Providing downtime during any meeting is important, but it’s especially important to schedule breaks during online meetings.
What happens if you don’t schedule breaks during online meetings
Some people have the attitude that attendees at online meetings are grown-ups and they should be given the freedom to take a break when they want and/or need to. Let’s explore this.
Obviously, there are times when online meeting participants need to take a break. They are working from home and their kid falls down and hurts themself. Or they have to take an important call they’ve been waiting for from their boss. (Hopefully they explained that at the start of the meeting.) Perhaps they have a physiological emergency.
You can’t do much about people who need to take a break. But, by scheduling breaks at an online meeting you can drastically reduce the number of people who want to take a break, and do so because they have no idea when they’ll next get a scheduled opportunity to take a break!
When you don’t schedule enough breaks, people will leave an online meeting seemingly at random. Sometimes they’ll do this because they need to, but the other meeting attendees don’t know this. As a result, the meeting will feel unnecessarily disjointed, and it’s easy for participants to conclude that the meeting is not so important, or boring, or a waste of time. (Of course, meetings can be all these things, breaks or not! But there’s no need to make the experience worse than it already might be.)
To summarize, scheduling appropriate breaks during online meetings makes it much more likely that people will stay present and only leave if they have to.
Why attention span is especially fragile at online meetings
Let’s think about in person meetings for a moment. Long face-to-face meetings — a conference for example — are invariably broken up into sessions, interspersed with scheduled breaks, meals, socials, etc. We are used to building scheduled breaks into in person meetings. And such breaks inevitably involve movement: leaving a meeting room for refreshments, moving to another location for the next session, etc.
Unlike in person meetings, there may be very little downtime between multiple online meetings. Online meeting participants don’t have to get out of their chair and walk to another room to join a new meeting; they just click a new Zoom link. Moreover, online meeting participants usually have no idea whether other attendees are on their first or tenth meeting of the day.
Consequently, it’s not unusual for people working remotely these days to become Zoombies (no, not this kind, hopefully). Sitting for long periods in front of a screen is a recipe for inattention. Our brains simply can’t maintain peak alertness without regular stimulation of movement (our body, not someone else’s), active engagement (e.g. answering a question, engaging in conversation), or meaningful emotional experience. In my experience, most online meetings contain very little stimulation of this type. Scheduled breaks allow us to create this vital stimulation for ourselves.
Even if a meeting facilitator is aware of the importance of scheduling breaks to maintain attention, there’s another factor that makes it harder than during face-to-face meetings.
Reading the room at online meetings
At in person meetings, it’s fairly easy to read the room and notice that attendees are getting restless. People start to squirm a little in their seats. Their body language telegraphs they’re tired or inattentive. A good meeting leader/facilitator will see this and announce a break, or ask the group whether they can power through for another fifteen minutes.
It’s harder to read the room during online meetings, because we have less real-time information about the participants. It’s difficult to judge how people are doing when all you can see is their upper body in a little rectangle on your screen. In addition, most microphones are muted, so you can’t hear people shifting around in their chairs or audible distractions nearby.
Scheduled breaks reduce the need to reliably read the room with limited audible and visual information available.
OK, so how long can people meet online without a break?
It depends. Online meetings that focus on making a single decision can, if well-designed and facilitated, be useful and over in twenty minutes. No break needed! In my experience, though, most online meetings run 60 – 90 minutes.
If the attendees aren’t participating in back-to-back online meetings (unfortunately, increasingly common these days) it’s reasonable to schedule a 60-minute meeting without a break.
90-minute meetings are a stretch, and scheduling a five-minute break around the middle will help participants regenerate.
If you feel impelled to run a longer meeting, I strongly recommend building a five-minute break into the agenda every 45 minutes.
If you’re still wondering why meeting breaks are important, check out this light-hearted review on the value and science of white space at events.
What you ask people to do during breaks is important, and I’ll share my suggestions below.
How to schedule online meeting breaks
There are several ways to inform participants about online meeting breaks.
The most obvious is using your meeting agenda, distributed before the meeting. Simply add a five-minute break in the middle of your 90-minute meeting, or include a couple of five-minute breaks during your 120-minute meeting agenda.
Alternatively, you can announce scheduled break times at the start of the meeting. Be sure to repeat this information once any latecomers have joined.
A variant is to announce at the start that there will be breaks, say, every 45 minutes or so, but the exact time will depend on how the meeting proceeds. Ask participants to speak up if more than 45 minutes passes without a break.
Finally, you may occasionally need to schedule an impromptu break. For example: an unexpected issue arises that necessitates spending five minutes to get data needed to make a decision. Under circumstances like this, an impromptu break may well be appropriate.
Whatever method used to schedule breaks, periodically remind participants when a break is coming up. For example: “We have a five-minute break scheduled in fifteen minutes; let’s see if we can get everyone’s thoughts on this issue before the break.”
Directions for attendees during breaks
Finally, it’s important to give clear directions to participants before each scheduled break. Here’s what to do.
- Obviously people need to be clearly told the length of the break, and the time the meeting will continue. Display a countdown timer showing the break time remaining; this is an essential aid for getting everyone back online on schedule. If your online meeting platform doesn’t have this capability built in, the meeting leader can share their screen during the break, displaying a large-digit timer counting down the minutes.
- Suggest that people turn off their cameras and do some movement and stretching exercises, or, if there’s time, go for a quick walk. Even short amounts of movement increase our in-the-moment cognitive functioning and ability to learn. (See Chapter 4 of The Power of Participation for more information on the benefits of movement.)
- If the break is for a significant amount of time, for example, a lunch break, you may be giving participants some preparatory work before the meeting resumes. Before the break, provide clear instructions on what is needed. For example: “During lunch, please spend a few minutes thinking about the options we discussed this morning, and be ready to share and justify your top choice when we reconvene at 1 pm EDT.”
I hope this article has been helpful explaining how to schedule breaks during online meetings. As always, your comments are welcome!