Open Space Technology and Zoom – flexible online spaces

Recently, I ran my first online Open Space Technology using Zoom for 250+ people. Open Space allows the group – of any size- to create the agenda together, quickly. And one of the important features of Open Space is the ability to move as you wish between conversations. That’s self-evident when we’re face to face, but in Zoom it takes a hack, and extra steps. It worked online and it’s totally worth it. Here are some reflections on this facilitation process and what I’ll do differently next time.

What’s Open Space Technology?

We all need tools for meetings that centre inclusion and belonging. We all deserve to have conversations that matter. Open Space is a highly participatory facilitation process  – usually for face to face meetings, but it’s definitely possible online – that allows everyone to decide, then participate in the sessions that interest them. We like to ask: “What’s the conversation you need to have, now?”

Conferences are often about these in between spaces, these important conversations that happen in the hallways, or spontaneously – or what might develop because we take the time to eat french fries in the restaurant afterwards. And even though we’re having an online conference – the  conference committee wanted to bring that emergent energy to our online event.  

Great resources exist on what is Open Space Technology, including this collection by Chris Corrigan. Start here if you’re new. And if you’re curious about how it works online, Amanda Fenton has written an excellent how-to guide for OST using Zoom. Her document is a step-by-step guide to Zoom and OST.

You need two people

First, you absolutely need to have at least two people to run an effective Open Space online. This session was run oh so smoothly by Carina Nilsson from Drawing Change as the tech host.

Have a group facilitator (or two), have a tech host who is moderate-to-experienced using Zoom including breakout rooms, and it’s a good idea to have an additional person monitoring the chat in some way.

Zoom plus an online place to write

You’ll use Zoom for discussions, and you’ll need an online tool for getting organized, co-creating the agenda, and and note-taking.

We began in Zoom for the instructions and the opening circle. I shared a small powerpoint to share some resources about what the process was going to be. Then, we asked people to move over to the collaboration tool for writing. I used Amanda’s guide uses Google Slides. Google slides or a google doc is lower-tech and a bit easier because people are more familiar with those tools. But MURAL has a bigger workspace, and looks visually more interesting.

Co-Creating the Agenda: “the Marketplace”

Open Space is about co-creating an agenda. In face to face, we use big pieces of paper taped to a board, and it’s called the Marketplace. Online, you can use Zoom plus a collaboration writing tool (Google slides, MURAL, etc). This is a good time to check out the resources on how to run Open Space, if you’re new to the instructions for this part. You need a place where people can pitch a topic, identify who’s going to host it, and participants to sign up to join in.

What I noticed about co-creating the agenda using MURAL:

  • Folks who were new to MURAL asked if MURAL was how we’d get into the Open Space breakout and tried to click on parts of the MURAL to see if they could get into the breakout group.
  • Even though almost everything on the MURAL template was locked down, people created dozens of blank post-it notes, miscellaneous unicorn photos popped up, and people annotated the canvas using doodles. None of that was part of the plan, and a friend spent 20 minutes deleting blank post its. Never underestimate what a user experience might be!

What we learned :

  • Usually an Open Space has 1-minute pitches. With this many people, we didn’t have time to pitch topics out loud as well as in writing. It would be better to be able to speak to the topics out loud, though. With 250-300 people, encourage a short written description of the topic in MURAL. We encourage clarification out loud for any topics that need elaboration, and allow folks who felt more comfortable pitching their topic out loud to do so.
  • In the Marketplace, make sure that the tech host can clearly see the short title of the session. The tech host needs to copy that information very quickly into the Zoom breakout rooms. (Tip: if using MURAL, make sure that the titles aren’t covered up by other objects being moved around)

Have a minute to practice

At a giant conference, assume that some percent of people will be new to breakouts and also to new collaboration tools. Give people a space to play and learn new tools. We often call this a “sandbox.” If folks get frustrated or don’t understand the technology, they’re more likely to leave the online event. I suggest taking 2-3 minutes and set up a sandbox to practice.

To practice in the “sandbox”, ask everyone who is going to pitch a topic for the Open Space to write their name (in MURAL, on a post it note) in an area off to the side, then move that post it note to a new area to learn these basic actions.

Tip: send new tech as homework, before the meeting, so people can learn asynchronously. This way you’re not learning a new tool in the middle of a more stressful situation. Overall stress is lower, people come into the meeting ready to participate.

How to Move People Around

Here’s part one of the hack: if it’s suitable for the security for your meeting, make everyone in Zoom a co-host. With co-host powers, everyone will be able to MOVE THEMSELVES between breakout groups. It’s amazing.

