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How to Use Breakout Sessions in Employee Learning

Breakout sessions are normally thought about when it comes to conferences or seminars. But really, they are great tools for employee learning. They breakup large groups of employees and serve the purpose to discuss and express ideas and opinions concerning a topic on a smaller scale. Plus, they allow participants to talk and express different points of views in a more intimate space with a defined objective in place. 

So what benefits can breakout sessions have in terms of employee training? Here are a few worth considering.

Benefits of breakout sessions

1. Increased participation

When you have a large group of employees whether you are doing in-person training or elearning, it’s hard to get everyone to participate. And when employees do wish to speak, there may be others who monopolize the conversation. Breakout sessions provide a platform for everyone to talk since it’s a smaller scale discussion. Plus, by participating, it helps understand the new ideas being taught and raises employee engagement in the process.

2. Sharing different viewpoints

You can teach 100 employees the same information, but what one person gets from an information session may be completely different from what someone else gets. So breakout sessions can act as vehicles to share what was learned. And during this sharing process, each employee can give their view of what their takeaways were from the training. This can help with collaboration and a deeper understanding of what was to be learned.

3. Getting clarification

Many times after a training session, there are questions left unanswered or further clarification needed. So breakout sessions are a great way to clear up any confusion. Plus, it’s easier to get peer to peer training advice than to reach out to a facilitator post learning. And many times team members since they just sat in on the same training session can better explain key points to other employees. 

4. Generating ideas

Breakout sessions are a great way to take what’s learned and apply it right away. For example, you could give a team a scenario and ask them to solve it using what was just learned. This not only helps employees recall what they took away from the training, but also an opportunity to see the value in the new information. Plus, it acts as a forum to generate new ideas and new ways to solve common on-the-job issues.

5. Increases memory recall

The point of learning is to gain new information, but it’s human nature to soon forget what was taught. So in order to facilitate the learning process, breakout sessions are a great way to increase memory recall. When a small group discusses a topic they received training for, they can discuss what they learned, how to apply what they learned and how it will benefit them once back on the job. 

6. Less formal atmosphere

Whether training via a Zoom call or in a classroom, the atmosphere can feel a bit more formal. Usually there is a set schedule and most of the time employees are listening to new ideas and information. Adding in breakout sessions is a more informal way to learn so employees feel a bit freer to voice opinions, raise concerns or formulate new ideas. This can add to the overall learning experience.

How to use breakout sessions

Next let’s discuss how to start incorporating breakout sessions into your training program. Instead of reinventing your training program, look for ways to supplement your learning with breakout sessions. In other words, identify training that would benefit from a breakout format. Then use this process to start adding in these sessions where it will add the most value. 

1. Plan for breakout sessions

The first step is to run your training as usual whether this be in a classroom or online. Then when the training module is over, give direction that there will be a breakout session. Ask each group to assign a team leader who will take notes, make sure the process is followed correctly and keeps moving along. You will also want to give a time limit for the breakout session and specific instructions as to what the goal of the session is. 

2. Assign topics and questions

Next, you’ll want to assign key topics and questions you wish each breakout session to consider. You can choose to give every group the same set of topics or vary these by department or team. This will help teams take what was learned during the training and apply critical thinking and active problem solving during these breakout sessions.

3. Debrief what was learned

Once everyone provides feedback during these breakout sessions, you’ll want the team leads to take their notes and import these into your learning management system or training program. That way, you can compare and contrast each group's breakout sessions. 

4. Share what was learned

Then you’ll want to share what was learned. Have a learning team member compile the notes and create a document of best practices. This will act as a takeaway post training. It’s a great way to see how actual team members took new information that was learned and put it to use immediately given a real-life scenario. This will then provide examples to others in the company how to use this training for their own job roles.

5. Get feedback

After you have used breakout sessions for some time, ask employees how it’s working. You may find employees like certain formats or another. Or employees like elearning breakout sessions versus in-person options. It’s also a time to ask for new breakout session ideas. There may be topics employees request that may make great options you may have not considered. Plus, this helps customize learning and make it more personal for asking for input.

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What makes the best breakout session formats?

Once you have a good method for incorporating breakout sessions, you’ll want to experiment with a few formats. This will break up the monotony and also account for different learning styles. Plus, come feedback time, you’ll be able to see which formats were the most successful and the ones employees preferred to attend. 

