Conferences and workshops with break-away sessions can be easily run during lockdowns and physical distancing.

If you have had to cancel a conference or workshop and are considering converting to online video conferencing, you are faced with a choice of many conferencing systems. A key feature of in-person conferences is the ability to hold plenary sessions and then break away into smaller groups in different venues for group discussions. The ability to do this is built into Zoom (a cloud platform for audio and video conferencing) and does not need any add-ons or particular skills on the part of the conference host.

To use breakaway rooms during a Zoom video conference, start the conference call in the usual way for the opening session of the conference. The host then selects the 'breakout' button and can set the number of breakaway groups, the length of time for the groups to meet separately and a countdown timer for returning everyone to the plenary session. The easiest is to let Zoom divide participants into the break-away groups, but alternatively, the host may select who will participate in which break-away room. Once participants have been allocated to rooms, the click of one button sends everyone to the room allocated either by Zoom or the host. The host is then able to enter and leave each break-away group as one would usually do in an in-person conference. Late arrivals can easily be allocated to any of the break-away rooms. Either when the time has expired or when the host decides, everyone is returned to the plenary room. The host can move everyone efficiently with no one getting 'lost in the passages'! If repeated break-away sessions are needed, the same groups can be reused or new group allocations established.

A few things to watch out for with any video conference service - If you post a link to an online conference on the internet for anyone to join, anyone may join, so do not be surprised if an unsavory character appears in your conference! As host, you may eject any person, but if you have exposed your conference too widely and not put 'locks on the doors', you can expect to receive gate crashers. Invite the people you want to invite by registering participants ahead of time and only giving registered participants the access link. You can enable a waiting area in a service such as Zoom (like a reception area where you can check who is arriving) and manually allow entrance to each guest if you want to be particularly careful and know the participants. If you let anyone in the conference share their desktop, you may risk everyone being exposed to a person's desktop that may lead to inappropriate content exposure! You can easily restrict sharing to one person at a time and limit that to just yourself if no one else is presenting. These little tips can reduce the risk of embarrassing yourself and others. If you run an in-person conference, you would take reasonable precautions – do the same and more in the online world.

Finally, if you were going to run a 1-day conference, try breaking the whole agenda into three 2-hour sessions on different days. Virtual conferences or workshops require more planning and preparation ahead of time for the host and often additional reading or preparation for participants before and during sessions. It is even harder to sit facing a computer for a whole day's conference than it is to sit in a conference room.  And without the formal tea and lunch breaks, and networking sessions, you may lose your participants. If you space the agenda over a longer period and keep the sessions engaging, you can still accomplish what you had set out to do, even including those break-away sessions! And this can help to include a wider range of time zones at the same time.

See here for more on breakout rooms.

Conferences and workshops with break-away sessions

can still be run, virtually