Use a “Breakout Room” to Facilitate Virtual Meetings

Posted by Kristin Arnold on April 7, 2020

For those of us sheltering in place, we’re doing business virtually, using robust meeting tools such as Zoom, GoToMeeeting, and MS Teams.  But it’s dang difficult to have a meaningful conversation when there are a lot of people on the line, so many just sit back in “listen mode.”

When leading or facilitating a virtual meeting with more than six people, consider using the “breakout room” function – smaller group sessions that are split off from the main meeting.

Here’s how to set up your virtual breakout groups for success:

  1. Be clear about the topic or question you want the team to discuss.  For example: “How can we help our customers through this pandemic?”
  2. State the desired deliverable – what the team will “report out” to the larger group.  For example, general comments about the discussion, the top three ideas, the entire brainstorm list.
  3. Provide any process guidance needed.  If it’s a simple discussion or brainstorming, then you probably don’t need to give much guidance.  However, if you want to capture the information, you’ll need to think about: how you want them to share the information for all to see, who will capture it, and how you want it to be visually displayed.  (Even in a face-to-face meeting, I always record the output of any small group discussion, so you’ll want to do this as well in the virtual world!).  Here are some ideas:
    • Have each small group recorder take notes and a spokesperson verbally report out.  As they report out, you (or a designated recorder) capture the ideas in the chatbox or on a Google Doc.
    • Have each small group recorder take notes in their own small group chatbox.  The recorder will then need to copy/paste that information into another location for all to see. (The info from the breakout chatbox will NOT transfer over to the main chatbox.)
    • Have each small group recorder take notes in a shared Google Doc, or other document capture tool such as or PollEverywhere.  Note: the other small groups will have visibility into that shared document as they input the information.
    • Have each team member directly input information into the chatbox, a shared Google Doc or other capture tool.
  4. Place the team members into breakout groups with the time that they will return to the main room.
    • You can send them randomly to a specific number of rooms OR pre-select whom you want in each room.  If you are going to pre-select, do this prior to the start of the meeting!
    • Send a broadcast email with a reminder of the topic/question, the desired deliverable and any process guidance.
    • Pop into the breakout rooms to check on their progress.  If it looks like they will need more time, you can change the time to return.
    • One minute prior to closing the breakout room, send a 60-second reminder.
  5. Thank them for coming back and start to debrief the activity and/or report the results.  As the breakout room spokespeople report out:
    1. Capture and share the information in the chatbox or shared online document.
    2. Capture the information as it is being said via an immediate transcription service (Otter allows meeting participants to open a live transcript directly from Zoom where they can view, highlight, comment, and add photos to create meeting notes collaboratively.)
    3. Display the information in a word cloud ( and PollEverywhere have this functionality).
  6. After the report out, you can decide what to do with this information:
    • Ask for key themes
    • Prioritize the list by taking an online poll
    • Bucket the ideas into similar categories
    • Sequence the ideas in a timeline or flow

Using virtual breakout rooms can be simple – as long as you have thought it through.  So go ahead, when you have over six people on the team and you want a more stimulating conversation, try breakout rooms in your next virtual meeting!


KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF, CSP is a high-stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator.  She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years.  She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

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