If you can’t run your Open Space session in real life (like this), how can you do it virtually?

This is a very detailed account of how to use Zoom and the Breakout room function to replicate Open Space Technology-like sessions online.

Executive Summary:

  • You can run Open Space Technology (OST)-inspired Sessions in Zoom with large groups using the breakout rooms function.
  • Pre-assigning people to our 10 groups didn’t work for us, so we assigned them manually once the session opened.
  • To do this, participants need to log-in early and you need a specially formatted excel list of names to make manual allocation most efficient.
  • Don’t change Zoom Host rights in the middle of preparing the groups, how to prepare and other learning.


If you might be tempted to run something similar in the future, read on…


Recently we ran an online peer learning and good practice exchange for a specialized global biodiversity community whose 350+ members normally meet bi-annually face-to-face. At these conferences, there has traditionally been an Open Space Technology session where community members share their work, learning and big questions on a set of salient topics. We wanted to replicate the dynamic of this virtually in an online event featuring a number of rounds of hosted small group discussions offered in parallel. For each round, participants chose the small group discussion to attend which was of most interest. This blog post shares ‘how to’ information and some learning from our experience doing this.

Using Zoom Breakouts for Parallel Small Group Discussions

We chose Zoom as the platform because of the breakout room function which allows you to designate up to 50 separate breakout sessions that can run in parallel at any one time. We had 10 topical discussions that we wanted to host, and we wanted to run two consecutive rounds (e.g. people picked one topic to attend for Round A, and then, after a break, they attended a different topical discussion for Round B). We ran the whole sequence of two rounds twice to accommodate participants in different time zones.  People could attend one or the other, and a few people attended both.

The schedule looked like this:

Session 1 (09:45 – 12:00)

  • Check-in (09:45 – 15 minutes in advance of the opening to set up breakouts for Round A)
  • Plenary opening and how the exchange will work (15 minutes)
  • Move people into breakout groups
  • Round A: 10 topics in parallel (40 minutes)
  • Break (15 minutes – people stay connected – create breakouts for Round B)
  • Move people into breakout groups
  • Round B: 10 topics in parallel (40 minutes)
  • Plenary highlights and closing

Session 2 (15:45 – 18:00) (Repeat as above)

Preparation – 7 Steps

To prepare for the Community Exchange, there were a number of steps we needed to follow:

Step 1: Pick the topics. This was done based on feedback from the community, from which the organizer selected the 10 topics.

Step 2: Identify a discussion host for each topic. The organizer identified country representatives and global team members from within the network who had expertise in one of the topics and invited them to host that small group discussion.

Step 3: Schedule the Zoom session(s). The Host does this (in this case it was me, the facilitator). As these were large group sessions (from 60-100 people expected at each session), we enabled the Registration, Password, and the Waiting Room features of Zoom. For Registration we asked for name, country, and organization. In Zoom, the Registration feature enables a two-step process – once people fill in the online registration form, they automatically receive an email with a link and password to the Zoom meeting.

Step 4: Send out an announcement with event information to the network, with: 1) The Zoom link that takes them to the registration page;  2) A link to a google form asking people to select their top 5 topics from a drop-down list of the topics on offer; 3) Information about how it will work – for example, tell people that you will do your best to place them in one of their top 5 choices for each round, and that if they do not specify preferences, they will be put in a group at random on the day.

(Note: This was one of the lessons – while 100% of people registered to attend (you can’t join the Zoom meeting without doing that), only around 50% of people filled in the google form to indicate their preferences. The others just showed up, so they were randomly placed in rooms which takes extra time. We will do this differently next time as we want more people to identify their topics in advance so discussions can be more focused – how, is explained at the end of this post.)

Step 5: Prepare your topic discussion hosts. For this step we organized three 30-minute Zoom sessions where the hosts of the 10 topics, as well as the organizer’s team (who supported the discussion hosts) were invited to attend a preparatory session. During this short session, we talked through the schedule, their role and responsibilities, and then let them experience the breakout room function from both a participant perspective, as well as a Co-host perspective, as we made all these people Co-hosts once the meeting started. They learned how to share their screen, use some of the Zoon security functions, etc.

Step 6: Put together the participant lists by topic. We needed to make 2 Lists for things to work smoothly. This was a particularly important step! Once people filled in the google form with their preferences, we put together an excel worksheet for each session (Session 1 and 2) and round (A and B) within each session (so four worksheets in total.)

Each worksheet had 2 Lists. For List 1, we created a column for each of the 10 topics on offer during that specific round, the host for the topic and the team support person, followed by the list of people who signed up for that topic as their first choice.  This helped us initially place people, as well as see how many people were signed up for each conversation. (click on images to enlarge)

List 1 was useful to see how the groups were shaping up as we had a limit of 12 people per group. Once full, we would put people in their second choice group.  List 2 was more important on the day for putting people into the breakout rooms. This list was a master list of all the people who had signed up for a topic, organized in a column alphabetized by FIRST name (as that is how the Host sees names in Zoom), preceded by another column with their topic number.

Step 7: Prepare the facilitation materials. We wanted to use a Zoom poll at the beginning of our session to map the group and see who was “in the room” (we asked about region, sector, etc.) and we scheduled a short poll at the end to understand people’s experiences – e.g. to see on a Likert scale how well people felt they could share their learning and experience in this format, and if they learned something new. We also created a simple word template for topic hosts to capture take away messages and next steps from their discussions. We sent this template in advance and asked them to fill it in after their sessions and send it back for reporting purposes.



What we learned about assigning breakout rooms – before or on the spot?

One thing that we did NOT do in preparation was set up the breakout rooms in advance in Zoom. It is very tempting to try to “pre-assign” the rooms in Zoom, especially when you have 60-100 people attending. Ostensibly to do this, when scheduling your meeting, you can choose under meeting options “Breakout Room pre-assign,” and Zoom offers you two ways to do this. That seems so easy, but in our tests this didn’t function reliably. I did two tests in advance, one using the option which invites you to “Create Rooms” and the other option with “Import from CSV” – CSV is a simple excel-like spread sheet. I had 5 people for each test meeting.

