Virtual meeting ice breakers, without the cheese

Virtual meeting ice breakers

Who amongst us does not know that teamwork makes the dream work? But while we accept this timeless wisdom, we need to take a step further back. Where is the age-old proverb to tell us what it is that makes the team work? Perhaps it’s virtual meeting ice breakers…

Collaboration is integral to any organisation’s success. But it takes more than simply instructing people to work together. Effective communication and team work need genuine bonds and understanding. Forging these can be difficult at the best of times, and trying to do so from afar can feel even more challenging.

That’s why virtual meeting ice breakers can be so important. For teams that are meeting remotely, whether permanently, occasionally, or temporarily as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, finding creative ways to make and maintain interpersonal bonds is vital. We’ve put together this list of virtual meeting ice breakers for large groups and small alike. It should help to keep morale and collaboration up.

Why do you need virtual meeting ice breakers?

This question is, unfortunately, as likely to come from someone who’s participated in many virtual meeting ice breakers as somebody who’s never experienced them. That’s because a lot of virtual meeting ice breakers are really dull, or really cheesy. To some, they can even feel like a waste of time. There’s work to be done, so why not crack on doing it?

What’s different about a virtual meeting?

It’s not just the nature of a conference call itself that makes virtual meeting ice breakers so important. It’s also all the stuff that goes around it.

Before and after a video conference, what are you doing? Probably sitting at your desk, working. Making yourself a cup of tea in your kitchen. Avoiding awkward eye contact with another remote worker in the café. Doodling.

Whatever it might be, it’s almost definitely not chatting with your co-workers by the kettle or the water-cooler.

But these moments of seemingly casual small-talk are actually really important to building a strong team. They create stronger and deeper connections which make for more efficient meetings. When you know the people you’re talking to, it’s less scary to voice your opinion or offer feedback. It can also make you feel much more engaged with the work being done and the information shared.

To try to make up for these lost moments, virtual meeting ice breakers can be a great tool for remote teams. They can ensure you get the benefits of meaningful interpersonal connections, even without the shared physical space.

Team bonding

Time and time again, it’s been demonstrated that real teamwork needs real bonds. Team members need to understand and trust one another; if you know how someone thinks, if you understand their values and priorities, it’s only logical that you’ll be better equipped to work with them. And if it doesn’t seem intuitive enough that sharing facts about yourselves would make your team feel closer to one another, there are plenty of scientifically-conducted studies which say so. Even sharing an embarrassing story about yourself directly leads to more active contribution during professional brainstorming sessions.

Setting the tone

Even simple things like lightening the tone and getting everybody in a cheerful mood can have a meteoric impact on productivity. But a good ice breaker can set the tone more deeply than just brightening spirits. This can, of course, be in a literal sense: you can opt for work-related virtual meeting ice breakers. That might be asking people to reflect on their productivity, or what they expect to get out of the meeting. But even a less formal virtual meeting ice breaker can establish how the meeting will run.

During virtual meeting ice breakers, you can set rules which will apply to the whole meeting. Are people welcome to interrupt, or shout out contributions without being called on? Or will there be a more formal turn-taking structure?

This is actually one of the key purposes of a good ice breaker; it’s often referred to as ‘modelling behaviour’, and it can apply everywhere from playground games to corporate retreats. The rigidity and structure of your ice breaker is likely to (and should) be reflected later in the meeting. Take the opportunity to set the tone and lay down some ground rules. The ice breaker allows this without seeming autocratic or sacrificing your team’s high spirits!

On a related note, the icebreaker can be a chance to control the all-important first impression.

You can establish your leadership style, and even your persona or personality, through the type of ice breaker you choose. Do you want to be seen as funny? Easy-going? Bold? Intelligent? Experienced? You can tailor the activity you choose, and your answers or contributions to it, to how you want to be perceived from the get-go.

Including everybody

One particular challenge of any meeting, but most especially virtual meetings, is making sure that everybody feels included and involved. Without many of the non-verbal cues that facilitate communication, people – particularly those who are naturally more introverted – can find it even more daunting to try and fit into the conversation. An ice breaker ensures they’ve got the painful first few words out of the way. That makes it much easier to voice the quirky new idea they’ve had, or the question they’re terrified is silly.

While a blanket question like ‘how is your day going?’ theoretically allows everybody to answer, inevitably only a few will. By kicking off with a virtual meeting ice breaker in which everyone has to take part, you’ve essentially ripped off the proverbial plaster. The worst is over, and they’ve already spoken up. Doing it again will no longer seem horrifying!

