Breaks are strategies to increase participation and satisfaction in meetings. Let´s reflect for a moment about the meaning of this statement from the point of view of the three principal actors in a typical meeting.

The conveners (group leaders), who are mostly worried about the topics to be discussed, sometimes believe that breaks are not necessary, that they steal time from the agenda and that it would be best to keep working. Why not just bring the coffee to the table and keep going?, they ask.

The truth is:

  • If breaks are not scheduled, people get up and leave the room anyway to attend to their physical and emotional needs.
  • Many meeting participants are genuinely busy people who need time to attend to other aspects of their lives. If breaks are not scheduled, they will distract others by making telephone calls, answering email, consulting with colleagues, etc. during the meeting.

The participants are interested in the issues under discussion but they are also concerned about the time and energy that the meeting requires, especially if the agenda is long and loaded with challenging topics. By including breaks in the work plan, the leader sends the message that “our intention is to generate and maintain the full participation of everyone, awakening our collective intelligence and co-creating solutions; therefore we will take periodic “time outs” to refresh both body and mind.”

The facilitators, whether they are members of the internal team or external consultants, should be advocates for both the quality of the participant´s experience and for the processes designed to achieve the meeting´s goals. Including breaks in the agenda of any meeting that lasts more than 90 minutes is part of their responsibilities.

Guidelines for scheduling breaks

  • For multi-hour sessions, schedule a break at least every 90 minutes.
  • Breaks should last 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the group and the meeting context.
  • “Bio breaks” of 5-10 minutes allow participants time to go to the bathroom, drink water, and stretch their legs, but the leader must make it clear that this is not a long break and that the meeting will resume promptly,
  • When possible, serve refreshments outside the meeting room to give the participants a change of atmosphere,

What if some participants disappear during the breaks?

Sometimes people take advantage of a break to leave the meeting and not return. If this happens often in your meetings, it is probably because:

  • The meeting is too long, given the other responsibilities of the attendees.
  • Those who leave do not feel responsible for or interested in the topics to be discussed after the break.
  • They came primarily to “put in an appearance” and/or sign the attendance register, not to contribute to the expected outcomes established for the meeting.

In any case, the early departure of some does not justify omitting breaks from the agenda.