With the first “Create Rooms” option, you get a pop up that invites you to “Assign participants to breakout rooms by adding their email”. I did this for my 5 people. I changed the names of the meeting rooms in advance which you can do to match the topic names. Tip: Keep the group number in front of the topic name as that will make it easier later to find them. (“1. Green Bonds”) This will sound silly, but it took me AGES to find how to edit the room names – you need to go to the “Add participant” window and then hover over the room name for the little pencil to pop up.

So, the room was set up – now to see if it worked… Unfortunately, when I opened the breakout rooms for this first test meeting, only 1 of my 5 people had been pre-assigned into the designated room. The others were frustratingly unassigned – 20% success.

The second option to pre-assign people to breakouts is to use the CSV format. If you click on that option, it invites you to “Import rooms and participants from CSV File”. It also offers you a simple downloadable CSV file template to fill in.

I downloaded the file and put in the email addresses of my 5 people. In this second test, I got 3 out of the 5 people in the breakout rooms as pre-assigned. Better but still not 100%. And we could not figure out why this variation was happening even among 6 experienced Zoom users. As we had a large group, it felt too risky to wait and see if it would work on the day – who would be assigned and who wouldn’t be, and then try to fill in the gaps.

There are a couple of things to note about the Zoom breakout room function that figure in here:

  • People need to be signed into their Zoom account for pre-assignments to be applied.
  • You need to enable “join before host” for this feature to work (don’t ask me why)
  • (from the Zoom website) If you have Registration enabled and have external participants (those without Zoom accounts), you need to assign them to breakouts during the meeting.

It seems like pre-assignment option might work better if you have a closed system – just a group of colleagues sharing a company zoom account, or a class of students who are taking the same class week after week. This was not our case.

As we could not do a test with a very large group, the pre-assignment feature seemed to have a lot of caveats. We were enabling Registration for security purposes, AND we had two rounds per session, so we would have to manually allocate participants for Round B anyways (you cannot pre-assign two consecutive breakout sessions if you want to change the people in the groups). As a result, we decided to manually allocate participants to their selected breakout rooms, using the two lists described above.

What to Do During the Zoom Community Exchange Meeting

We opened the meeting 30 minutes in advance for organizers, the discussion hosts and the team members who would support them. I had enabled the Waiting Room, creating two-step process to join the meeting – first you enter the Waiting Room and then the host lets you into the main room. I admitted the facilitation team into the main meeting room, and had the other participants stay in the Waiting Room until the official start of our event.

As the Host (and the Co-Hosts can do this too), you can admit people into the main room from the Waiting Room individually, or you can choose to let everyone in all at the same time. When people are in the Waiting Room, you can send them messages. I sent them a message every couple of minutes that said, “You are connected to our meeting. Please stay connected, we’ll start promptly.” (I wrote this text on the Notepad app on my computer and copied it, so I could just paste it in as a waiting room announcement periodically and not have to type it over and over.) Note: We needed all participants to connect early and stay connected so that we could create the breakout rooms, which you can start assigning when people are in the Waiting Room.

We let all the topic hosts and team members into the main room as soon as they showed up so that we could do some last-minute briefing and Q&A and make them all “Co-hosts”. We wanted them to be Co-hosts so they had some powers in the breakout rooms– that is, they could disable screen share for participants, move themselves to another room, etc. if needed.

As soon as participants started to show up in the Waiting Room, we began to use our lists to assign them to the various breakout rooms.

Tip: What it means to be “Host” when using breakout rooms

Only the Host of the meeting can work with the breakout rooms (e.g. name them, make assignments and move people around). And there can only be one Host for any meeting. The Host can give up her Host rights to another person but cannot take them back. The other person must give them back to you. This is important for creating the breakouts; you cannot start this work (renaming the breakout rooms and starting to assign people), and in the middle pass the Host responsibilities to another person without losing all the work you did.

The same Host needs to start and complete the breakout room assignment process. Then once the breakouts are launched, they can hand over hosting rights to another and nothing is disturbed. This means you cannot be smart and get in there early, name all the rooms, and assign the early people, then hand over hosting to another person to carry on while you brief people etc. Everything is lost and the new Host will start from scratch.

As a result, you really need two facilitators to work with Zoom in this way – so Lizzie and I teamed up to make it work smoothly. We asked participants to come in 15 minutes early, as you can only assign them to their breakouts once they are logged into the meeting (they can be in the Waiting Room). But not everyone was there 15 minutes early; many people came in at the last minute, and some people joined 10 minutes late!  So, if you are the main facilitator (this was my role) opening the meeting, welcoming people, giving the first presentation and poll etc. then you need a second, technical facilitator who can take over as Host (this was Lizzie’s role) that can complete the breakout room assignments with the people trickling in after the meeting starts. The alternative is to not finish the breakout assignments and ask people to wait while you do that (time for a musical interlude?) OR keep all those unassigned people in the main room once the groups start and then assign the latecomers after that, which means they will start late. As we did not know how many people might be in this category, we decided to use two facilitators and have one solely dedicated to putting together the breakout groups.

Behind the scenes – assigning people to breakouts

The Host assigning people to breakouts needs to have the two lists described above and needs to work quickly with the long list of names. In our case, part of which had signed up for a specific topical discussion, and part of which had not, thus would be randomly assigned to rooms. One thing that we discovered to dramatically increase efficiency at this stage was to create 1 more breakout room than needed (e.g. we needed 10 topical breakout rooms and we created 11 rooms), the final room was called “UNASSIGNED”.

As people logged into the meeting, the Host located their name on the long alphabetized list, along with their group number, and immediately placed them in the right room. However, if someone came in that had not signed up for a group, they were immediately placed in the UNASSIGNED room. This meant that at the very end, just before launching the breakout groups, you could see exactly how many people were in each group that had signed up in advance, see the total number of those in the unassigned room. You can then quickly move those from the unassigned room to fill in open spaces in the first 10 groups – we aimed to fill all rooms up equally with the same number of participants.

