Pre-assigned breakout rooms: not worth the hassle

February 21, 2019

I was feeling optimistic about usingthis morning to lighten the burden of having to manually assign 50 people into 15 different rooms. This was the first time I'd used this feature, and I was hoping it would help with what is often the most stressful aspect of meeting production. I had successfully tested it out on my own beforehand and was confident that anyone who had joined the meeting prior to creating the breakouts would drop into their pre-assignments with ease.

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men...

The first problem was that Zoom needs authenticated user email addresses to pre-assign users to the rooms. This means that folks who do not have Zoom accounts (and who are used to just clicking a link to get in) now have another layer of difficulty between them and the meeting. I always think about the user with the lowest level of technological comfort and remember that if I don't accommodate them, I will be spending a LOT of time doing individual technical support. I provided instructions beforehand, but there were still several users who either had a Zoom account and had forgotten their password, or tried to create a new Zoom account and struggled with the CAPTCHAs, which can be difficult for anyone, regardless of their level of digital literacy.

We eventually got everyone in. But when it came time to create the breakout rooms, I found that fifteen people were still unassigned! I then had to manually place them in the correct rooms, adding several minutes of dead time to their experience...not to mention elevating my heart rate significantly. What went wrong?

After some further research I discovered that users cannot be placed in pre-assigned breakout rooms if they are using the web client. I don't know where you can find a large group of users who you can guarantee will all use the desktop client...this limitation alone makes me want to never use pre-assigned breakouts again. A smaller group could all be coached through needing to run the desktop client, sure...but then why would you need to pre-assign? Shame on Zoom!

Another thing that may have gone wrong was that users may have signed up for the meeting series with one email address, but then logged into Zoom with a different one. Now, that could have been avoided by requiring registration...but if requiring authentication was a challenge, requiring registration would have been a nightmare!

Add to this the fact that even your desktop client users may not have the latest version of Zoom installed, and the whole idea of pre-assigned breakouts falls apart. Lesson learned!

So we're back to manually dropping folks into the correct rooms. If this is where you land, I have a few recommendations to help this go a little more smoothly:

  • Get a spreadsheet of all users with their room assignment, first name, last name, email address, and phone number. Turn it into a table so you will be able to easily sort by room name or user first name on the fly. Freeze the top row for ease of use.
  • Request that everyone arrive 15 minutes early. Some will, some won't...but this gives you some lead time.
  • Before the meeting begins, request that everyone change their display name to conform to the convention FIRST NAME, LAST NAME so you can easily reference them on your spreadsheet.
  • If someone hasn't done this successfully, ask them what their name is and rename them on your end. (When the host renames someone, everyone sees it.)
  • Build a coffee break into the agenda just before breakouts so that you have enough time to manually assign people. I recommend 10 minutes per 50 participants. Keep in mind that only the host can perform this task, so you'll be on your own. If you need more time than that, make sure your co-host knows that you will be busy creating breakouts for x minutes and unavailable for other types of technical support.
  • Review you list of actual users in their rooms to make sure there are no rooms with only one person. If there are, re-assign them to another breakout. I like to review the list every few minutes to make sure that nobody has been left on their own because other participants left the meeting early.

Other ideas? Please share them in the comments below!

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