What we learned:

  • Make everyone a co-host as soon as they join the meeting. Do this while the facilitator is talking / explaining. With 200+ people, even if it takes 3 seconds to make someone a co-host, that takes time
  • It absolutely works!
  • It also comes with some big responsibilities. Everyone now will be able to screenshare, so use this wisely. (Read this for more details.)
  • You have to create a lobby for the moving around part to work (more on this below).

How to Move People – Part Two

Here’s the second step of this hack: once everyone is a co-host, people can move themselves between breakout rooms … if you do this one extra step. The trick is to make one breakout room called lobby, and send everyone to the lobby; then give more instructions to the group and open the breakout rooms.

The purpose of Open Space on the internet is to allow participants to move between breakout rooms on their own. This is a current limitation of Zoom and this is the simplest way to do it. You can’t skip the step of the lobby, and you can’t open breakout rooms earlier.

  1. Create a breakout room called lobby and put everyone into the lobby.
  2. Create the breakout rooms from there. (This takes time – the tech host has to copy all the titles of the sessions over, and finish making everyone a co-host too)
  3. Move yourself around!

The Backup Plan

If it’s not appropriate/ not secure enough to make everyone a co-host, then your tech host can manually move people into the breakout rooms they want. Participants should rename themselves to be the BREAKOUT ROOM they want to be moved to. This process takes time, so this is not ideal for a large group; send people on a break while the tech host sets it up.

Don’t Skip This Step

Speaking of breaks, it’s a huge demand on the tech host to make everyone a co-host then set up and rename every breakout room for 250+ people. A simple solution is to co-create the agenda, then send participants on a short 10 minute break. They’ll come back to the tech ready to go. We didn’t do this – and it’s not a step I’ll miss next time!

Extra Rooms

When the tech host sets up the breakout rooms, based on the agenda, create a few extra rooms.

Once the breakout rooms are opened you sadly won’t be able to rename these extra rooms, but having extra rooms is useful: we missed naming a particular topic’s breakout room (I’m so sorry). To direct people where to gather, we were able to write on the Marketplace “go to Extra Room 1” and folks figured it out.

Also some informal spaces called Porch, Kitchen, etc because frankly that’s just fun. 

Make a Backup

Back up the Marketplace. I was a participant in an Open Space recently that used Miro and an unsuspecting participant used a frame, and the whole board exploded in a fascinating fractal. Make a backup of whatever you’re using, once the agenda is set…. just in case.

Whatever Happens…

Less than 10% of people had tech that didn’t work for one reason or another, and folks couldn’t “leave” the main room at all. A few had hiccups joining by phone because it has limited breakout room functions in Zoom; older browsers on ipad had some issues.

We used one of the principles of Open Space – wherever it happens is the right place. We had a great discussion in the plenary room, instead. It was nice for folks who were joining the conference who joined the session mid-way have a place to join a conversation, too. It was like walking up to a group of people chatting in the lobby of your favourite conference – the invitation was to join in.

The Harvest

Powerful conversations happen in Open Space (or not!) – and you can consider what types of output is needed. In the Art of Hosting, we talk about ‘designing the facilitation with a harvest in mind’. This means – take notes, but you don’t have to just take notes. Think about how you want to capture the conversation in a way that’s useful to your group.

Obviously, I value visuals – but there’s many options! You could draw, write a poem, in non-covid times you might do group Lego, create a graphic recording. Most often, people summarize by writing insights and actions on a handout or online. In this Open Space, we went with a template that encouraged note-taking with topic/ insights/ actions. Some groups uploaded sketchnotes to the MURAL afterwards which was great – find any way you can to invite more creativity.

Guiding Principles

Playing with technology is an experiment. And so is OST! I’m reminded of the Open Space Technology principles, which seem simple yet provide enough structure:

  • Whoever comes are the right people.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time.
  • Whenever it’s over, it’s over.
  • Wherever it happens is the right place.

So if the technology doesn’t go as planned…. whatever happens is the only thing that could have!

Thanks to everyone’s willingness to be creative in this online space together.  It was a pleasure to help facilitate this session at the first virtual International Forum of Visual Practitioners’ Conference – the IFVP is always an annual highlight of my professional development. The next two days of our virtual conference are in July and August – tickets are a fraction of the usual price, and the workshops this year aren’t to be missed.


Additional Open Space Technology Resources via Amanda Fenton 

Link to Chris Corrigan’s resources, who provides extensive training and wonderful writing on all this:


8 comments on “Open Space Technology and Zoom – flexible online spaces

    1. Hi Jonathan – this will all be fixed with the next zoom update! The lobby exists because folks can only move between breakout rooms, once they are IN a breakout room. So gathering people in one place before they zoom off – is the workaround.

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