It might seem silly or coddling, but this notion is backed up by specialised psychologists. Anton Villado insists it’s a fairly universal phenomenon, no matter how much confidence we project. “Everyone has this anxiety about speaking up in a group for the first time in a new setting. Icebreakers force people to speak up when the content of the response doesn’t really matter, so that eliminates or reduces that anxiety,” he explains. “There’s no right or wrong answers. You can tell me what your number-one thing to take on a desert island would be, and I’m not going to critique you on it.”

Creating an atmosphere in which everyone feels they can speak up, ask questions, voice disagreements and share ideas can only ever be good for the meeting, and the company as a whole.

Choosing your virtual meeting ice breakers

We’ve covered some of the considerations you should make when picking an ice breaker. The tone you want to set and the impression you want to create are key. But they probably would also naturally sway your decision. If structure is important to you, you’D probably choose more structured virtual meeting ice breakers, anyway.

Of course, a good leader (a good person in general!) also knows it’s important to think about everybody else. There are a few important factors to consider when planning these things. It’s important to determine what kind of activity to do, or the types of virtual meeting ice breaker questions you consider appropriate.

Context and purpose

Conference calls can be very different from one another in many ways. Not least is the make-up of the attendants. Is this a team that knows each other well, and has been working together for a long time? Is it a newly merged company, where colleagues will collaborate, but haven’t yet got fully acquainted? Are two separate entities coming together for one project? Are all the participants on equal footing, or is there a clear professional hierarchy?

Think about the level of familiarity you have, and – crucially – the level you want to create. Are you trying to simply introduce people to one another? Or are you trying to build deeper trust? Maybe problem-solving is a key part of your meeting’s goal. Perhaps you want to brainstorm new ideas. Or feedback, critique and refinement could be the name of the game. Virtual meeting ice breakers for teachers who are holding a staff-only meeting might involve different teaching techniques, funny stories about marking or hilarious answers students have given, parents’ evenings tales, subject-specific facts… Whatever you choose, keep your goal and your audience in mind.

Essentially, it can be really useful to define the purpose of your whole meeting as well as that of your virtual meeting ice breakers. That way, you can tailor the latter to facilitate the former.

Consider your participants

What feels appropriate for one group of people might not for another. That might be because of the interpersonal contexts outlined above; strangers are less likely to divulge embarrassing secrets. You might be more wary of telling tales of tipsy antics or a social faux pas when your boss’s boss is listening. When choosing virtual meeting ice breakers for teachers, you’ll need to think carefully about what’s appropriate. If it’s an internal staff meeting, you’re probably on safer ground. But if you’re breaking the ice with students, think about their age and about what kinds of personal details and anecdotes can be shared.

But it’s also important to think about broader individual contexts. Perhaps your meeting is multicultural or international. When people don’t share certain aspects of their background with the rest of the team, using these to break the ice can actually thicken it, so to speak.

Don’t leave anyone out

For example, asking everyone’s preferred tea brand might (emphasis on might) inspire impassioned, amused debates amongst Brits. Perhaps less so in other nations. Similar divides can be found in sports, with different activities being popular around the globe. Likewise, even simple chat about pop culture, like the funny sitcom you saw last night or a throwaway comment about some celeb news, can prove isolating for people not privy. Linguistic games and jokes – like puns, proverbs and so on – can have a similar effect amongst people whose first language isn’t English.

Think about the context your whole team does share. Build your virtual meeting ice breakers with that in mind.

Length and frequency

Just as with the meetings themselves, two crucial considerations for virtual meeting ice breakers is how long you want them to last, and how often you plan on doing them. Of course, some of the factors we’ve discussed will affect these decisions, and it’s worth keeping them in mind as you plan.

If it’s an ice breaker for a smaller team that holds regular meetings, it can be really fun to have an activity that’s repeated and developed each week. You might even start to get some running jokes, and learn a lot about fellow team members. It can also create an opportunity to make different people leaders of the activity. If you all share the same project, you know more or less how tight you are on time. You’ll be able to plan accordingly, so that people aren’t frustrated or stressed that you’re wasting their time. It’s always best practice to include the ice breaker in the all-important agenda – a key part of any video conference checklist. If you’re looking for virtual meeting ice breakers for teachers, you’ll also want to factor in the length to your lesson plan.

Ideas of virtual meeting ice breakers

Now that we’ve thought about the background reasonings and considerations, let’s dive into some ideas of what activities you might use to break the ice. While there are loads of virtual meeting ice breakers, a lot of these can seem really cheesy. You don’t want to do things that feel too forced or too familiar. We’ve put together some ideas that effectively break the ice. They help people get to know one another, but also allow for individuality and are a little bit different.

Virtual meeting ice breaker questions

Questions are simple but powerful communication tools. While an open-ended, general question like ‘how is everyone doing?’ is unlikely to produce an in-depth or universal response, there are great questions to get to know people and overcome any awkwardness or nerves.

