It can be challenging for remote teams to work together effectively, as distance makes it hard for people to build rapport with one another. As a result, you may struggle to encourage creativity and problem solving when your team members are dispersed across areas and are not meeting face to face due to remote working.
This blog explores virtual icebreakers and conversation exercises to help remote teams break down communication barriers. The section below looks at how they can benefit your team, as well as the situations where they will be appropriate as well as situations in which they aren’t appropriate.
We include virtual icebreakers and conversation exercises to get your virtual meetings off to a great start. These top tips also accompany our other blogs and tips on our website to support remote working.
What Is a Virtual Icebreaker?
An icebreaker is an approach you can use to get conversations flowing, and to break down barriers or feelings of awkwardness between team members. You might use one to kick off a face-to-face meeting or team session, to set the scene or to energise team members. Virtual icebreakers are the same, except you use them in online situations like telephone or videoconferences. They can help team members engage with one another and learn more about fellow team members.
So, a virtual ice breaker can be a game, a quirky activity, a competition, or an exercise that's designed to challenge the way people think.
When to use Virtual Icebreakers
You can use virtual icebreakers at the start of any tele or videoconference. But there are a number of scenarios where they're particularly valuable.
An icebreaker may be useful if your team members are in different locations and have never been able to meet in person. They can help people form the sort of relationships and team dynamics that typically develop in an office. In the current situation you may be having to bring different teams together, who don’t know each other or there may be initial suspicion about the ‘other’ group at first, but a virtual icebreaker can help build trust with one another.
Icebreakers also encourage people to build rapport, which can improve their relationships. For instance, if they tend only to communicate by email or social media, an icebreaker can help them communicate with one another better. Ideally, the rapport that develops between them during the rest of the meeting will continue afterwards and people will feel more comfortable. An icebreaker can also be great for introducing new people to a team.
When Virtual Icebreakers Aren't Appropriate
Icebreakers might not be appropriate for every virtual meeting or situation. You will need to judge, specifically at this time when people may be feeling vulnerable, anxious and even frightened, so you will need to be very sensitive to this.
An example being spending time on a ‘fun’ activity will likely get short shrift from your team if it's clear that participants are under severe time or delivery pressure, or if you're discussing a crisis or emergency.
Even if your team works remotely, an icebreaker might not be necessary. Participants might see the activity as patronising or as a waste of time if they're already in regular contact. You know your team best.
An icebreaker could help break down those who may be in cliques if you use one when a new person joins an already-established team. However, existing team members might think it's a waste of time. If you decide to use one, consider priming those who know one other in advance, and telling them how important it is that they fully engage and participate in the exercise.
Choosing Your Virtual Ice Breaker
Consider these factors when you choose or design your virtual ice breaker:
Tip 1 - Establish Goals and Objectives
It is important to establish which ‘ice’ you want to break, so that your exercise is productive. Do you want to encourage people to think creatively, help team members get to know one another better, or solve a problem?
Tip 2 - Make People Feel Comfortable
Think about whether there are any obstacles you need to consider, that could hinder the success of your ice breaker. It is important to think of the curve balls, so steer clear of activities or topics that might inadvertently cause people offense. Information can get lost in translation, particularly with new teams or those who don’t know each other well, so bear in mind that humour and jokes don't always travel well.
Tip 3 - Take Time into Account
Do you want your icebreaker to be a quick five-minute activity, or something more substantial? You'll need to consider the meeting goal or objective, your team members' workloads.
Similarly, consider whether the icebreaker is a one-off, or if you want to include one regularly. How frequently you use icebreakers will likely affect their content, and the time you spend on them. You might want to rotate who leads the activity if you decide to have one at the start of every meeting.
Tip 4 - Consider Technology
Decide whether you want people to use their webcam for the exercise, if you're holding a videoconference. Some people don't like using video chat and may prefer telephone. If this is the case, you might want to choose an activity that doesn't rely on people being able to see one another.
You should also consider how reliable people's connections are, and how time delays might affect their participation.
Tip 5 - Communicate in Advance
You will have to decide how much information you give participants in advance of the icebreaker activity. You may want them to prepare beforehand, if the exercise would benefit from them spending time thinking about their responses.
Alternatively, you may want to keep the icebreaker a surprise, if you want people to flex their creativity and spontaneity.
Virtual Icebreaker Ideas
There are many types of icebreakers, conversation exercises with different objectives. We have chosen easy activities that don’t take long to do. Here are 7 simple ideas to get your meeting off to a great start:
The following ice breaker activities aim to be used to allow team members to get to a little bit more about each other.
Your Childhood Hero
This activity can be used for both video conferencing and telephone meetings. In turn, ask each team member to share one of their childhood heroes. This can be any hero, for example a sporting hero, a comedy hero, a musician, etc. This exercise should allow team colleagues to get to know about each other.
An Object That Means Something to You
This activity can be used for both video conferencing and telephone meetings. Go around team members and ask team members to share an object on their desk, on their person or in the near vicinity. Ask each person takes their turn to discuss their choice and why it matters to them. You can vary this by asking them to send a picture in advance of the object that means something to them and do the activity as above.
Take a Picture of Your Shoes
Ask team members to take a picture of their shoes and upload it ahead of the meeting. This activity is best for video conferences.
At the start of the meeting, ask each participant to discuss his choice of shoe, and any ‘story’ behind it. For example, one person might be wearing running shoes – and this might lead to a discussion about his hobbies – or sandals, flip-flops or sneakers.
Activities to bring energy and conversations
How smart is your right foot?
This activity aims to be an energiser and get the team talking. Ask each person to follow the instructions
Whilst sitting where you are, lift your right foot off the floor and make anti-clockwise circles
Now whilst doing this, draw the number 6 in the air with your right hand.
Their feet will then change direction. Debrief, person by person, on their reactions to doing the exercise.
The Social Question
Ask each participant a ‘social’ question. So, you could find out what someone enjoys doing outside of work, or ask if she has a funny story, she can share about something that happened to her recently, and so on.
Ask everyone the same question, or different ones if you want more variety in the responses.
Here are some more examples of what you might ask:
Give an example of something you've done this week that you feel proud of.
If you could eat any dish right now, what would it be?
If money and time were no object, where would you most like to go on holiday?
The Time Machine
Ask the following question, to one participant at a time: ‘If you were able to travel through time, either forward or backward…’
Where would you go?
If backward, to which time period? Why?
If there was a person you could go back in time and meet, who would it be, and why?
Would you just want to visit and come back, or would you stay?"
Two Lies and a Truth
Ask each team member to prepare a list of three interesting ‘facts’ about themselves, two of which must be made up. These could comprise anything, from a pet they own or a hobby they love to a famous person they say they've met, and so on. Then, get other team members to decide on the facts they think are true. The team member who receives the most incorrect votes ‘wins.’
Virtual icebreakers and social questions can help remote team members improve their relationships with one another, and they can promote creativity and problem solving within the group. Consider whether a virtual icebreaker is appropriate for your meeting, organisation or participants.
Why don’t you share with us any ice breakers you have used with us? We would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org