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January 31, 2021

You can use breakout rooms in Teams Meetings. If you are careful

Filed under: Digital Workplace — Tags: — frederique @ 22:48

By the end of 2020, many of us were looking forward to the new option in Microsoft Teams Meetings, to split a large meeting into smaller breakout rooms. For brainstorming in small groups in online workshops, for deep-diving with subgroups, for doing joint exercises in an online training. We wanted the option and we got it! But we do need to be careful when we use breakout rooms, to avoid breaking our meeting experience. Let us take a look at the seven main steps of organising and managing a Teams Meeting with breakout rooms, and what you should be careful of.

1.Have the key organiser schedule the Teams Meeting

As always, we want to schedule all our Meeting meticulously: early to avoid calendar clashes, with a clear agenda explaining what we will do and why, invite the right people. By the way, you can invite external participants from outside your organisation to join a Teams Meeting with breakout rooms – nice! But we often determine the exact roles of the various presenters and moderators later. Not when you want to include breakout rooms!

Be careful: Only the organiser can set up and manage the breakout rooms, i.e. the person who scheduled the meeting. Being a presenter is not enough to see the breakout rooms option. So think carefully who should schedule the meeting…

I’ve had situation where a high-level manager scheduled the meeting, because that emphasised how important the meeting was. But then that high-level manager would have to create the breakout rooms and be present during the meeting, to assign participants to their rooms. Not good… So make sure that the person who will actually be in charge of the session schedules the session: the main moderator for example.

Be careful: I’m not entirely sure about breakout rooms in Channel Meetings. I like to organise meetings in a Teams Channel, to embed them within a Team that can provide more context. Especially for ongoing meetings for which we also share files and other information, and for big events that require a lot of work before and after the meeting. It looks like you can create breakout rooms in channel meetings at this time, but I have heard that there were problems with it and I haven’t tried this for real lately.

2.Create the rooms beforehand

Of course you’ll want to set up your breakout rooms beforehand, so that you don’t have to worry about that when your participants are requiring your attention after the meeting has started.

You cannot include the breakout rooms when you schedule the meeting. But you can open the Teams Meeting days before the event takes place and create the breakouts rooms early. And rename them, to make sense to your participants. These rooms and their new names stay available when you close the meeting and re-open it.

Be careful: You need to use the Teams app on your computer for this. The breakout rooms option is not available in the Teams Online version yet. Fortunately, I prefer the Windows app version of Teams anyway. But you do need to pay attention as a consultant, that you cannot run a breakout meeting for a client in a browser, while you have Teams conversations with colleagues of your own organisation in the Teams app on your computer.

Be careful: You may give the participants a pop-up to trigger them to enter the meeting early too, if you have already invited the participants. So consider setting up the breakout rooms first, and then invite the participants afterwards. And again: you can only do this, if you scheduled the Teams Meeting in the first place.

Teams-BreakoutRooms-Add and rename-ann

Open the Breakout Rooms from the main Meeting toolbar as the organiser. Add rooms and rename them via the usual ‘…’ ellipsis.

3.Assign participants

So who should participate in which breakout room? When you start setting up the breakout rooms, you can choose whether you want to assign the people automatically or manually to the rooms.

  • You can let Teams decide and assign them automatically to a random room.
  • Or assign the participants manually, to select the right mix of participants for each groups. For example, do you want to respect existing teams or mix them up and have a representative of each team in every breakout room? Mix experienced participants with newbies? Mix enthusiasts with seriously critical people? I usually like to select my groups manually. Ok, maybe that means I am a control freak… 🙂
Teams-BreakoutRooms-StartSetup-Manual-ann

Choose if you want to assign people automatically or manually to the breakout rooms, when you create the rooms.

Be careful: The choice between automatic or manual assignment to the rooms only appears in the beginning, when you start setting up the breakout rooms. At least, at this time there does not seem to be a way to change it. So think about it before you start creating your rooms. Made a mistake? You can delete the rooms and start again via the ‘…’ ellipsis of the breakout rooms > Recreate rooms.

Be careful: You can only assign participants who are the your Teams Meeting to a breakout room. So you cannot assign them beforehand, from the invitation. If you value the participants input, you can do it together: assign them on your shared screen  – as the organiser, because that is the only one who can assign anyone to a room. If you want to avoid that discussion, ask the organiser to assign the people to their rooms, while the presenter explains what we will do.

Teams-BreakoutRooms-Assign-ann

Assign selected participants to a selected breakout room.

4.Start the rooms

When you assign people to their breakout rooms, nothing happens yet. But as soon as you start the rooms, the participants move to their assigned room.

Open a specific breakout room or start all of your rooms.

Open a specific breakout room or start all of your rooms.

Be careful: Warn the participants before you open the breakout rooms, because less Teams-savvy users might freak out instead of break out… How do they get into the breakout room and what happens to the original meeting? Will there be a host to help them there or how can they get help? How will they get back? The default setting is that the participants are automatically moved to their rooms in 10 seconds. They get a message to that effect in the blue bar that appears at the top, but they need to understand what is happening before they get confronted by this automated move.

The participant gets a message that the breakout has started and she will be moved in 10 seconds.

The participant gets a message that the breakout has started and she will be moved in 10 seconds.

Be careful: There is a toggle settings to enable and disable the automatic transition of the participants to their breakout rooms. If it is switched off, they themselves will need to click a button to move to their room. I prefer the automatic move, especially in these early days when people are still unfamiliar with this functioanality. People may get left behind… So please check if the setting is correct, before you open the breakout rooms in an important meeting.

Change the settng to automatically move the participants to their rooms, or not.

Change the settng to automatically move the participants to their rooms, or not.

