Clay Gibney, Director of Technology
Updated: February 2021

Zoom’s breakout room feature allows you to split your Zoom meeting into separate sessions (up to 50). It’s a terrific feature in Zoom, but there are a number of gotchas and quirks. Here at SAIS, we have been managing a ton of Zoom breakout rooms this year. So we hope our experiences might help you.

Zoom Breakout Rooms: Getting Started

Zoom provides a basic overview on how to use breakout rooms in a YouTube video (3 minute length). But before you can even try it out, you have to activate the feature as it’s disabled by default. Visit your Zoom “In Meeting” settings page to enable it. I recommend enabling the optional setting for “Allow host to assign participants to breakout rooms when scheduling”. It doesn’t hurt to have that as an option.

Important Caveats for Zoom Breakout Rooms

  • Breakout rooms are only available in Zoom meetings — not webinars.
  • You can control whether users may return to the main session. If they do return to the main session, they can click on “Breakout Rooms” to go back to their assigned room.
  • Until just recently, users were unable to pick from the list of breakout rooms. But new with client version 5.3 (September 25, 2020), it is now possible to define breakout rooms that users can self-select. But the meeting host and participants need to be on Client 5.3.0 or later to self-select Breakout Rooms.
  • If you want to update and/or check your current Zoom version, one way is to click on the little avatar/profile pic icon in the top-right corner of your Zoom app. From there, you’ll see a menu choice for “Check for Updates”. Zoom also has a helpful little video on this. It’s important to note though that users cannot update their Zoom app while they are actively attending a Zoom meeting or webinar. If the user is connected to a Zoom meeting, performing an update will cause them to disconnect from the meeting.
  • People who join using the browser version of Zoom instead of the full Zoom client program won’t have the ability to self-select a breakout room if that feature is enabled. However, the host can still manually assign those users to a room.
  • New with Zoom client release 5.4.6 (December 8, 2020), co-hosts now have access to the breakout rooms feature. In the past, only the main host had access to this feature during a live meeting. Co-hosts can now start or end breakout rooms, and they can also assign participants, etc. Also new with 5.4.6, hosts and co-hosts can assign (move) participants back to the main session rather than having to end all breakout sessions.
  • There’s a broadcast feature that will send a brief message to all users in all rooms. It works most of the time but we have seen it fail to broadcast on occasion.
  • If the meeting is being recorded to Zoom’s cloud (i.e., “cloud recording”), Zoom will only record the main room, regardless of what room the meeting host is in. If local recording is being used, it will record the room the participant who is recording is in. Multiple participants can record locally.
  • While I personally haven’t used a Chromebook, Zoom previously indicated that Chrome OS users won’t be able to join breakout Rooms. Zoom suggested that Chromebook users could stay in the main room and to treat that as their alternative session for those users. However, one Chromebook user reported to me that they tested it and it all worked just fine (June 2020).

Pre-Assigning People to Breakout Rooms Before the Zoom Call

While it’s pretty easy to manually assign a small number of people to breakout rooms during an active Zoom call, it can be time consuming and difficult to try and assign a lot of people into specific rooms. Here are some tips and caveats on using Zoom’s CSV File Import feature.

  • You can pre-assign people to specific breakout rooms by importing a CSV file via the Zoom website. However, keep in mind that 200 is the maximum number of people that can be in your CSV file. Zoom will ignore any rows beyond that.
  • Since the CSV import relies on email addresses to identify people, it’s critical that all attendees either have a Zoom account, or that you configure your Zoom meeting to require registration. The latter is recommended as a more reliable approach.
  • When naming the breakout rooms in the CSV file, it’s best to not use a comma “,” as part of the room name, as you’ll have this end result inside of Zoom: Room Name as Provided in CSV: East Region, Room 1 How it appears in the Zoom meeting: “East Region, Room 1”
  • You can import a revised CSV file via the Zoom website as often as desired before the Zoom meeting starts. But once the Zoom meeting is active, any attempt to import a CSV file will be ignored.
  • You would naturally assume that Zoom rooms would be listed in alphabetic order within the active Zoom meeting, but they are not. Actually, I can’t figure out how or why Zoom lists room names when created via a CSV file import. :-/
  • Last and most important! Don’t panic that when you click on Breakout Rooms as a host that people aren’t assigned to the rooms as denoted in your CSV file. I personally panicked when this happened. But as people continue joining the Zoom call (there are always late stragglers!), you have to use the button to “Recreate All Rooms” which re-examines who has actively joined the Zoom call and assigns them to the rooms as denoted in your CSV file. When I first used the CSV import option, I had assumed that as people joined the call, their names would automatically fall into the assigned rooms. But that process stops when the host clicks the button for Breakout Rooms. Lesson learned: wait till just before you need the breakout rooms to click the button for Breakout Rooms. Or, just remember to use “Recreate All Rooms” shortly before you go to “Open All Rooms”.
  • OCTOBER 2020 UPDATE! A new version of the Zoom application has fixed the issue noted above. When the host has Zoom client version 5.4 (or higher), participants will automatically get assigned to their pre-assigned rooms as they join the Zoom call. Yay!

More Tips and Recommendations for Zoom Breakout Rooms

  • When creating breakout rooms in a live Zoom meeting, you can choose between Assign AutomaticallyAssign Manually or Let Participants Choose Room. The old option called “assign automatically” is easy and works best for large groups, while “assign manually” works best for very small groups. If you attempt to use “assign manually” for larger Zoom meetings (e.g., over 40 or 50 people), it can be a real burden on the host to assign each person in a timely manner. While I have personally done this in a Zoom meeting with nearly 90 users, it took me roughly 15 minutes to do so.
  • If you’ll have around 100 or less people and if you also have at least 15 or 20 minutes for a staff person to focus on the task of manually assigning people to specific rooms, it can be done! We have routinely held roundtable Zoom calls where we ask attendees to use the ‘Zoom Rename’ feature to add a letter or short code designation to their name so that the attendee can designate a preference on which breakout room they’d like to join when the time comes. If attendees perform that simple ‘rename’ step, and if you have a staff person on the call as the Zoom host who isn’t talking or presenting and can focus on assigning people to their preferred room, it can be done!
  • As long as you haven’t “Opened” the rooms yet, you can still change your mind and play around with the number of rooms and also the assignment of people to rooms.
  • If you have some staff who don’t want to go into a breakout room, just don’t assign them to a room!
  • There’s an optional feature called “Move all participants into breakout rooms automatically”. It works well and I recommend it. Without using that option, when you (as the host) click to “Open All Rooms”, users have to acknowledge by pressing a button on their screen to move to their room. Some users on mobile devices have had problems getting into their breakout room which is solved with the ‘automatic’ option.
  • If your audience will be large and you go with the pre-assignment feature, as mentioned previously, definitely use the Zoom registration feature for that Zoom meeting. When we have done this, I’ll grab an export of Zoom registrants at least one hour before the call so that I can massage the list of names into the CSV file format that Zoom requires for importing for room pre-assignments.
  • If you have people register for your Zoom call just before the call, obviously they won’t be in your CSV file. So I just look for people who don’t show as assigned to a room and I manually assign them just before using the “Open All Rooms” button.
  • [February 2021] If you have attendees using the web client to join, previously they could not join meetings that were set up to require registration (i.e., they would be prompted to install the desktop client). But this has been resolved in a February 2021 update from Zoom.

We hope these tips and lessons learned are helpful to you. If you have any feedback or suggestions for improving this article, please let Clay know.