Make them interactive

The purpose of a good breakout session is interaction between various team members. It gets communication flowing and focuses on other needed soft skills. You could give real-life scenarios and have your employees solve a problem. Or you could bring in an industry expert to talk about a specific issue and participants could provide feedback. Another idea is to create a mind map as a team. This starts with a a main topic and branches out with ideas from that main topic or objective. It’s a great way to get people working together to solve an issue. 

Use games

Everyone likes learning, that's fun so incorporating gamification in training is a great way to make breakout sessions more engaging. You could have employees build a simple company product together or learn how to use a new product or service. Or you could create a trivia game where employees compete for prizes based on what they learned in the training session. Another way is to play BINGO with spaces dedicated to key takeaways from the learning module.

Be simple

You want your breakout sessions to be easy to understand so use formats that employees can quickly participate in and start collaborating. Lightning talks are a great way to do this. Invite a company leader or even a third party vendor to speak to breakout session participants. This is on a single pain point or topic. And this is also informal and only lasts at most seven minutes. Then elicit feedback from the breakout session. Another idea for keeping formats simple is a goal setting workshop. After a training session on new skills or one tailored to a certain department, breakout and ask employees to list their personal goals for the company. Communicating with team members can spark ideas and make goals more relevant and concrete.

Include managers

Breakout sessions are not only valuable for employees, but managers as well. When you develop training for executives like project management or raising soft skills like problem solving, add breakout sessions that put these topics to the test. For example, have managers role-play various employees and how they would resolve common issues. Another way could be to invite an executive coach to one of the sessions who listens and gives real-time feedback. Sometimes managers fall into patterns that are best pointed out by third party observers or even peers.

Change locations

If you have an onsite office, get out of the office itself. While you may train in a classroom setting, use breakout sessions that take employees outside or on a retreat. Many times employees associate the office with tasks that need to be completed and their attention is not totally focused on training. So by removing everyone from the physical building, attention can be placed on new skills to be learned. Ideas for breakout sessions may be a scavenger hunt where teams work together to develop soft skills. Or it may be ideas for managing workflow and stress with a nature walk or yoga session. 

Make them virtual

If you have a 100 percent remote company or you want to include employees in your training sessions who are work-from-home contractors, breakout sessions can still work remotely. For example, Zoom offers an option to create breakout rooms. You can have up to 50 sessions taking place at the same time. Further options let a single host hop room to room and participants also have options to move to another breakout session.

Since virtual breakout sessions work a bit differently, there are some important questions to answer before creating online options. Here is a good list to reference.

1. Will you pre assign team members to groups or will this be random?

Something to keep in mind when answering this question is pre-selecting the groups give the facilitator better control. If you let employees choose on their own, you may not get the best mix of personality types, cross-department team members and different levels of employees. Or on the flipside, if you are hosting a companywide meeting and you want breakout sessions grouped by department, then you have control over how these breakout sessions are organized.

2. What size will my breakout session be?

While there is no clear number for a breakout session, you do want to keep these on the small side. The point is to foster communication and collaboration and the more people you have in the group, the harder this becomes. This is especially important when this is online because people can easily talk over each other and become disengaged if the conversation becomes too wordy. 

3. What is the technology and do your employees know how to use it?

Many companies use some sort of conference call system whether this is Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts or Skype. So the first step is figuring out what technology works best for team breakout sessions for your company. Then making sure employees know how to access the information and begin participating. You may want to give instructions a few different ways like over email, verbally before the sessions begin and even written handouts. That way no matter how employees process information, you have your bases covered. 

4. What is my meeting format and who are my facilitators?

Online formats can be a bit disjointed so it’s best to plan ahead for virtual breakout sessions. You want to create an agenda and assign a moderator for each virtual session. That way there are clear objectives, a time limit and someone there to keep the conversation moving along. 

How do you see breakout sessions working for your training?

We’ve given you several reasons to start incorporating breakout sessions beyond during conferences or meetings. These mini collaborative meetings can help strengthen employee learning and give context to new ideas taught in prior modules. No matter what format you use online, in a classroom or a blended learning format, breakout sessions can aid in employee learning.

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