If the participants do not get moved into their rooms automatically, they need to click a button to join.

If the participants do not get moved into their rooms automatically, they need to click a button to join.

5.As the organiser, manage the breakout sessions

As the organiser, you are responsible for keeping the Teams Meeting as a whole, with its breakout rooms, on track. You may want to moderate one particular breakout room, and ask other presenters to moderate other rooms. Or you can leave the participants to it and take charge of their own breakout sessions. Because once everyone is in their breakout room, they have presenter premissions, so they can interact freely.

But from time to time, they may need your help. As the organiser, you can join any breakout room in your Meeting. Click in the ‘…’ ellipsis for that room and then select Join room.

As the organiser, you can join any of the breakout rooms.

As the organiser, you can join any of the breakout rooms.

Be careful: Make sure the participants know how to ask for your help. Asking the question in the chat of their breakout room will work nicely, but only if they remember to @-mention you, so that you are notified.

When the participants need attention in a breakout room, they can draw your attention by @-mentioning you in their chat. You will see it in your Teams.

When the participants need attention in a breakout room, they can draw your attention by @-mentioning you in their chat. You will see it in your Teams.

And as the organiser, you can post announcement to all of the breakout rooms at the same time, from the central settings of your breakout rooms panel: click the ‘…’ ellipsis and then select Make an announcement.

Be careful: You only have room for a single line of text in the announcement, so make it snappy! Don’t start explaining things in announcements, or provide detailed information. Aim for concise, practical reminders like “If you have a question, @-mention me in the chat”. Might be useful if they do know about @-mentioning but they forget to actually do it… Or: “You only have 5 minutes left!”. Because someone needs to keep an eye on the clock. Of course you should also tell everyone how much time they have before they dive into their breakout rooms, but that is just the same as in real-life breakout sessions.

Make an announcement to all breakout rooms. It will appear in their chat as an important message.

Make an announcement to all breakout rooms. It will appear in their chat as an important message.

6.Switch between the main meeting and the breakout rooms

When you enter a breakout room, you open a separate Teams Meeting, which is connected to the main Team Meeting you scheduled. When you open that breakout room meeting, you put your original main meeting On Hold. When you resume the main meeting, you put the breakout on hold for you.

When I joined the breakout called 'Test Room 1', I put the main meeting called 'Breaking out Test' on hold.

When I joined the breakout called ‘Test Room 1’, I put the main meeting called ‘Breaking out Test’ on hold.

Be careful: In the online version of Teams, the meetings are not clearly labelled. In the Teams client, your meetings are clearly labelled with the name of the original meeting. But the participants who join online need to be careful of where they are.

Be careful: Either avoid using the lobby or avoid the option to manually return to the main meeting. You can allow the participants to return from their breakout room back to the main meeting manually. This is not the default settings, but you can select it via the ‘…’ ellipsis of the breakout rooms in general > Rooms settings > Participants can return to the main meeting. But if you allow your participants to return to the main meeting from their breakout rooms, the people who had to be admitted from the lobby when you got started need to be readmitted from the lobby when they return using the Return button. And I have seen examples where the wires got crossed somehow: the external participant was stuck in the lobby and meeting pane of the organiser did not that participant in the lobby, so they had no way to let her in… Fortunately, you don’t have this problem when you don’t allow them to return manually – when you pull them back automatically when you close the breakout rooms, they don’t get stuck in the lobby.

Be careful: Avoid leaving and rejoining the meeting as the organiser. The participants may be able to continue in their breakout rooms after you have left. But when you rejoin and then close the rooms, the participants do not get back automatically. And when you try to reopen the rooms for the next round, the assignments have disappeared. At least, that’s what I experienced recently. So try to make it work by leaving the meeting with the breakouts on hold, while you join another meeting. Or even better: just stick with the meeting you organised for these breakouts and don’t try to multitask…

7.Get everyone back to the main meeting

When you want everyone to come back from their breakout rooms to the main meeting, for example because you want to get started with the next topic, you can close the breakout rooms: just click Close rooms in the breakout panel.

Close all breakout rooms with one button

Close all breakout rooms with one button

When you close the breakout rooms, the participants again get a message in the blue bar at the top: “This room will close in 10 seconds. You will be automatically moved back to the main meeting”. They also see in the chat that the organiser has removed them from the breakout meeting. And yes indeed, they do automatically get back to the main meeting, This even works for external participants joining in the online version of Teams.

The participant of the breakout room gets a message that this room with close in 10 seconds and that she will be moved back to the main meeting.

The participant of the breakout room gets a message that this room with close in 10 seconds and that she will be moved back to the main meeting.

And when you want everyone to move into their breakout rooms again for Round 2, just open the rooms again. This will transfer the participants back to their own breakout rooms, where they will find the chat that they had in the first round. It is like going back to the room where the blackboard is still filled with your scribblings…

So breakout rooms are not fully mature yet in Microsoft Teams. But we can already take advantage of the new functionality. If we are careful.
See also Microsoft’s announcement Breakout rooms generally available today in Microsoft Teams (december 2020) and instructions Use breakout rooms in Teams meetings.

1 Comment »

  1. But if you allow your participants to return to the main meeting from their breakout rooms, the people who had to be admitted from the lobby when you got started need to be readmitted from the lobby when they return using the Return button. And I have seen examples where the wires got crossed somehow: the external participant was stuck in the lobby and meeting pane of the organiser did not that participant in the lobby, so they had no way to let her in… Fortunately, you don’t have this problem when you don’t allow them to return manually – when you pull them back automatically when you close the breakout rooms, they don’t get stuck in the lobby.

    Comment by nathanalex — March 29, 2021 @ 21:30

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