In the end, it worked just fine. We had enough time in the 15 minutes before (and well into the opening) to make Round A assignments manually, and had enough time in the 15-minute break between rounds to make the second set of assignments for Round B. We asked people NOT to disconnect during the break. Of course, a few did, but we manually added them into groups once they logged back in.

Last thoughts

Languages: We had some people for whom translation would have been useful. If you enable Interpretation on Zoom, it only works in the main room – thus in theory you could keep the group needing translation in the main “plenary”. For a large group this would not have been a great option, as there was a small but steady stream of people who lost connection and kept coming back into the main room, to be sent again to their breakouts. This would have been very disruptive for the group trying to work in the main room (with translation no less!) It might be easier to have a “whisper” interpreter (professional or informal) in the same breakout room with the person desiring translation support, and between the two or more of them, they set up a back channel for communication, such as a WhatsApp call or a phone call. Through Zoom they can see what is going on in their breakout room, but the audio is now coming from another source (mobile phone).  The person could still unmute to ask questions, and the interpreter could sequentially translate these for the group, then they could both go back on mute and resume interpretation. This is a work-around, but we thought it might work.

Technical Support: For a large group you really need ongoing technical support throughout the session. In addition to our two Facilitators, we had one person from the organizer team designated for tech support and provided his email address. Occasionally someone without sound or another problem would contact him either through chat or by email and they would work with together to try to get the person properly connected.  Also, while the breakout groups were in session, as the Facilitator, I stayed in the main room and responded to requests for help, or let people in from the Waiting Room who were late, or had gotten disconnected, placing them back in the breakout rooms. At times, I would have up to 4 people briefly in the main room before moving them back into a breakout room.  Our participant group was logging in from all over the world, with almost all of them working from home offices and laptops, so occasionally there were connectivity or other problems.

Also, under this technical support heading, it has to be mentioned that we did find that people using Chrome OS, Chrome Book and Zoom Rooms could not be placed in breakouts, no matter how hard we tried. After some struggles, we found this mentioned on the Zoom website. These people needed to log out and log in again using a different pathway. And finally, for a couple of people, no matter what they did, and what we did, they were either perpetually stuck in the Waiting Room, or in the plenary room and there was simply nothing we could do. This mysterious situation befell only 1 or 2 people with whom I had nice chats as I waited with them for the breakouts to end – interestingly, for the second rounds, they both moved smoothly into the breakout rooms with no problem. You have to just keep trying.

Overall, the sessions were very dynamic and the feedback from participants has been enthusiastic! The breakout rooms worked very well overall, with only some coming and going which was only obvious to me as the Host. To reduce movement in and out of the breakout rooms and to encourage people to settle into their discussions, we did disable the setting allowing people to come back to the main room on their own (now they needed to wait until they were automatically moved back by me). We also reduced the friction for new Zoomers by moving people to the breakouts automatically (this is also a setting when you are creating breakouts), versus requiring them to click on a pop-up asking them if they want to Join Group X.

One thing to try next time – Custom Questions for Registration

One thing to consider next time, to encourage people to register their topic preferences and have less people in the unassigned category to allocate, we will use the Zoom Meeting Registration process to embed the questions about which group people would like to join, instead asking people to separately respond in a google form.

Here is how to do that:

  • Enable Registration
  • Under “Manage my Meeting”, scroll down to “Registration” at the bottom of the page
  • Click “Edit” on the right, that opens a pop-up window
  • Go to “Custom Questions” – this adds questions that you want people to answer during the registration process.
  • Under “Create Your Own Question” click on “New Question”
  • There you can add a question of your choice. For us, we would want to require a “Single Answer” (so people have to pick one, versus “short answer” where people write in responses. You simply type in the question – e.g. “Select your first choice from the following ten themes”. Then add additional questions asking people to select their second and third choices. You can write in the 10 themes as answers to choose from.

This would make sure that everyone who signed up could be placed quickly into a group. Of course, one of the answers could be “Surprise Me!” if people really don’t care, and then you could place that person anywhere.

This was a long post, as we learned a great deal from running our Community Exchange in an Open Space Technology-inspired format. As this group intends to replicate this model at the regional level in their network, and for others who may want to try, I wanted to write down the steps before I forgot them!

Article by Lizzie Crudgington, Bright Green Learning

When helping clients design online meetings and workshops, we often face all sorts of assumptions about what you can and cannot do online.  Usually we find that you can do MUCH more than you first assume.  What you need is some creativity and thoughtful planning!

Here I share a few examples of some of the more unusual ways in which I’ve used Zoom in the last months for more informal online convenings and gatherings, such as various birthdays and other fun events. These are being shared in the hope that these times push us to challenge our assumptions about what we can and can’t do online, have fun testing new ideas (for example with kids, friends and family- push yourself to try new things in a ‘safe space’), and then find ways to adapt and integrate more lively and creative interactive elements in our professional as well as personal virtual lives going forward.

I’ve included some ‘how to’ steps below with these 20 examples, revealing some of the things to think about when preparing for these online activities.  If you feel so inspired – have a go!  And reach out with questions if you’d like more details. Included below:

  1. The Maker Challenge
  2. Read Together Online
  3. Sewing Workshops with Grandma
  4. Playing App-based Games
  5. Online Face-painting Game
  6. Hum that Tune
  7. Charades
  8. Mind-meld
  9. Pictionary Online
  10. Online Quiz with Riddles and Emoji Questions
  11. How Well Do You Know…? Game
  12. Guess the Song
  13. Musical Statues
  14. Blow Out The Candles on the Cake
  15. Choose a Themed Virtual Background
  16. Get Physical with a Speed Hunt
  17. Collective Cocktail Making
  18. Online Spinning Wheel
  19. Celebrity/Who’s in the Bag?
  20. Taking Cranium (the Board Game) Online


OK, let’s start!

