Schedule breaks during online meetings!

schedule breaks during online meetingsProviding 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.”

Conclusion

I hope this article has been helpful explaining how to schedule breaks during online meetings. As always, your comments are welcome!

Give me a break!

breaks between meeting sessions

In 2011, the organizers of a large European conference invited me to give a forty-minute presentation. When I arrived and saw the conference program I was surprised to see that the day’s sessions were scheduled with NO intervening breaks. Participants were somehow expected to instantaneously teleport between session rooms—even restroom visits were apparently not on the agenda. As you might expect, I lost ten minutes of my forty minute time slot because of this elementary scheduling error. No breaks between meeting sessions!

Most event planners won’t make this kind of mistake, but, given that breaks between sessions should be longer than zero minutes, how long should they be? The answer depends on several factors:

  • Time needed to move between sessions held in different locations
  • Overall length of the event
  • Amount of participation and interaction designed into sessions

In my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love I describe an event where, at the last minute, we were forced to schedule sessions in two buildings that were separated by a ten minute outdoor walk. Scheduled program breaks weren’t long enough, sessions started late, and very hot weather during the conference led to additional complaints.

How long should a break be?

At the very least, breaks must be long enough for people to

  • decide the session they want to attend next
  • figure out where the next session is
  • take a bathroom break if needed; and
  • get to their desired destination leisurely.

Even at a one-day conference with sessions held in adjacent rooms, I recommend at least ten minutes between sessions; fifteen would be better. If your rooms are further apart, or in a building that is confusing to navigate, you need to allocate more time.

Breaks between meeting sessions can be shorter at a one-day event than they need to be at a four-day event. That doesn’t mean they should be. But if you have a crowded, must-do agenda you can get away with minimum breaks for a one-day event. At longer conferences, there’s no excuse for not scheduling extended breaks, and your attendee quality of experience will suffer if you don’t. A long lunch break—at least ninety minutes, preferably two hours—and a significant break between the last session of the day and dinner is a simple way to build longer breaks into the day, but having twenty to twenty-five minute refreshment breaks between morning sessions will also help to keep energy, participation, and learning high during a multi-day event.

Providing breaks in long sessions

Finally, the amount of participation and interaction included in sessions will influence the amount of break time needed. The opening roundtable I use at my conferences can last a couple of hours. When I first ran this session I innocently ran it with just a single midway twenty minute refreshment break. Eventually I noticed what an energy sink this was, and now I break up the session every twenty minutes with short participative exercises like human spectrograms and pair share introductions. A refreshment table in the room allows people to grab a drink or an apple during these frequent breaks. By using multiple short breaks, the energy level in the room now remains high.

Check out my post on the science of white space at events for more thoughts on this important, but often overlooked, topic.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jarkko

The science of white space at events

Conference organizers have an unfortunate tendency to stuff their programs full of sessions. It’s an understandable choice; if participants have committed all this time and money to be present, shouldn’t we minimize white space and give them as many sessions as we can cram in?

Unfortunately, filling every minute of your conference schedule does not lead to an optimum experience for attendees. We need white space; free time for attendees to do what they want and need to do. Here are some science-based, light-hearted, yet serious reasons why.

Biology
Yes, all of us need to use the bathroom every once in a while. The good news is that just about all event organizers remember this.

Physics
But what many forget is that Star Trek technology is not currently available; we cannot instantaneously teleport from one meeting room to another. At a minimum, breaks between sessions need to be long enough for attendees to walk leisurely between the two session locations that are furthest apart. But don’t program the minimum; people also need time to check their messages (otherwise they’ll just do it in the sessions, right?), get a cup of coffee, fall into a serendipitous conversation, etc.

Physiology
On average, conference session attendees sit 99.13% of the time.

OK, I made that up. But I’m not far off. And here’s a cheerful graphic about the perils of sitting created by Jan Jacobs:

Give your attendees more time to stand up and move about between sessions (and during them, see below) and, who knows, they may live longer.

Social science
According to social scientist Dr James House, “The magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors.” Why expose your attendees to such an unhealthy environment? We need to create conference environments that encourage and support connections with others, rather than leaving attendees to their own devices, and it turns out that conference mixers don’t provide as good opportunities for attendees to meet new people as you might think. We need additional kinds of white space at our events.

Neuroscience
Neuroscience supplies the most important rationale for providing white space at your events. As molecular biologist John Medina describes in his book Brain Rules: Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once. Brains need breaks.

We need white space not only between sessions, but also during them to maximize learning. Medina suggests that presentations be split into ten minute chunks to avoid the falloff in attention that otherwise occurs. (Back in the ’70s, Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind maps, recommended studying in cycles of twenty minutes followed by a short break, a technique that has served me well for forty years.)

In addition, Medina tells us that multisensory environments provide significantly more effective learning than unisensory environments; recall is more accurate, has better resolution, and lasts longer. So make sure your sessions include multisensory input (participatory exercises, participant movement, smells, touch, etc.) and your conference locale provides a pleasant multisensory environment.

So, what to do?
How do we find a balance between providing white space during and between conference sessions and our desire to provide as much potential content and opportunities for our attendees?

During sessions it’s important to provide white space between every ten to twenty minute chunk of learning, so that the learning that has occurred can be processed and retained. This is something that we should all be doing to optimize the learning experience at our events.

Between sessions it’s important to include significant unstructured time. A ten-minute break between two one-hour sessions is the absolute minimum I’ll schedule, followed by long refreshment or meal breaks. I am not a fan of providing intrusive entertainment during meals—eating together is one of the most intimate bonding activities humans have—for goodness sake, let your attendees talk to each other during this time!

I’ve saved my best advice for last. Instead of deciding how much white space should exist at your conference, let the attendees decide! At the start of the event, explicitly give people permission to take whatever time they need to rest, recuperate, think, etc. It may seem silly, but I find that if you publicly define the event environment as one where it’s expected and normal for people to take whatever time they need for themselves it becomes easier for attendees to give themselves permission to do so.

[Thanks to Joan Eisenstodt for providing the initial impetus for writing this post! And check out Give me a break! for another viewpoint on the topics of this post.]

White space—it’s not just for advertising any more! What’s been your experience of white space at events? What suggestions do you have for improving its use?

Image attribution: Flickr user zavie.