Since April we have been using MS Teams, our corporate teleconferencing tool, to successfully run an online immersion event for groups of 30 at a time using breakout rooms functionality to create virtual concept centres.
With a requirement to immerse ~300 employees in refreshed leadership behaviours, and the uncertainty of when/if we would ever fully return to the office, it was an interesting challenge to strike the balance between a group size that enabled everyone to participate but in as few sessions as possible.
Here’s what we did…
Our team consisted of 3 facilitators (one for each concept centre), and crucially – a producer.
Given the current limitations of MS Teams (July 2021), the owner of the meeting is the only one with access to the breakout functionality, so the meeting owner must be the producer.
Along with setting up pairs, trios and later the 10-person concept centres, the producer also sent announcements of timings – “10 minutes left”, “break from 10.15 to 10.30”, posted links, ran polls, and helped troubleshoot tech issues.
The ‘one day’ event was split into two half days, and these were run as afternoon day 1, morning day 2, to reduce cognitive load and allow reflection time between sessions
Session times were ~ 3.5 hours each, with breaks every ~40 minutes
Initial whole group 40 mins interactive lecture, with a 5-minute breakout quick draw/pair share and playbacks halfway through.
Then 3 x 35-minute virtual concept centres, with extra 5 minutes in the first session for introductions. The attendees were moved into breakout groups of up to 10 people, where they stayed. The facilitators were rotated around between the rooms during the breaks between each concept centre, with attendees encouraged to leave their computers and take a proper break away from the screen.
At the end of the concept centres, attendees were brought back to the main room for polls, one or two shared reflections, and a ‘tickets out’ style chat storm sharing one thing that they had learned from the session.
Fairly swift introduction, paired breakouts to share reflections on learnings from the previous day. (Time was built in between paired breakouts and the larger 10 people groups to ensure the producer had time to manually reset the breakout rooms – we did our best to ensure people were separated from their day-to-day direct colleagues, so the groupings couldn’t be random).
Then a similar format – 3 facilitated concept centres with breaks in between each, and back to the main group.
On the occasions where we had less than the maximum attendance, we opted for group size as close to 10 as possible – eg we split a group of 21 into two breakout groups of 10/11 each rather than 3 groups of 7. This gave one facilitator a break of 35 minutes for each rotation, and maintained a good mix of perspectives within the full sized breakout groups
We made a conscious effort for the concept centres feel different – different facilitators (each with a virtual background specific to the concept), different activities, different topics.
- Quick write discussion: everyone shares their own positive experience via virtual sticky notes, repeat for negative experience, discuss themes, and answer reflection questions.
- Talking circle (equivalent of virtual ball toss without the ball!) where every person in the group takes a turn to answer the question from their own context.
- Pair share (by allocating pairs and getting them to call each other via MS Teams chat to discuss reflection question) and then feed back to the group
- Fish bowl: half of group has cameras on and after short reflection period answers a question, while the other half of group are cameras and microphones off, listening. Then silent half of group are invited back into the bowl to comment or build on the conversation they observed. Then swap for a second question.
- Divide and conquer: Set of five questions, each pair takes one question, discusses for fixed period and then plays back key points to the group – essentially a jigsaw activity.
- Metaphor magic: Each person invited to share (and explain) an object representing an important change they have made in the last 12 months. Second part – brief lecture to explain change formula, then discussion for participants to link their experiences to the formula.
Attendees were provided with a workbook – they could choose to have a physical one posted or simply download an interactive pdf version.
All attendees were expected to complete an online self-assessment based on conversations they had with team members (an MS Form linked up by Power Automate to generate an automated email with the questions and their responses) to refer to during the session.
We had a surprising range of difficulties with the few short video clips we presented – this came down to the tech set up of each individual, with tech check instructions ranging from ‘unplug your second screen’ to ‘change the audio settings in teams to ensure it is coming through the right audio device’. It seemed to vary according to the platform the video was based in too – one to test with a variety of setups before going live.
Initially we also had difficulties with use of MS whiteboard – ensuring everyone is accessing it through the app and not the browser is tricky, and we had a few mysterious cases of disappearing text/sticky notes. So we switched to using a mural board, with participants joining as anonymous guests with editing rights, many using mural for the first time, after a quick 5 minute ‘orientation’ built into the concept centre. This worked well, with facilitator sharing screen / participant posting their comments in chat on the rare occasion where individuals couldn’t get mural to work on their machine (usually down to individual internet connectivity).
Occasionally the breakout rooms did not open as they should, so the producer had to bring the participant back to the main room, and then invite them to the breakout room.
On one occasion, one of the participants was not able to see the chat. This was remedied by leaving the meeting, rebooting, and rejoining.
Feedback and learnings
- For a corporate immersion event, with internal facilitators/producer, MS Teams worked well – we had a lot of feedback from pleasantly surprised attendees at how ‘slick’ the sessions had been, and a greater understanding of the breakout functionality in MS Teams.
- Build in a tech check with participants – and if you are playing videos, do a tech check for each video (since the audio may come from different sources depending on the setup of the individual machine).
- Virtual concept centres – to reduce the load on the producer: keep attendees in the same breakout room and rotate the facilitators. Have published, pre-agreed times to start and finish each concept centre, including breaks, and ensure these are communicated via announcements in chat to provide a regular reliable time-check.
- Create a variety of activities and build in time and resources (eg workbook) for reflection, discussion, and breaks. We had a lot of positive feedback both for the variety of activities (and facilitation styles) throughout the session, and for the extensive opportunity to learn from shared experiences of colleagues across the business.
- Group size of 30 split into 3 groups of 10 plus facilitator worked well. The smaller breakout groups made it possible for each person to engage with the content, creating safe environments to share experiences and gradually build a relationship, while the large group elements at the beginning and end of the sessions allowed participants to hear fresh perspectives from outside their breakout group.
From this experience (we had run 12 pairs of immersion events at the time of writing this blog) I conclude that facilitated virtual concept centres are a useful tool in the virtual trainer’s toolbox, particularly when working with larger groups.