At some point, you know it’s going to happen. You are at a large meeting at work or a conference, and someone says the inevitable.

“OK everyone, let’s break into groups!”

Breaking into smaller groups is a great way to get to know people, to have more focused conversations, and to discuss how specific lessons and techniques may apply to your work.

Breakout groups might be pre-assigned, and you are told which group to be in. Or, you may just be encouraged to break into your own groups. Either approach presents us with an interesting sociological experience.

If you are pre-assigned to a group, and you see that group begin to gather in the corner of the room, you eventually make your way over. On your way, you see who you are going to be learning with and either get excited that you will be working with people you like and respect, or get dejected when you see who you will be forced spend time with people you don’t like and don’t have any interest in getting to know better. You wish you were part of another group.

It’s a whole other story when you are asked to break into your own groups. As soon as they announce that we are breaking into groups, the games begin. Some people find themselves in groups right away with friends and colleagues they like or respect, or maybe higher level people providing the opportunity for welcome face time. Other people without those connections are left to wander around the room until they muster the courage to ask to join a group, or someone notices them meandering about and invites them to join them.

Even if we are at a conference and we walk into a big banquet hall for a meal, we scan the room as again people are again breaking into groups. Who is sitting at which table? Where are my friends sitting? Where is the CEO sitting? Who should I be sure to be with, and who am I sure I want to avoid? Am I brave enough to sit at a table with people I don’t know?

But we are not going to meals in big banquet halls until the COVID-19 pandemic is over, and rather than all gathering in breakout groups together in a big room, we now gather in breakout rooms from our home office.

At my organization, we use Zoom as a way for remote employees (which currently means ALL employees) to work with each other and meet together. While most people would agree that Zoom is a poor substitute for being together in the same space, breakout room functionality is where Zoom excels, and is even better than what we are used to in “real life.” The experience is unique, and so are the benefits.

When we go into breakout groups in Zoom, we don’t pick the groups ourselves. We don’t take that long, lonely walk across the conference room to ask to join a group of colleagues. We don’t look across the room to see the group that we wish we were in. In Zoom, an announcement is made that we are going to breakout rooms, and then we are there. The main meeting disappears, our screen goes black, and then one by one the faces begin to appear on your screen in the Zoom breakout room. Maybe they are people you know well, maybe they are not. Maybe they are your friends, maybe they are people you really don’t like at all. Maybe they are people who are new to the organization, maybe they are people you have never seen before.

Whoever it is you find in your group when the pictures come on your screen, you are all going through the same exact experience. Everybody just appears. We did not have to walk across the room to be in the group, building up anticipation, excitement or dread along the way. We are just there. We are all just there. This is the magic of Zoom.

With just the click of a mouse, organizational barriers are brought tumbling down. We are all on a level playing field, finding ourselves with the people we find ourselves with. There is no anticipation or dread as we make our way across a crowded room to see who we will be meeting with.

Unfortunately, this is usually where the magic ends. As soon as we are brought back into the main meeting, any conversation or relationship we may have begun has now come to a crashing end as we see the warning on our screen…”You will be brought back into the main meeting in 5,4,3,2,1.

No! Let me stay!

But there are ways to take advantage of those random and happenstance connections, eradicate meaningless organizational barriers, and continue the communication and interaction you began with people you did not even know.

  1. Note who was in your group, and set up a follow up conversation with them. Just because.
  2. Make it a point for that entire breakout group to meet at least one more time, for the specific reason of finding more opportunities for collaboration and communication.
  3. Tag the people you usually don’t talk to from your Zoom meeting in a post in your Yammer network or Slack group. Take a look at what they are working on. Make sure they know what you are working on.

Although Zoom will never be an adequate replacement for in person meetings, it will always be my preference when it comes time to break into groups. The faces that appear on the screen are always unexpected, opportunities for new connections always exist, and we can always carry the conversation forward.

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