  • The Maker Challenge. The week before Easter, we planned an online family party and asked everyone to get scrap paper ready. We ran the party on Zoom with families in five locations. Each family had 5 minutes to make their Easter Bonnets from scrap paper – ensuring the camera was lined up so we could see one another’s creative process – and of course we wore the bonnets for the remainder of the party.
    (Other versions: Instead of an Easter bonnet, make a space helmet, pair of glasses, diving mask, a dress, a bouquet of flowers, a trophy, a car, the strongest bridge, the tallest tower…. The fun is in the making! And why stick to scrap paper?  Could be modeling clay, twigs found outdoors, LEGO…)

  • Read Together Online. Take photos of the pages of illustrated children’s books and upload these to Google Drive. In Zoom, screen-share the book and simply click through the pages.  We’ve had reading sessions with grandparents, as well as 6 and 7-year-old cousins reading their favourite books together.

  • Sewing Workshops with Grandma. This was really simple.  We just set up Facetime (could use Zoom or other platforms too) with the cameras carefully positioned, and away we went. Home-sewn face masks – tick.

  • Play App-based Games such as Connect 4 and Rummikub – whilst using Zoom or Facetime to interact. We use two devices (a smartphone and tablet or computer) so that we can chat and see and hear one another’s reactions during the game playing – maintaining the social dimension.

  • Online face-painting game. How about it? Also during the Easter party, we played a face-painting game using only an eye-liner pencil. We gave a willing volunteer the challenge of giving face-painting ‘instructions’ to everyone else (based on an image provided), without using certain words (i.e. they couldn’t use the words rabbit, bunny, nose or whiskers). We did the drawing part with backs to the cameras and then, once complete, we had ‘the big reveal’. Ours was a Easter-themed bunny, but you could choose any face-painting theme.  An interesting exercise in the power of communication too – usually with entertaining results.


  • Hum that tune. To play this one, we combine Zoom with WhatsApp.  The name of the tune is picked from a hat, by the “game master”, photographed and WhatsApp’d to the player who’s turn it is to hum.  Then those ‘guessing’ the name of the tune race to submit the correct answer – either to a WhatsApp group or the Zoom Chat.  (We find that using the Chat for answers works better than shouting out the answer as it can be hard to hear the person humming, especially if the group playing is large.)


  • Charades. As we did for for ‘Hum that tune’, we combined Zoom with WhatsApp. The charade is picked from a hat by the game master, photographed and WhatsApp’d to the player who’s turn it is to act out the charade.  Those in the same team call out over Zoom.


  • Mind-meld. The idea of this team game is that a word (suggested by the one team) is given to all players on the other team who then have 30 seconds to each write down three words associated with that word.  If there is one word in common in what all players in the team write down, they win a point. To play this, the word is called out, and players simply use simply pen and paper to write down their three associated words.  After the 30 seconds they then hold their papers up to the webcam so everyone can see what they wrote and whether or not they win the point.

  • Pictionary online. For this, we’ve done it in various ways. One option is to use the whiteboard in Zoom and have players ‘annotate’ it using the ‘scribble’ tool.  Others can then guess either shouting aloud or submitting their guesses via the Zoom Chat or a WhatsApp group. Another option – which allows for a better touchpad drawing experience – is to invite players to use a drawing app on their smartphone or tablet.  If they connect it to their computer via USB, they can then screenshare what they are drawing.  The downside of this option is that it requires a bit more tech set up (getting people to install drawing apps on their devices), and you need to change who is screen-sharing every time there is a change in who’s turn it is to draw.
    (Another option: use paper and pen in view of the webcam.)

  • Online Quiz. There are so many ways to do this.  A few things we’ve done to ensure the quizzes are fun and interesting to all – ask everyone to contribute questions in advance. Include riddles and try some questions with emojis (e.g. Which film is this?).

  • How Well Do You Know…? Game. A great variant on the quiz – especially if you are throwing a party for a birthday girl orboy – here Person X. We asked everyone to submit questions about person X in advance (e.g. Where were they born?), and we created a Google Form with questions numbered 1 to however many questions you have.  Note: Don’t actually include the questions themselves in the form – just the question numbers.  During the party, announce the game and send everyone the link to respond to the Google Form.  Read question 1 aloud and invite each player to write their response in the form.  Repeat for question 2, and so forth.  (The fact that the questions aren’t written into the form keeps an element of surprise!). Make sure that person X also responds in the Form!  Once you’ve gone through all the questions, go the summary of responses (in the Google Form) and screen share these, looking at them question by question. Person X reveals the correct answer (and all are amused by the variety of responses).   If you like, you can give points for correct answers but this is totally optional.

  • Guess the song. Different to ‘hum that tune’, in this game we play songs from a playlist in Spotify and it’s a race for players to guess the song – using the Zoom Chat or a WhatsApp group.  To ensure a good sound quality, mute everyone and play the music through your computer, clicking on ‘Share Screen’ / ‘Advanced’ / ‘Music or Computer Sound only’. Not only does this help with sound quality – it also means people can’t see the songs you are selecting to play, which would defeat the object of the game.
    (Another version of this game: What’s the next lyric?)


  • Musical statues. A classic party game, super for expending some energy and loosening up bodies. As in ‘Guess the Song’, play music for musical statues using ‘Screen Share’ / ‘Advanced’ / ‘Music or Computer Sound only’. Before starting, check everyone has their web cam set up such that you can see them in their ‘dancing space’.  And then play musical statues as normal – when the music starts every begins to dance. When the music is stopped, everyone freezes (stops dancing), and the person who is still moving is out of the game. This continues until there is one person left.  A great and easy party game for small and big kids.


  • Blow out the Candles on the Cake. Just for a bit of fun – when it’s a birthday, have a real (or ‘model’) cake with a real candle held up close to the web cam and have the birthday boy or girl blow the candle out from their computer (close up to the web cam).  Tip:  Make it tough for them, and get them really huffing and puffing (with little effect on the flame) before you blow it out once and for all 🙂

  • Choose a Themed Virtual background – such as bunting or a photo of your favourite bar! In Zoom, go to ‘Choose virtual background’ (next to the video options in the bottom control bar) and you can upload an image of your choice and select it as your virtual background. (Note: This works best when your own background is neutral)


  • Get Physical with a Speed Hunt. This is another great way of bringing some movement and energy to online events. Prepare a list of commonplace items and mini challenges and have different household / office teams race to complete them.  g. ‘Find something stripey’, ‘Find something that makes music’, or ‘Take a selfie of all your team in a wardrobe’.  Either have everyone return to the web cam as they tick of each thing on the treasure hunt list, OR have them take a photograph at each step and WhatsApp it to you.
    (Another version of the game: Create mixed teams (across multiple households / offices) and use the Breakout rooms function – putting one mixed team per breakout room to complete the speed hunt.  Note – for this option you can’t ask everyone to take a selfie of themselves together in a wardrobe!)


