Make It AND Break It: A Breakout Session Recipe That Maximizes IRL Time
Remote work is great! But it's often hard to replicate the way you build trust and connection in-person. A breakout session that follows our solid base recipe will help ensure getting together IRL is worth it.
TTT is one of my favorite Viget traditions. Especially our in-person ones, which are memorable and delightful mixes of work and celebration. We laugh together (sometimes ‘till the wee hours of the morning 😬) and we cry together (mostly tears of joy). We set goals, make progress on team initiatives, and learn about different areas of Viget’s work together.
While the work – discipline-specific team meetings, business metrics presentation, industry talks – and play – s’mores/cocktail hour bonfires, impromptu sing-alongs, leisure time – are core/essential components to our TTTs, our events simply would not be as effective without breakout sessions.
A breakout session is a subset of a larger event. It gives teams a chance to break out of the more standard flow of the conference or retreat to work on goals or initiatives in smaller groups. Given the clustered nature of breakout sessions, they typically require more active participation on the part of attendees.
With intentionality, thoughtfulness, and plenty of upfront planning, breakout sessions help us further maximize the ROI on our all-hands, in-person events. They’re relatively cheap to do well, are flexible (can be done in half-hour blocks or several hours), and most importantly, hit home what we’re really trying to do with our retreats – create and build connections, foster serendipitous moments, and remind people why they joined Viget (and why they want to stay).
In other words, breakout sessions are the icing on the TTT cake.
We’ve put together a few different breakout sessions recently, including the spring TTT “Rising Tides Regatta” where teams designed/raced miniature boats and fall TTT’s FFF (“Fall Farm Fling”) iterative catapult-building competition. (You can learn more about these specific activities using the resources linked at the bottom of this article). We tailor every breakout based on factors ranging from post-event survey feedback, to the time of day we’ll be breaking out, to the vibe of our location. However! We’ve put together a solid base recipe for the breakout session “icing” and are delighted to share it with you:
2 parts problem-solving
One way to help build trust is through collaboration, not just conversation. Breakouts are a great way to create simulated challenges – low-stakes (i.e., no clients, no revenue on the line) versions of the conditions that build teams: a unified goal, the thrill of success, the sting of failure.
Another benefit of the low-stakes nature is that the playing field is naturally more even. While we love introducing challenges and activities that are tangentially related to design and engineering (like building a functional catapult), these are activities that anyone on the team can contribute to — whether you’re an intern or a Viget manager who’s been here for 15 years. It’s a great way for people to be able to demonstrate their capabilities and strengths to their coworkers (and practice speaking up or taking a back seat) without the stakes associated with Work.
2 parts laughter
One of my favorite things about Viget is that people are funny. I don’t think there was a single session at Viget23 where the presenter didn’t make me crack up at least once. Wit and prepared jokes and perfectly timed dryness are all amazing.
But, it’s also great when laughter bursts out serendipitously, from general levity. It’s a bit silly to have grown adults gathered around a pool deck putting together a toy boat and cleverly (?) decorating it.
Of course, it was also silly for folks to build contraptions that fling pumpkins and miniature farm animals at our TTT last fall. It’s important to be a bit silly. Laughter is the best medicine! And if the conditions are right, people will laugh. One thing I think we do well at Viget is set the right tone – infuse puns into the breakout instructions, name and theme the whole activity, make sure the materials are equal parts useful and wacky, etc. The planning team works hard to achieve polish, but we still don’t take things too seriously and neither should anyone participating in the activities.
1 part structure
While work and play is a cliché binary for a reason, breakouts exist somewhere in the middle. They offer, in the words of one of my brilliant colleagues, “structured opportunities for connection,” which can help alleviate the pressures of a totally free block of time while being looser than a meeting with an agenda. When we provide an overarching goal and explicit constraints like time, geographic boundaries, materials, and assigned groups; we're providing folks with people to talk to, something to talk about, and something to reflect on afterward – all within a manageable, well-communicated package.
We put a lot of thought into these constraints. We write up comprehensive rules, think about loopholes, and honestly? Make up some rules on the fly when people seem to be stretching the intent of the activity (looking at you, Andy). We test out every breakout session to make sure it’s doable, but challenging, and that there’s enough involved to occupy the full team’s attention – including folks who might not be as into the competitive part or who’d rather just engage with a subset of the materials (i.e., craft).
A pinch of…. spice? (i.e., variety)
One thing we try to prioritize for breakout sessions is making them feel markedly different from other components of the event. Even a change-up as simple as stepping out of the meeting space will help people stay engaged or get a second wind. It will also help make the experience more memorable (i.e., it’s easier to recall the pool area and the meeting room as different parts of the day and different components of the meeting).
We also try to make sure that the actual breakout groups differ from the other groups they’ve been in (at TTT and beyond), especially when we’re assigning them. That means putting time and effort into mixing up the groups – considering discipline teams, project teams, tenure, location, and even past breakout groups. While not airtight, it’s a great way to try to maximize the number of people interacting with folks they might not know as well.
Tactile stuff, to taste
One detail that is not to be ignored is the tactile experience. This ties in with memory and with getting people quickly on board and ready to engage. We think about the unboxing experience – how are the materials packaged? Does it help set the tone? What does it feel like to reach into the box or bucket? Would people want to explore the materials? Can everyone participate easily?
One example of how this came into play recently was a well-timed question by Emily. She asked if the wood plank for the boats had been sanded on all sides. That kind of detail matters. If a teammate reached for the boat and got a splinter, they probably wouldn’t feel too keen on engaging in a hands-on way and might choose to zone out.
2 parts problem-solving, 2 parts laughter, 1 part structure, a pinch of variety, and some tactile stuff (to taste). There’s the base recipe.
Hopefully you’re already thinking about the additions and modifications that will help make your company’s breakout session icing be the best finish on your offsite-cake ever! Here are a couple recipe ‘modifications’ that we turn to, presented here for inspiration:
5+ custom trophies (one for each member of the winning team)
2-4 trusted individuals (for walking around to answer questions and provide advice during the activity). Note: the recipe also seems to hold up if you have the trusted individuals wear funny hats, costumes, and/or life vests.
1 unit of megaphone (for communicating during the activity)
Viget is incredibly effective at working in a remote/distributed capacity. We have been for a while. But there's simply no substitute for the way you build trust and connection in-person. Aside from feeling good; trust, camaraderie, and psychological safety are business-critical for enabling us to deliver creative, quality work effectively and show up fully in our day-to-day. So, offsites are a delicious cake… but they’re also critically important. And the breakout session icing cannot at all be an afterthought. Our recipe is tried, true, and worth all the effort.
We've included some “open-source” documents outlining the supplies, facilitation, and set-up of the activities highlighted above. Please feel free to use them as starting points for your organization or team: