We’ve been working from home now for 6 months. Assuming this wasn’t your normal way of working prior to the pandemic and the subsequent quarantines, you’ve likely found yourself on the receiving end of what seems like an endless stream of video conference call invitations. In many ways it feels like we actually have *more* meetings now than we did before COVID-19 changed everything.
Some of these meetings are designed to be collaboration sessions. While there are new collaboration tools entering the market on a weekly basis it seems, actually facilitating a successful meeting, especially one where the goal is to put the collective brainpower of the attendees to good use, is a subject with lots of room for improvement.
One of the critical pieces of getting a team in the right frame of mind and comfortable with the tools available to them is kicking off the meeting with a proper icebreaker technique. I’ve put together a list below of icebreakers I’ve crowdsourced, participated in and used myself to help you get your distributed collaboration sessions off on the right foot.
Let’s get into it.
- Find a place on a map, put a post-it note on a location and say why you want to go on vacation here. You can do this with the whole group or with larger groups, smaller breakout sessions of randomized participants. I’ve used this one several times after participating in it during a meetup a few months ago. The point here is to get folks familiar with the collaboration tool you’re using (e.g., Mural who perhaps not surprisingly have also put together their list of warmups and icebreakers here), share a fun fact about themselves and start speaking to their colleagues.
- Go find [color] things which can also be used as visual signals. Ask all participants to find something “red” or something “green” in their house and show it on camera. This has a few benefits including getting folks out of their seats and away from their desks, finding some occasionally ridiculous things (e.g., a green cactus) to bring back and share and ultimately if you need the team to have visual cues for binary responses (e.g., yes/not questions) these items can serve as a fun, albeit potentially cumbersome, way to respond instead of a thumbs up or down.
- Share a photo of a typical food from your region and discuss (source: @rpulito). When working with international teams going to visit them and sharing in their culture and food was always a way to build a bit more camaraderie and connection into the team. Since we can’t currently be in person together, sharing photos of a local dish and describing it to your colleagues serves as a best next option and reveals a bit more about your colleagues than just their job titles.
- The group has to count to 10 but only one person can speak at a time. No order can be pre-determined and if they talk over each other they have to start again (source: @patricks_design). For teams who have worked together before, this icebreaker will likely be fairly easy to get through. For teams who are newly formed, the hilarity this opener creates breaks down the discomfort of not knowing each other so well.
- Share and describe a favorite photo from lockdown or any recent event (source: @cescahewitson via @d4z_m). Depending on how you share the photo, you could use this technique to get participants comfortable with the collaboration space they’re using (i.e., how do I upload a photo? How do I share my screen?) but even without the space, just holding your phone up to the webcam broadens what we know about each team member and what their world currently looks like.
- Virtual chairs — post a set of varied chair photos to your shared collaboration space and ask each participant to put their name on a seat (source: @tobysinclair). The goal here is to simulate an actual room, see which chair each person picks and why and quite literally take a seat at the table
- Zoom roulette (source: @jayperdue) – This is more like a mechanism than a standalone technique though it can be used that way as well. Using Zoom’s breakout room feature, assign random breakouts of 4-5 people with a prompt or a question to discuss Options could be what you hope to takeaways from class, what they did this weekend, their favorite food, etc. This technique can also be used to facilitate many of the other ideas shared in this post.
- Use an external survey tool like mentimeter or slido (source: @balachandar). If you’re trying to get answers from a larger group or gauge participant sentiment or just want to break up the flow of the online event, prompting for surveys and then having the results show up in real time can help keep things moving along and interesting. There are lots of tools to help with this and Mentimeter put together some templates for you to get started here: https://www.mentimeter.com/blog/audience-energizers/ready-to-use-icebreaker-templates-for-every-occasion
- Virtual Pictionary (source: @_b_a_r_b_). Breaking into small groups, one person on the team describes an item, activity or place while the other participants attempt to draw it on paper at their desks (alternative option: draw it in the shared collaboration space). This is not only fun and funny but helps teams get an early sense of the differences between perception, communication methods and reality.
- What do we have in common? (Source: @Poynter) Again in small groups, give each team 5 minutes to find 3 things they have in common across all team members. This one may force some personal conversation rather quickly in a team’s formation so make sure you’ve got enough comfort between team members before using this one.
- Extremely “you” photo roulette (Source: @Poynter via @ihearttheroad). In advance of the session, each member has to share with the moderator a photo that is “extremely” them — this can be something funny, a cool place you visited or an activity you take part in regularly. Photos are then shared in random order and each person has to describe what they’re doing in the photo and why they chose it. Again, this one forces some personal conversation rather quickly so choose this for teams with more comfort and experience with each other.
- Blind Origami (source: @mojoartboy). Each participant holds a piece of A4 paper and closes their eyes. The facilitator then gives verbal instructions about how to fold the paper with the goal of ending up with a specific sculpture. Everyone gets the same instructions at the same time. Examples include, “rotate the paper 90 degrees” or “fold the paper in half”. Without specific qualifiers like the direction of rotation or which length to fold the paper there is lots of room for interpretation. After about ten instructions, participants open their eyes to look at each other’s work. It’s likely that no one’s work will resemble another’s driving home the realization that the same instructions can be comprehended in wildly different ways.
- My friend Emily Webber put together a shorter list with some great ideas as well here: https://emilywebber.co.uk/quick-icebreakers-for-online-meetings-that-dont-suck/. I particularly liked the Think Links Cards prompts for creative team collaboration and the online version created here https://www.thinklinks.cards.
P.S. — It’s worth mentioning something @wootube added in his response to my crowdsource request on Twitter: “I think perhaps we should respect that some people don’t really want their ice broken 🙂 I’m concerned that agility is making software development an extroverts-only game.” Given how many of these meetings, workshops and conferences we’re all attending at the moment it’s best to try and read a room before kicking off yet another one of the icebreaker games to avoid any fatigue and to respect the introverts in the room.
I hope you found this list helpful. Please add your own links and ideas in the comments to keep this active and growing.