  • Collective Cocktail Making in Various Kitchens. Need a drink? Rather than just take a break, make the drink preparation an online activity. It requires a little prep, deciding on your cocktail and sending out an ingredients list in advance with enough time for everyone to source things (e.g. mint, red berries, soda water, lime, cucumber…) To run it’s really easy.  Just invite everyone to move their devices to somewhere safe in the kitchen and line up webcams so everyone can see one another well, and then walk through the cocktail making steps, and once made – enjoy!  A refreshing and energizing break.

  • Screen-share an Online Spinning Wheel – such as the ‘wheel of names’. I love this and use it for all sorts of activities. For example, if playing a team-game online, use it to randomize the teams.  Put all names in the wheel, screen-share it and and spin it to see who goes with who (e.g. the 1st 4 are together, 2nd 4 are together, etc.) Use it to choose which games you’re going to play next (e.g. will it be Pictionary, charades or treasure hunt?) Use it to see who gets to go next (from all the names).  So many applications.  Get creative!  And keep people on their toes with the element of surprise.  (Note: the default setting in ‘wheel of names’ is that, once selected by the spinner, the name disappears, but you can change the settings if you want to keep all items in the list. You can also change the colours, sounds, spin time, etc.  It’s very versatile.)


  • Celebrity / Who’s in the Bag?  For this one, you need to know how to play the game IRL (in real life), then this online version description will make sense. You also need a dedicated games master.  It’s a lot of fun, but the games master doesn’t get to play.  The game works as normal, only the games master has the list of celebrity names and, as people can’t pick the cards or papers from a bag. The games master uses lightning speed fingers to type the names into WhatsApp and send them to the player who’s turn it is to make his/her team mates guess the names.  Every time their team guesses an answer, you send the next name.  As it can go really fast, I try and queue up the names so that I just have to press send.  You can also cut and paste them from a list (make sure you have three copies of the list at the start: one for each round – with the names in a different, random order in each list).  For scoring – count up how many names each player gets in 45 seconds (ask someone else to manage a timer!!) by looking at the number of names sent to them in the WhatsApp thread.  At the end of each turn, write ‘END TURN’ into the WhatsApp thread so you can keep track of how many names they got in each round. 

  • Take Cranium (the board game) Online – renamed ‘Corona-ium’ 🙂 For those who are becoming masters managing Zoom calls, you can put a number of the ideas above together and take the board game Cranium online.  Cranium combines games like Pictionary, charades, hum-that-tune and quiz questions, so see notes above on running those.  Take a photo of the Cranium Board and put this into a Google slide (or make one up of your own design). Make and name a coloured shape per team as the pieces to move around the board (using ‘Insert’ / ‘Shape’). Then designate someone to be the scorer (ideally not you).  Doing it in google slides in this way you can share the link with everyone (view only) so that at all times people can see the state of play.  From time to time you can screenshare it too. If you have the board game, you can take photos of loads of the cards and have these in your photo library ready to send out to people via WhatsApp or pop them into a google slide deck that you screenshare.  If you don’t have the board game (and I prefer this option with an international group), rather than picking cards, before playing ask everyone to send you (privately) 5 quiz questions, 5 famous people, 5 things, 5 songs, etc. Compile these and use them for the game, drawing on them randomly. Caveat: A player can’t give an answer they submitted so you need teams of at least three.Top Tip: As this game has lots of moving parts, I like to give different people the ‘lead’ on different topic types.  e.g. One person reads out the quiz questions.  Another does the Pictionary.  Another the Charades, etc.  This means you can participate and enjoy the game too, rather than just being the games master permanently.

We hope that these 20 examples give you some ideas for how you might adapt the above for your next online gathering, whether it is in a team meeting, a learning activity, or another fun gathering with others online!

(Note: This blog post is long and detailed, and really only for facilitators or hosts who want to run bi-lingual meetings in Zoom. I’m capturing this learning mostly for myself so I can use it easily next time, and I’m happy to share with others exploring this useful functionality of Zoom. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer.  Also, click on images to make them larger.)


My three, inter-connected virtual workshops this week were unique for a couple of reasons. First, I found it amusing that each workshop was held on two different dates – that was because the online participants were so spaced out in terms of time zones, that for one half we started on Tuesday but for the other half it was already Wednesday. Every workshop was held on two dates! (with the organizing team in the middle in Central European Time working from 21:30 – 00:00 or so every night.)

The other thing that made our three 2.5 hour workshops different was that we used interpretation online, and had two English-Russian interpreters join our meeting. This was new for everyone, including the interpreters and me, so I wanted to share this overwhelmingly positive experience (of course with a few challenges to overcome) and some thoughts about effectiveness from the perspective of the interpreters which I found insightful.

Our programme, spread over three days as it was, was a multi-sectoral discussion that needed to take place in 2 languages – English and Russian. This is a group of conservation scientists from different sectors located from the far east of Russia to the Bay area of the US, who have worked together face-to face in the past, always with translation. Now we needed to take their work into a virtual environment and chose Zoom as our platform particularly because of this new interpretation option. Our two interpreters joined us from their home offices in two different locations, and they translated in and out of both languages.

There were really only 5 steps to get interpretation working:

Step 1: Get the Zoom Business Plan

Zoom had recently offered an interpretation feature that we wanted to test. This option is only available to Zoom Business users. This is the plan above the Pro version that I already had. For this plan you need to pay for 10 hosts at the minimum, and it costs 199.99 USD per month. You can buy it by the month, which is what I did. Upgrading was incredibly easy to do on their website. You click the button and pay. You maintain your own account and all your details and just get the added features from the Zoom Business plan. Usefully, Zoom doesn’t force you to register the additional 8 hosts, just pay for them.  I only have two hosts registered (me and my colleague Lizzie), I will go back to Zoom Pro next month, and when I work with translators again, I will simply upgrade for the time needed.

