The word "meeting" doesn't typically conjure up a lot of positive thoughts. While inevitably necessary, they can also interrupt workflows, run too long, and hurt motivation if not planned with intention and clear objectives.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to make meetings more collaborative and productive. Along with using visuals and visual collaboration tools, incorporating small group work and breakout sessions within meetings are good ways to help team members stay focused, improve team collaboration and communication, and encourage creative thinking.
Let's look at how group work can make meetings more productive, what small group work looks like, the benefits of small group work, and how to facilitate group work during meetings.
How small group work improves meeting productivity
Often, when teams gather for meetings, there is a meeting leader and a central focus point. If team members are busy, stressed, distracted, or sleepy, this format can lead to disinterest, disdain, or even a few nodding heads. Simply put, small group work or breakout sessions break up the monotony of meetings, help teams stay engaged, and make meetings more meaningful.
Smaller groups mean more efficiency
Large meetings simply don't encourage the same level of engagement, collaboration, and interaction as smaller, more focused meeting groups. When it comes to collaboration and engagement, small groups beat larger groups nearly every time.
The data backs this up: Gallup's most recent study on the State of the American Workplace found that the largest companies in the U.S. have the lowest levels of engagement, while the smallest companies have the highest levels.
This was true even before the pandemic: add in the effects of mostly remote or dispersed and Zoom meetings, and you aggravate an environment that's already prone to low engagement and mid-meeting zone-outs.
It's clear that when it comes to effective collaboration and engagement, the size of the group matters. The larger the group gets, the more challenging it can be to gain consensus and keep work moving. Individual work poses its own challenges—while it gives team members more control to move quickly, it's inherently narrow-minded.
Small group work opens the door to more creative ideation and collaboration without the inevitable bureaucracy that comes with working with larger groups. When you utilize small groups to help find solutions or drive understanding in a meeting, you'll see improvements in accountability and communication, too.
Allows team members to engage with each other
Some environments are naturally more collaborative. A huge, cross-departmental company meeting only leaves time for one or two presenters, and team members might not feel comfortable speaking up in front of a large group. On the other hand, individual work is just that—isolated from other teammates and important ideas.
Small group work encourages team members to collaborate and engage with each other in a time-efficient way. The close-knit nature of small group work also helps more senior or skilled team members the opportunity to pass their knowledge on to teammates and gives more siloed team members the chance to share their ideas in a less intimidating environment.
Incorporating small group work during meetings
So how do you get started incorporating small group work into your meetings? Let's start with the basics.
What it looks like
First, focus on the group size. Harvard Psychology professor J. Richard Hackman introduced the idea of "link management," which essentially states that the more "links" or team members you introduce in a collaborative work environment, the less likely that group is to stay productive. Every organization has its sweet spot, but Hackman suggests keeping teams under double digits to avoid group work slowdowns.
Who is involved
Small group work requires more than a set-it-and-forget-it approach. The same Gallup study found that managers continue to have the most significant impact on engagement levels. Once a team gets too large, it becomes increasingly challenging for a manager to engage every team member. As a result, team members feel less supported, a phenomenon psychologist and professor of management Jennifer Mueller calls "relational loss."
Larger enterprise organizations that simply can't keep teams this small can benefit from investing in collaborative technologies to help facilitate the more natural collaboration of smaller group work.
How is it carried out
In a larger meeting, simply break out teams into smaller groups and set them up with a task. Allot a specific amount of time for the group to collaborate on ideas and solutions, then reconvene to present your ideas. These groups may want to select a person to share the group's ideas with the larger team.
For employees used to larger, more traditional, presentation-style meetings, shifting to small group work and breakout sessions might require some adaptation — and project managers might face resistance from team members who prefer to work alone. Ease your teams in by walking through the benefits of small group work and hosting some low-stakes, ice-breaking sessions. Pair managers with small groups to help each team member feel supported and monitor levels of engagement over time.
Benefits of small group learning in meetings
Address gaps in team member knowledge
Everyone has blind spots and gaps in knowledge. Small groups bring complementary skills and knowledge banks together to find solutions and empower team members to work to their strengths.
Build trust and unity
Group work can be stressful for many. Small group work encourages team members to share their ideas in a collaborative, non-judgmental environment without the pressure of presentation or performance. Implementing collaborative tools like digital whiteboards can also help team members feel comfortable sharing their ideas in a less polished way.
Team members naturally coach and mentor each other
The workplace continues to change rapidly, and managers need to help their teams find new ways to upskill, reskill, and continually improve. Small groups naturally encourage team members to share their skills with the team members and help each other level up.
More opportunities for feedback
Smaller groups reach consensus more quickly—and when you have more, smaller teams working on a problem, you get more and more diverse solutions to that problem. Each group outcome provides opportunities for managers to collaborate with team members, ask questions, share feedback on progress, and arrive at an innovative solution.
When teams can play to their strengths, they feel empowered to speak up and share their ideas. Small groups encourage idea-sharing without judgment or intimidation, which boosts morale and engagement.
How to facilitate group work in meetings
Establishing the process and structure for group work in meetings is one thing. Facilitating these smaller breakout sessions is another.
Incorporate collaboration tools
Give your teams the tools they need to collaborate effectively. Virtual and visual collaboration tools like flowcharts, digital whiteboards, and breakout boards help teams stay organized and focused on the problem at hand. The ongoing shared visual reference also helps spur more creative ideas.
Use a meeting facilitator
Ensure there is a meeting facilitator who has clear goals and has prepared for the meeting. This meeting facilitator sets a clear, concrete task and sets expectations for the session. Once the timer is set and collaborative work begins, this facilitator can also spot when groups hit roadblocks in their thinking or when individual team members are disengaged and right the course.
Large meetings often overwhelm team members and can be unproductive when too many opinions are offered. Decreasing meeting size and using collaboration tools like Lucidspark to implement small group work boosts engagement, encourages effective communication, improves innovation, and provides a better focus for collaboration.
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Lucidspark, a cloud-based virtual whiteboard, is a core component of Lucid Software's Visual Collaboration Suite. This cutting-edge digital canvas brings teams together to brainstorm, collaborate, and consolidate collective thinking into actionable next steps—all in real time. Lucid is proud to serve top businesses around the world, including customers such as Google, GE, and NBC Universal, and 99% of the Fortune 500. Lucid partners with industry leaders, including Google, Atlassian, and Microsoft. Since its founding, Lucid has received numerous awards for its products, business, and workplace culture. For more information, visit lucidspark.com.