Teams – if you have project work as part of a longer program, take the opportunity to organize your breakout rooms by project team. This not only creates more opportunity for the teams to bond but also subtly signals that you respect their time and are facilitating project work if they have the opportunity during work sessions.

3. Leave Them Alone

As an instructor and training leader it is often hard to let people just work. You are there to coach, encourage, monitor, and challenge people to improve their skills. But sometimes they just want to work and it can often be best to leave them to it. Immediately after sending participants to breakout rooms, we often visit quickly to make sure things are working well. But don’t be afraid to leave them be. Just make sure that they know how to call for help if they need something. We also always keep a spare breakout room for one-on-one questions should the need arise. It allows you to coach one person at a time without disturbing the rest of their breakout room.

4. Send a Broadcast Message

After you have taught extensively online, you realize that creating community and common purpose can be challenging. Groups left in breakout rooms for extended periods can sometimes start to lose their sense of connection to the course and the broader class. Communication is key to overcoming this! A simple way of ensuring that everyone’s sense of mission is intact is to use regular broadcast messages to the breakout rooms while people are working.

5. Have Something of Value

When you pop into a breakout room you must realize that you are likely going to interrupt the flow of conversation and activity among the group. You are being attentive and proactive but participants can view you as more of a distraction than an aid unless you strategize properly. As the instructor, you always want to be seen as “value adding”.

Have something prepared to prompt the group when you drop into the breakout room. It can be anything from, “Has anybody thought about this issue in the case study?” to “How many alternatives did you discuss? There are actually six things to consider.” Whether it’s a prompt to ensure they consider everything or a technical detail that they might have overlooked, make sure you are prepared with something for each breakout room. You always want people happy that you dropped by!

One last thought on the breakout rooms that you will encounter frequently: I will often drop in and find people chatting and socializing without apparently working. As an instructor the impulse is to corral participants back on task and get them focused. I don’t do that. Connecting socially is a huge part of the classroom experience and I suggest that you never shut down social interaction. I will say hello, just checking in, suggest that when they do start the assignment they should pay particular attention to one aspect and then let them know I will be back in a while. I find this always works and maintains a high level of interactivity in the breakout rooms.