1. Clarify the expectation. At the beginning of the session, propose the ground rule “Return on time after the breaks.” Explain that the purpose of this agreement is to
- Optimize the use of the group´s time
- Benefit from each person´s presence in the room
Verify that the participants are willing to respect this agreement. People generally will say yes, whether they mean it or not. Then ask, “Is there anyone who knows that he/she will not be able to return promptly (or not return at all) after the breaks because of other commitments?” If anyone admits that they might not return on time, ask the whole group if they are willing to make an exception for this person. Again, it is unlikely that anyone will object. Finally, thank the person for letting the group know and ask them to return as soon as possible. This quick process sends a clear message about the importance of post-break punctuality, while recognizing individual circumstances.
2. Announce exactly how long the break will last. Before participants leave the room, specify the exact time that the group process will resume. Be specific. Write the time in the agenda or some other visible place. Repeat three times, loudly.
3. Mention what will happen immediately after the break. Referring to what comes next on the agenda reminds people why they are meeting and the importance of moving forward together.
4. Give a three-minute warning. The facilitator or helpers should walk around the areas where people are taking their break and remind them that the next session is about to begin. Ringing a bell or other instrument can help.
5. Offer incentives. Promise a prize to the tables that have all of their members seated and ready to work at the established time. (Obviously, this strategy only works in situations where participants are seated at tables.) Distribute chocolates or caramels to the winners and then get started.
6. Impose sanctions. Some groups require that the last person to enter must sing a song. Variations include tell a joke or pay a fine. The threat of this public humiliation is enough to get most people back on time. (Note: Ana has used this strategy to good effect. Bea finds it to be insulting and more of a distraction than a help and does not use it. Be sure to consider both the culture of the group and your own willingness to enforce this norm before proposing it.)