5 Tips for Hosting a Collaborative Zoom Off-site

I’ve facilitated many team off-sites over the years. The other week I facilitated my first all Zoom “off-site,” and I have to say, it was one of the better off-sites I’ve been apart of. The session felt productive, the team engaged, and the feedback afterward was positive. I would even have to say, at this point, I prefer a team off-site on Zoom rather than in-person.

Here are 5 tips for hosting a collaborative, team off-site on Zoom.

1. Make use of Zoom polls

The biggest challenge with a remote off-site is dealing with all the distractions. In-person meetings are already full of distractions. Going remote only makes it worse. The temptation to multi-task is too high. Zoom polls can make a meeting much more engaging.

It’s important to make sure that everyone is heard during these off-sites. When you have 50+ of your colleagues in a meeting that can be a big challenge, remote or otherwise. Zoom polls are a great way to allow everyone to be heard and keep everyone engaged. These polls can be anonymous, so it doesn’t feel like you are putting anyone on the spot. The data you get back can be useful to your facilitation and the entire group. But most of all, these polls are a very fast way to make sure everyone has a voice.

The Zoom poll interface isn’t the most intuitive and I struggled to understand when polls were saved in my Zoom account. My recommendation is to get to the Zoom meeting you are hosting 10 minutes early and set up the polls you will be using.

2. Keep the tools simple

There are a host of digital whiteboard tools out there that try to emulate in-person collaboration. These tools are great. Two that I’ve used are Miro and Mural. Both allow teams to create digital sticky notes, 2x2 matrices, whatever might go on a whiteboard in a large conference room.

While these tools are great, I recommend keeping it simple and just use a Google Doc if you can. Using a Google document is great for a few reasons.

  • it avoids many login or sign up issues that often slow down the meeting
  • participants don’t have to learn a new tool
  • the work that goes on the whiteboard is often reformatted anyway into prose in a google document. Begin with the end in mind and avoid this translation step.

Google docs claim to support 100 concurrent users but I found that it starts to get slow with more than 50 users.

3. Breakout rooms & exercises

Breakout rooms are my favorite feature of Zoom. In seconds, you can have a 48 person group broken down into 16, 3-person teams working on an exercise in that collaborative group document. With in-person facilitation, so much time is wasted forming teams. With Zoom, this is all automated. As a facilitator, you can pop in and out of each breakout room to answer questions, watch and comment on the work that is taking place on the google doc to make sure no team is stuck, and broadcast messages to the group to share how much time is left before everyone rejoins.

These breakout rooms are a great way to get something accomplished in a short period of time and keep the group engaged. To kick off an exercise, start with the problem the group is trying to solve. Next, use a poll to gauge how big a problem this is for the group as a whole. When the team knows that the problem is pervasive and felt by the team as a whole, it encourages everyone to focus and solve the problem that much more. Lastly, provide the teams with a few prompts or questions to get them starts. I wouldn’t give an example of the expected end product because that has the potential to limit creative solutions.

4. Pick a theme and tell a story

Make sure that each exercise has a preamble that sets the stage and that each breakout session weaves into a greater narrative. Pick a theme for the off-site, something that each exercise branches from. Each preamble to the exercise should add to the story of the day. Doing this will provide structure and give the group a better mental model of why the group is doing what they are doing. After each exercise, take a moment to use a poll or invite a few participants to share their experience as a way to reflect on how the exercise ties into the theme before moving onto the next exercise.

5. Keep it fast-paced and short

Each breakout or exercise should feel short, 25 minutes max. Each exercise should feel like a sprint. The goal is to get the ideas and information down on paper as fast as possible. The whole off-site should be no longer than 2 hours. Unlike an in-person off-site, the group has to contend with Zoom fatigue. To combat Zoom fatigue, keep the exercises short. Think of these exercises like high-intensity interval training that keeps the team productive and engaged.

Keeping these off-sites short allows the team to have shorter, but more frequent off-sites. Rather than have an annual off-site, do quarterly 2-hours sessions.

This “bursty” style of communication has proven to be more effective:

A study from Christoph Riedl of Northeastern University and Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University, published in 2017, suggested that “bursty” communication, where people exchange ideas rapidly for a short period of time, led to better performance than constant, but less focused, communication. - Economist, "What a way to make a living", Sep 12th, 2020 edition