Step 2: Setting  up your meeting for interpretation

With Zoom Business, now what I see as a host when I create a new Zoom meeting is a box to tick at the bottom of the meeting set-up screen that says “Enable interpretation”. Once you tick that box, you need to put in the email addresses of the interpreter(s) and the languages you will use. Currently Zoom offers options for 9 languages: English, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish and Korean. We needed Russian and English, so that was fine. I selected the languages that each interpreter would work in from a drop-down box. You can add many interpreters it seems using the “Add Interpreter” button – after clicking that 10 times I stopped.

Once you set up the meeting, the interpreters get an email message inviting them to join the Zoom meeting as interpreters. That’s really all that’s needed prior to your meeting – very simple!



Step 3: Once in your meeting: Start Interpretation

When you open the Zoom meeting as the host, you need to click on the Interpretation icon which shows up on your dashboard (bottom of the screen). Once that is open you need to “Start Interpretation”.  This makes an Interpretation icon show up on the screen of every participant. This is relatively easy to forget the first few times you use this function, because as the host you already see the Interpretation button on your screen and assume that everyone else does too. You then might confidently declare that there is interpretation enabled, and then all participants will respond loudly and in unison that they don’t have the interpretation button, they can’t find it and that this doesn’t work. Then you say “sorry” and start interpretation and magically the icons appear and everyone is happy.

This extra step to turn on interpretation probably makes sense so as not to start it before your interpreters are there. My two interpreters were always in the room early, so I could start that even before the meeting officially opened.


Step 4: Participants choose their language

Once participants see the Interpretation icon on their screen at the panel at the bottom, they click on the icon to see the language choices for your meeting. Note that by default, interpretation is “off” and they just hear whatever is going on in the main room. They need to choose their language to start hearing the interpreter when he/she is speaking their chosen language.


Step 5: Mute original audio

This last step is very important and was an initial source of consternation, taking us a few tests to understand what was going on and what to do about it. So, only after selecting the language of choice, the option to “Mute original audio” becomes active (before you select the language you can see it but you cannot click on it). Unless you wish to hear both languages simultaneously (the speaker and the interpreter) you will want to select this.

When Zoom describes this feature, they make it sound appealing to listen to the interpreters while also having the original language going on softly in the background, simulating a real physical workshop room where you would hear the interpreter in your headset, and still have the original speaker going on in the front of the room at a distance. However, this wasn’t our experience. Both languages seem to be almost the same volume, and with headsets, it was maddening to listen to both languages in both ears at the same time. So other than just dropping in to see that the translation was working, everyone used “Mute original audio” and were happier for it.

Here’s another thing we learned in our testing, the “mute original audio button” is currently only available in the most recent Zoom updates. People with older versions, or company versions that were updated (or not updated) centrally found that they did not have this button and were relegated to either “Interpretation off” (hearing only the language of whoever is speaking – for perfectly bilingual people this is no big deal) or hearing the frustratingly loud mash-up of the speaker and interpreter. This lack of “mute original audio” button was the case in about 25% of our participant tests prior to the workshops. As soon as people updated Zoom they all had the option to “mute original audio”, and their blood pressure went down again.

Eventually, the system worked 100% for everyone, even those who were working in very remote areas. As we had substantive technical presentations in both English and Russian, and only a small subset of bilingual participants, the meeting would not have been possible without interpretation. Zoom made it easy through keeping it all on one platform, rather than having a work around with interpreters needing to set up a separate call, using Skype or other. Another option is always consecutive translation, but that essentially doubles the time needed for meetings and would have slowed us down considerably.

How it felt to participate

I am trying not to be effusive, but we were truly amazed at how well the whole thing worked and how easy it was once you got used to it and set up. One of organizers said that it should be explored even for face-to-face meetings as everyone always has a laptop in front of them and headphones anyways these days. Even sitting in the room, they could log into a Zoom meeting, turn off their video, mute their microphone and pick their preferred language on the Zoom screen. The speakers at the front of the room would just need to have Zoom too and a headset (no video needed as they are live). If participants had a question, they would unmute themselves, speak and the speaker would hear it. There would be no additional interpretation devices to check out and collect, no booths needed, and your interpreters could be anywhere in the world and not in the room. Ah, I get carried away. It is an interesting idea to ponder. Just to note – the interpreters had a completely different opinion on this! (See “How it felt for interpreters” below)

Testing, testing, 1,2,3

As this was new to all participants, hosts, and even the interpreters, we ran 5 interpretation zoom tests in advance of our meetings, where we invited people to join us, walk through the few steps to turn it on and check they had the latest version of Zoom. This also helped us check audio, video, and connectivity issues, which was helpful overall.

I set up the Interpretation tests as separate Zoom meetings, enabled interpretation, invited the two interpreters, and then we hosted a subset of participants each time so that they group was small enough to help and trouble shoot (note that our first two tests were just internal with our friendly and patient organizers). These tests lasted from 15-30 minutes and upon declaring success, greatly helped us move technical issues out of the actual workshop meetings, making starts smoother and punctual.

Final reminder in the meeting

Even with the tests, I opened the first of our three workshops with a few PPT slides to remind people what to do for interpretation, using screen shots. I also included the meeting norms (keep on mute unless speaking, raise hands, etc.), followed by some simple testing of these important functions (“give me a thumbs up if you have this”). I always opened the Zoom environment 15-20 min before the official start of the meeting to trouble shoot with all those who signed in early. And on the last day, where we had a few new external people joining to give presentations, I presented the Day 1 “How to” slides again in the 5 minutes preceding our start time for these newcomers. We had informed them to join us early during the interpretation test meeting.

