Your Virtual Breakout Rooms Need to Be Better. Here’s What to Do

Image illustrating the frustrating experience of virtual breakout rooms with four people, two women, two men, in a video call, in a breakout room.

“Yayy! Breakout rooms are so much fun!” said no one ever.

Let’s be honest about this!

Are they an excellent feature? Of course!

Do people use them? Yes!

Can they make online workshops and virtual meetings better? Definitely!

Are virtual breakout rooms doing that? Absolutely not!

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? 

Everyone talks big about how online meeting breakout rooms are non-negotiable in multi-people sessions. But no one’s using these breakout sessions to maximize their potential. 

People continue to use it in the same old way; a video meeting with lesser people.

Bye Bye, Basic Video Conferencing! 

Picture this. You start your day with a standup meeting, on a video call. You then have a 2-hour session to brainstorm a client’s new product launch, again on a video call. In the evening, you conduct a workshop for marketing professionals. Where? On a video call.

Our lives are more virtual than real. And it gets tiring… fast!

The Boss Baby tired from work gif to illustrate how video calls are exhausting

Spending entire days of looking at a Brady-Bunch style screen is uncomfortable. And this need to focus on so much means that we often don’t really focus on anything.

Answer me this… What’s the first thought in your head when you look at your schedule and see a virtual meeting?

If it’s a version of “Ugh, not another one,” or “Why today?” you aren’t alone.

Our brains may have adapted to this virtual style of collaborating. But it’s not comfortable, and that’s because …

The digital spaces we inhabit need to change and evolve. 

We need to interact with virtual breakout rooms and within it differently and more efficiently.

What can we do to make things right? How can we improve breakout room experiences? And most importantly, can they be more collaborative and engaging?

We posed these questions to over 200+ experts.  

And this is what they had to say. 

Let’s Make Virtual Breakout Rooms Better 

The number one thing that all virtual meeting experts pointed out was this…

“Don’t think of breakout rooms as mini-conference rooms. Think of the breakout room feature as a physical place you have to design in a digital space.”

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How can space impact discussions? Can breakout room members use a whiteboard in the breakout room? Do they have access to a collaborative document?
  • Can participants play and interact there without guidance, to achieve set goals? Are icebreaker sessions possible? Can you prompt discussion questions?
  • Will participants be able to collaborate freely? Can they choose their own groups? Is it possible to move between breakout rooms?

#1 Design Breakouts -> Heighten Experience 

If you are a meeting leader or a facilitator, put yourself in the participants’ shoes. Ask yourself:

“What do I hope to achieve from sending participants to breakout rooms?”

Answering that will help you design a kickass digital space. It will also help shape the breakout room experience to enhance interaction and collaboration.

Think about whether you want these groups to work on the same task or approach different problem angles. The latter gives participants the chance to test their ideas in a small group and then collaborate more confidently in a larger group.

 “Breakout rooms, with specific tasks or topics assigned to different groups, provide a psychologically safe space to test ideas and build relationships. When participants return to the large group, they find it easier to report ideas from the small group with the confidence that comes from testing and sharing perspectives in that relatively safer space.”

Amy C. Edmondson and Gene Daley, HBR article on Psychological Safety in Virtual Spaces

We love Miro for all this (full disclosure: Miro’s integrated into the Toasty experience). Use the vast whiteboard to define areas for each breakout group, list instructions, and provide guidelines on navigating the breakout session.

Joshua Davies, a virtual facilitator, illustrates how to do this in the Miro Board here.

Miro board by Joshua Davies highlighting how you can design a whiteboard to organize virtual breakout rooms and how to provide clear directions
Miro board by Joshua Davies Demonstrating how to create physical places in digital spaces

He built a central space where all the instructions were provided. Each smaller circle was an independent breakout experience. And the participants could dig in without his active guidance.

Ideal, isn’t it?

#2 All Work and No Play Makes Breakouts Dull   

Here’s another common mistake remote session leaders make. They divide people into groups, send them to breakout rooms, and magically expect to see results.

How is that even possible? 

As the facilitator, it’s still your job to engage these smaller groups, even after giving them a problem statement to work on.

  • Is the group unfamiliar with each other? Prompt icebreakers so that they can build connections.
  • If the goal is to brainstorm on a specific topic, give them question prompts. 

This is why it’s essential to use virtual platforms with breakout rooms that have inbuilt features like engagement activities, whiteboard integration, application sharing, etc. 

More features = being able to use breakout rooms for activities beyond small-group discussion or brainstorming.

No inbuilt collaboration tools in the platform you use? Don’t worry. Use a virtual whiteboard, or collaborative documents like Google docs, or just share the questions via chat.

But remember, these extra tools do the job but make things hectic, and require much more planning.

Don’t pick a platform where breakout rooms mean video chat rooms people are just thrown in. Pick a platform that tackles the hard bits for you.

Like Toasty! It’s the only platform in the market currently that allows you to design experiences inside breakout rooms.

That earlier example about prompting questions to breakout groups… It’s super simple on Toasty with the Ask (formerly Responses) feature. 

How? Well, facilitators can prompt a question. Groups get a real-time shared document to record their answer and a submission box to submit their response. And, every participant can see each group’s proposed solution.

