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ATD Blog

How to Lead Successful Virtual Breakout Room Activities

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

“You have 15 minutes to network,” the facilitator announced. The breakout rooms opened, and I was transported into a new space with four strangers. A long, awkward silence was followed by the timid words, “What are we supposed to do?” We all wondered the same thing.

Are you sending participants into breakout room blackholes? Are you sending them to their rooms hoping they’ll make the most of it?

There is a better way!

I use the five rules of my breakout rooms in all of my training. Yes, I said rules—rules because, if you follow these, participants will know what to do and have a more productive time.

Here are my five breakout room rules:

Rule 1: Give clear, specific instructions for the breakout room activity.

Give me a map and I’m more likely to end up at my destination. Let learners know their destination with key details before entering the breakout room.

  • Outcome: What do you want them to do?
  • Method: How will they do it?
  • Support: Who is responsible?
  • Message: What will they report back?

I use the same instruction slide format for all activities (displayed in the following image). This creates a familiarity with the style and signals to learners that a breakout room is about to happen. My producer copies and pastes the instructions into chat so learners can see them in their breakout rooms.


Rule 2: Keep groups small.

Smaller groups can discuss, problem-solve, and brainstorm with more depth and focus than larger groups. Five or fewer people per group is more likely to allow everyone to contribute. Larger groups will make it harder for everyone to contribute.

Rule 3: Assign a facilitator.

The facilitator can help keep time, keep the activity moving, and report the group’s work back to the main room. I like to use creative ways to assign facilitators, such as choosing:

  • The person with the longest or shortest hair
  • The last person who ate chocolate
  • The person with the brightest socks on
  • The middle child

You can also ask for someone to volunteer in each group, but giving a little more guidance gives the groups something to talk about immediately.

Rule 4: Set a time limit.

Give participants enough time to work through the activity, but not too much time. You want a bit of urgency to keep the group focused and on task. Broadcast time notices as the groups are working. If you are using a shared document where you can see progress, adjust the time if more is needed.


For most of my breakout groups, I use the rule of 12 minutes based on John Medina’s 10-minute attention research.

Rule 5: Ask facilitators to report back.

Ask group facilitators to report back ONE item or highlight from their group. Asking for something concise for the group to share will help to manage time and give the group a clear goal they are working toward.

Are you following my five rules?

Breakout groups are an essential element of my training design. In the virtual classroom, they build connections and help learners tackle tough concepts together.

For more insights, join me at ATD TechKnowledge for my session Small Groups, Big Results: Use Breakout Rooms to Transform Learning.

About the Author

Katrina Kennedy is known to the training community as “the trainer’s trainer” and specializes in helping trainers design and deliver learning events that transfer to improved job performance. She has provided training, coaching, and keynotes to organizations since 1997.  

Katrina has a Master’s Degree in Human Resource Management and Development from Chapman University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from the University of California at Riverside. 

She is actively involved with the Sacramento ATD Chapter where she provides the “Fundamentals for Trainers”, the chapter’s train-the-trainer program.

When she’s not in front of the class you can find her in her vegetable garden taking photos.

She shares training insights and ideas at

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Hi Katrina,
Thank you for sharing! I am new to the facilitation role, so this is valuable as I build out my training. Can you provide the instruction slide format referenced in the article? Thanks
Hi Karen,
You can see the slide format I use at (I use a little more updated version now) Happy to share the slide with you if you contact me.
My instructions always include the numbered steps I'd like learners to follow. Each step begins with an active verb.
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Hi Katrina,
Thank you for these rules. I'm looking forward to adapting ways to assign facilitators to the rooms. I often find when teams come back, the first response after an awkward silence is "we didn't pick a spokesperson, so I guess I'll do it."
Your experience has been mine as well. I love how the method catches attention and works as a method to connect people as well.
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I find breakout rooms very effective method of building teams rapport. I certainly agree with giving "clear, specific instructions for the breakout room activity". Once the learners have instructions, allow them a bit a slack to get to know each other and be at ease while nudging them to accomplish the tasks at hand. The shared experience of being in a break session will strengthen the bond between learners as they move from competitive to more of a collaborative interaction.
Absolutely Christopher! I like the idea of giving them a bit of slack to know each other and ease them in. Thanks for commenting!
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