This all might seem like overkill, but it helped significantly, and made for an effective workshop. The first few times you use interpretation (or even Zoom itself), you can still easily forget where to find things and what to do, and then not know why things aren’t working, descending quickly into general gloom and the potential of existential crisis about whether or not you are going to get this virtual stuff, ever. On a more practical note, even before you get a whiff that people are stuck, you as the facilitator can also invite people who need help to write you in the chat using the “private” option and you can help them individually. After a few times, it is very straightforward.

Ultimately, for participants, once they got there, it was smooth and easy and a little magical to see the videos of their colleagues speaking, mouths moving, and the smooth voice of the interpreter seemingly coming out of it in your very own language. This facilitates discussion and communication among people significantly – brilliant!

How it felt for the interpreters

Talking to our interpreters about these meetings was eye opening for me. I have always been in awe of people who can listen to one language and simultaneously speak another one. I continue to be impressed – our interpreters were excellent, and were themselves learning how to do their work in Zoom.

A number of focused debriefing meetings with them after the tests, and after the workshops themselves, helped us tweak things – but interestingly, not so much from the technology aspect. That worked fine. But more from the procedural perspective. It was interesting to hear them compare their work in a booth at the back of a workshop room, to being plugged in, in front of their computer screens during a virtual meeting.

For them, interpreting for Zoom meetings is now a reality, so they are eager to get up to speed on this. However, their observation is that it is more intense and stressful than providing this service for in-person meetings. Meetings in the Zoom environment, they observed, caused additional cognitive stress. First, because when they are interpreting, they cannot communicate with the host, participants or the other interpreter (who is not in their booth but 1000 km away in their own office).  They cannot bang on the booth to get our attention, or visually signal to the other interpreter when they need something or are having a problem (e.g. if their system goes down, there is an issue with sound quality, or they lose connection – which can happen to anyone, necessitating the need to quickly log out and log back in). They cannot read the chat function when they are interpreting – the chat button lights up but they cannot easily see if it is a private message (e.g. about the sound, etc.) or just people chatting back and forth amongst one another.

Also, when someone is sharing their screen to present this obscures part of their dashboard so they cannot easily other things on their screen, like the time – so need to look at their watch or phone, etc. to know when it is time for the next interpreter to take over. That second interpreter is also not there with them physically to use visual communication to switch interpreters (they work in 30 min shifts).  All these might seem like small things, but when you are using all your full attention to listen to one language and speak in another simultaneously, it is cognitively more demanding to keep track of all these other things going on at the same time.

The second reason that this is stressful is because the Zoom technology does not impose procedural discipline upon participants, which means that the facilitators and chairs need to do that more. In face-to-face environments, when using interpretation systems, some systems do not allow two people to speak at once, and also people raise their real hands, and then push on a button when called, and then they speak. In Zoom however, everyone can unmute themselves and speak at the same time  (I’m sure we have all been on those family zoom calls when everyone is shouting at the same time). People can even speak over one another in two languages! In that case, what does an interpreter do?

To help, there needs to be an emphasis on procedural discipline, which might make the meeting feel more formal, but is really necessary when using interpretation. The Chair or facilitator needs to give voice to participants, and needs to insist on procedural compliance in terms of taking turns, and even trying to leave a bit of space between speakers and language changes, so that the interpreters can click on the other language button when they change languages. It is better for them, they said, if there is no direct contact between participants without the chair giving the floor to people. People also cannot mix the two languages which is very tempting for bilingual people – this is also a rule in F2F interpretation.

Notes for the Facilitator and Host

For the Facilitator of a Zoom meeting, you need to keep your eye on the interpreters’ names in the Participant Panel, and you can even check from time to time that all is going well by switching languages to hear the interpretation (or taking off for a minute “Mute original audio”). One tip for the Host is to rename each interpreter with a “__” (double underscore) before their first name, so that these names are always near the top of your participant screen, which is alphabetized by Zoom (after Host, Co-Hosts, those sharing screen and speaking). That way, you can easily see if for some reason they are not there/drop off the line, so you can stop and wait for them to come back in. If you don’t rename them in this way, their names are mixed in with all other participants and you might not notice if they aren’t there, with a speaker talking away but no interpretation.

This happened to us for a few seconds during one of our workshops, but we just asked the speaker to pause until the interpreter was back, and then to repeat a short segment. We went merrily on and it didn’t happen again.  It has to be noted, that bandwidth and internet fluctuations can happen to anyone these days, when everyone in the world is at home and trying to get online simultaneously – whether they are working or watching Netflix, or both at the same time. We know that these little things always happen in virtual meetings, and of course it is a little more dramatic momentarily when it is the interpreter who drops off, but you just pause for a moment and work through it.

This is surmountable, and our interpreters navigated all this novelty elegantly. We, the organizers, only really knew how much work it was for them afterwards.  I am sure that no one participating felt anything other than a great meeting, supported by equally great interpretation.  For interpreters everywhere who want or need to make this transition to virtual meetings, the Zoom system will become easier to use as they have more and more practice, but the procedural discipline aspect needs to be firmly on the “To Do” list for facilitators.

Some final thoughts

It was exhilarating to try something new and have it work so well! This international group would have had to wait months to meet again in person, and this virtual option allowed them to continue their collaboration in the meantime, from the comfort of their own homes from the far east to the far west.  It goes without saying that your interpreters are critical for the success of your bilingual Zoom meeting. As such, it is important to work closely with them, listen to their perspective and get their feedback through testing of the system in the preliminary stages of workshop development. And of course, remember to thank your interpreters at the end!

(BTW if you need recommendations for experienced Russian-English Zoom interpreters, I have some names to share!)

There has been a raft of flipped workshops recently where F2F events have been redesigned to be held virtually, and it is fascinating what a rich diversity of designs there are. Some of them have been reworked as big blocks of synchronous together time that aim to closely mimic the programme of the original F2F workshop with some minor modifications, such as adjusting the time to make it more comfortable for participants on different continents, and reducing the number of days for example. Others are dramatically reducing the “contact” time and pushing workshop tasks into the days before and after the online meeting, undertaken by participants individually. Yet another model is spreading the engagement out over weeks, with scheduled touch points that pick up different themes of the original event – and many, many more!