It’s collaboration-made-simple 101! Intuitive and at the click of a button!

#3 Size Matters 

The biggest benefit of virtual conference platforms with breakout rooms? Allowing smaller groups for more involved discussions.

But most of us still get this wrong.

How?

Experts say meeting leaders tend to have too many participants in breakout groups.

Smalls groups allow members to talk easily without constantly toggling the audio button between mute and unmute. This is a more natural conversational experience than large virtual conferences.

But, what’s the ideal number of participants for breakout rooms? Two!

SNL meme with Pete Davidson emphasizing the word two, representing the ideal number of people in virtual breakout rooms

Pairs are ideal because it allows both people to actively participate… either as a listener or a speaker. Which is what makes it perfect for virtual breakout activities like reflection on takeaways and listing action steps.

And the best part? It eliminates all the extra effort put into icebreaking activities, which reduces the stress of running short on time during workshops.

#4 Tick Tock, Eye on the Clock 

“How long should a breakout session be?” It’s a question heard often enough.

The answer? Honestly, it’s hard to say.

The ideal time of a breakout group should depend on two factors:

  1. The kind of activity you have planned
  2. The number of participants in the breakout room

If it’s a ‘let’s introduce ourselves’ session, conducted in pairs, give it 5 minutes. If it’s a more involved discussion, related to the theme of the meeting, with two or more different prompts, give it 8-10 minutes.

Ideally, don’t overshoot the 10-minute mark for a breakout group of two people.  

It’s important to timebox these breakouts to avoid extending the time for each activity on your schedule. Determining an end time for breakout room sessions also makes discussions more efficient.

Keegan-Michael Key meme pointing to his watch to indicate time

When you make a meeting agenda, don’t just schedule the time for the breakout. Also, take into consideration the transition time of moving from breakout rooms to the main meeting room.

Remember, there will always be some need for participants to settle down, virtually or otherwise.

But the question remains … What’s the best way to track time?

Some facilitators swear by having a timer on their phone and sending participants a countdown reminder via chat. This could be efficient, but it leaves too much room for error.

Not on Toasty, though! Our newest feature solved just that… our activities now come with a timer.

Hosts can not only fix the duration for each activity but also check how much time is left as participants run through the breakout session task. 

And the countdown is visible to the participants, too.  

Doesn’t that make life easy?!

#5 Structure is Good, Instructions Better 

I remember one of my first experiences with breakout rooms in virtual meetings … A video conference, me and three other people, and tons of awkward silence. None of us knew what to do. We were lost.

Meme illustrating awkward silences.

Why? Because suddenly, we didn’t have a leader. After two hours of being in a workshop with a facilitator, we were left to our own devices.

It’s an experience I hated.

As a meeting leader, this is a nightmare. Even if you read out all the instructions before dividing participants into groups, is there a guarantee they will remember it?

Absolutely not! 

Here’s what a lot of facilitators do… incorrectly! Dump instructions and discussion prompts into the chat and expect people to keep track of it.  

The solution? Definitely, don’t do that!

Structure your goal as a task. If your platform has built-in collaboration features and activities for breakout rooms, use those.

If it doesn’t, join Toasty! 😉

But seriously, if inbuilt activities aren’t an option, and you want to undertake something a little more collaborative, use whiteboarding apps or shared documents. Use something like Miro or Google docs as a central place for detailed instructions.

#6 Keep it Movin’

Have you heard of  The Law of Two Feet?

Harrison Owen whose concept this is said and I quote,

“Individuals can make a difference and must make a difference. If that is not true in a given situation, they, and they alone, must take responsibility to use their two feet, and move to a new place where they can make a difference.”

So, are you letting your participants make a difference? Do they have the autonomy to move between breakout rooms without restrictions?

If not, it’s time to make a change.

Give learners ownership. Make it simple for them to move. Help them easily understand where to go next and which paths they can take.

In his Virtual Open Space Experiment, Nenad Maljković displays how to design a flexible session with multiple breakout rooms, encouraging free movement.

SCREENSHOT OF  NENAD MALJKOVIĆ'S AGENDA FOR  VIRTUAL OPEN SPACE EXPERIMENT
Screenshot of Nenad Maljković’s Agenda for the Virtual Open Space Experiment

BTW, did we mention how seriously we take this? 

So seriously that we have a feature in the works to allow participants free movement between themed breakout rooms. 

We are stoked!

Ready to Superpower Your Virtual Breakout Rooms?

I bet you are!

Breakout rooms aren’t just a gimmick or a fun virtual meeting feature. When used well, they can drive workshops and virtual meetings to success.

Remember, sending your participants to a breakout room ≠ a short break for you.

Stay tuned into the conversations happening. Be prepared for questions or calls for assistance. Be present and be there! 

What do you think? Are you pumped for your next virtual session? What’s your favorite tip? Write to us. We can’t wait to hear from you!


🌹 Virtual breakout rooms are the secret to running successful collaborative online sessions. At Toasty, we are super kicked about our breakout room offering. It doesn’t just allow you to form breakout groups (manually and through our inbuilt activity) but engage groups with icebreakers and questions, and set activity timers. And soon, it will allow free movement between breakout rooms. It’s a gamechanger for productive virtual sessions. Don’t miss out!