As we are all learning right now, I thought I’d share some details of a few of these models that I am working on right now, in case they might be useful for other designers and organizers who are in the process of flipping their workshops.

Model 1: The Block

I have one of these coming up which was originally a 3-day F2F workshop, scheduled to be held daily from 09:00 – 18:00, with one evening session. Now in its virtual incarnation, it is two days long, and will be held from 11:30-17:30 (Central European Time) to accommodate both European and North American participants (and no “night” session). To pare down the work, we needed to go back to the original objectives and select those that needed to be accomplished now, and those that could wait for a subsequent F2F, or be taken into a set of topical conference calls later on. We also added some pre-work, but most of the work would still be done together in the virtual sessions.

Even with these modifications, this virtual workshop block will be a heavy lift for participants. We have the traditional 90-minute session lengths, with lunch and afternoon coffee breaks scheduled to relieve people from their screens. During this free time, we will invite people to stay connected if they wish, to chat together informally while they eat and have coffee. To keep things interactive and lively, we have a diverse mix of activities, including a number of break outs, supported with google docs to capture outputs from breakouts and other small activities (polls, stretching, etc.) to keep things moving.

This format of this workshop is relatively close to our original F2F agenda, and I think in some cases the makeover of a F2F workshop to a virtual using this model can work well with a few caveats. This would include a rather small group (we are 20) of very dedicated people (this will be tiring so need to manage their attention) with a well- defined task (we are finishing a co-creation project to develop a set of guidelines). I think the fact that the majority of this mixed stakeholder group has worked together before will make the social dynamics side work. We invested significantly in building social capital in our first F2F workshop that we can draw on now for trust, commitment and creativity. For this workshop we are using zoom and will have two facilitators supporting the team in their work, one of which will operate the technical aspects (splitting people into breakouts, launching polls, etc.)

Model 2: The Blend

Not many of my flipped workshops are taking this compact block shape. For others we are opting for shorter synchronous meetings (where people are all together) and taking a lot of the planned work out of that full contact time. We are blending substantive pre- and post-meeting work that is asynchronously completed (e.g. undertaken by individual participants whenever they want), with the meeting times for synchronous engagement and discussion.

Here’s an example: For one previously scheduled two-day F2F workshop where we were gathering feedback to guide a consultation process, we asked the 40+ participants to review and comment on a google doc in advance of the meeting, and to answer 3 higher-level strategic questions about the document on a separate google sheet before we met online. As participants were located all over the world, we conducted our workshop through three 90-minute meetings held each day for two consecutive days – one call for participants in the Asia Pacific region, one for Europe/Africa/MENA, and one for North America, Latin America and the Caribbean. To support these virtual meetings, we made three identical copies of the document to comment upon and labeled each by region. The google sheet with the strategic questions had the instructions on the first sheet and then three tabs, labeled by region, each with an identical set of strategic questions. Note that we sent out the links to the google docs, but also sent the files as attachments in word and excel. Some people are not able to use google docs due to their location or institution, or not familiar with them, so they had the option.

The calls themselves were used to present an overview of the document as a reminder, and then an analysis of the comments and feedback received. We asked for more feedback and could ask specific probing questions on each region’s responses where we had them. With the documents split by region, we could easily see what the people from the region on the call said, so we could seek further clarification and detail on their comments efficiently as need be.

For the Day 2 meetings, we synthesized what we had heard on the Day 1 across the regions, and identified five topics that emerged across the calls to bring back to the groups. For example, we had a couple of points that needed further clarification, others where the different groups offered conflicting advice, etc. The second call allowed us to share what we had heard and to go further, bringing in some of the good ideas across the different calls.

It is true that not everyone attending this larger workshop did the pre-work, especially at this time when people are working from home and juggling many things. Many did, but said they would value more time to reflect on the comments others had made, or in order to do some internal consultation in their organizations. As such, we are leaving the documents open for another week to capture as much of their input as possible, let them build on other’s ideas, and reflect further. Also, if someone could not join the calls for some reason, or did not want to speak out on the call, they are able to contribute their ideas in this way. This was our plan, and was also requested by participants.

Our workshop goal was to get this senior group’s comments and ideas, so we needed to make this as easy as possible for participants. This workshop was the first step in a longer consultation process so it had to generate good quality input, in addition to being satisfying for the participants. This model blends asynchronous work before and after the call, with shorter synchronous virtual meetings. It was run by one facilitator on the Go-to-Meeting platform.

Model 3: The Journey

The third model that we’re working on flips a very large-scale 300+ community workshop into virtual space by spreading the content out over three weeks. Six interactive webinars will be held in total. Once a week on the same day, two webinars will be held on the same day, one in the late morning and one in early afternoon to accommodate as comfortably as possible the largest number of the global participant group.

As this was more of a conference-style gathering for a larger group, even with many interactive elements in the F2F format, there was a lot of content to work with. This gathering will be postponed until early 2021, so we are pulling out the good practice exchange, community updating and storytelling aspects into this webinar format and featuring the work of different community members. We will still have interactivity through the introduction of a back chat polling tool (polleverywhere for example), as well as a crowdsourcing exercise to draw ideas from the group. This latter task will be introduced in the first webinar and the results analyzed and presented in the last webinar two weeks later. For this we are exploring Zoom, and will have a facilitator and a host of moderators and technical resource persons.

So there you have it, what started out as three F2F workshops planned to be held over 2 and 3 days, have ended up as three dramatically different models of virtual workshops. The diversity of options makes it exciting to re-design in virtual space.

Design Questions

Your choice also depends on the design parameters you are working with. Once you know your objectives and desired outputs, you ask:

  1. How many people?
  2. Where are they located (time zones)?
  3. What kind of connectivity do they have? (Can they support video, calls, other?)
  4. How committed are they to your process and the goals?
  5. Do they know each other? Do they need to?
  6. What experience do they have with virtual work? Do you use some platform already?
  7. Will people do asynchronous work? E.g. Will they devote the time if we give them tasks to do before and after the contact time?

Then as a facilitator, you use your design skills and creativity to put together your virtual workshops, which, just like their F2F counterparts, come in a delightfully wide variety of shapes and sizes.