Remember as you pick your virtual meeting ice breaker questions to keep in mind all the factors we’ve thought about above. Be creative, but keep it appropriate, and feel free to tailor things to your specific industry! You can opt for more professional questions, or keep the opening more informal or personal. A lot of these – like the first – can be answered either way. That lets participants set the boundaries they’re comfortable with.

To get you started, here are a few ideas of fun, thought-provoking virtual meeting ice breaker questions that most groups of people should be able to answer:

1. What’s something you’re proud of this week?

2. What was your first job?

3. If you could live in any fictional universe – be it a film, TV show, or book – which would it be and why?

4. What’s your favourite flavour of crisps?

5. What’s your favourite smell?

6. Who would play you in the movie of your life?

7. What flavour ice cream would you be?

8. Do you have any pets? With the crucial follow-up question made possible by video conferencing: can we see him/her please?!

Show and tell

This can be something that you plan ahead, or a more spontaneous and informal activity. You could simply ask people to grab an object they have in reach and tell a story about it. It can be as simple as where they bought it. Or they could make up a whole fantastical fairy tale about it. Or anything in between!

You can also make it an ongoing project, like in your youthful school days. Each week, you could assign somebody to lead the show and tell. You could make this about anything you like: their most prized possession, the one object or app they can’t work without, the first thing they do in the morning, their favourite mug… Whatever works for you and your team.

The letter game

This could work out quite similarly to a spontaneous show and tell. The added challenge here is that you give participants a letter, and they have to find an object that begins with that letter. You can set a time limit – which can be especially helpful if your schedule is tight. Each person can then share what they’ve found. You could even pick a ‘winner’ who had the most interesting object.

Build a story

Most of us are probably familiar with some version of this activity from childhood road-trips and sleepovers. You can adapt the rules to suit your own virtual meeting, but it usually goes something like this: one person makes up the first sentence of a story. It can be absolutely anything! ‘Once upon a time there was a magical pair of headphones’, or ‘Bob was a builder, but not a very good one…’, or ‘Let me tell you about a truth less universally acknowledged:’. Then, you go around (the order is up to you) and each person tacks on the next sentence. You can do as many rounds as you like. In the end, you’ll have worked together to create a whole story, however weird, whacky, nonsensical it may be. This activity is a great opportunity for everyone’s personalities to shine through, and to start the collaboration and idea-sharing processes.

Use your virtual meeting ice breakers to set a tone of positivity

Another really flexible idea could be to ask each person (or if you’re short for time and it’s a recurring meeting, one person each time, particularly if you’re looking for virtual meeting ice breakers for large groups) to kick off the meeting with a piece of good news. It seems like the news only gets darker and darker – although this has seemingly been true throughout history. Between global pandemics, tense racial relations and brutal police murders, ongoing crises in Yemen and in so many other places, the bad news can feel really overwhelming.

You can help to counteract this and cheer people’s whole days, not only their meetings, by showing that there is still a lot of good happening around the world, every day.

Share the good news!

A great point about this virtual meeting ice breaker is that ‘good news’ could be anything. You could set the parameters yourself. Or, let everyone to decide what to share.

The news might be personal. It could be as minute as you like. For example, it could be ‘I had my favourite cereal for breakfast!’. Or how about ‘the perfume I wanted to buy my friend is back in stock’? Maybe it’s professional. In other words, you could share a sale you’ve secured or some other work achievement. It could be broader, such as that your particular market is thriving. It might be about a topic that’s really important to you, like a development in clean energy or a breakthrough in a particular treatment.

Do think about setting ground-rules about anything that might be too partisan, political or controversial. For example, the downfall of one party leader might be great news for you. But perhaps it’s upsetting for somebody else. A law being passed or rejected could also have mixed reactions. While you want to let people’s interests come across, you don’t want upset or discomfort. For most teams, this won’t be a problem. Usually, common sense stops people from sharing news that isn’t objectively positive. But it can’t hurt to lay out some rules. If you are particularly concerned, but like the idea of sharing good news, you could blanket-ban certain topics. Another option is to include only news from personal lives.

Striking a tone of optimism and hope works wonders for meetings. It can make people want to emulate the productivity and positivity reported. Seeing what people choose to share can also tell you a lot about them, making this a great virtual meeting ice breaker.

High and low

This is similar to the good news idea, but it would ideally be limited to a more micro level than global good news. The concept is simple. And again, it’s easily adapted to be suitable for any setting.

Each person picks out one high point and one low point from the week. If you want an aura of formality, you could also ask that this be related to their work. Otherwise, it might include more personal events. You might hear about huge life developments, like somebody getting engaged. On a smaller scale, you’ll learn what’s happening in your colleagues’ lives, and what they value. For example, if their high point is a new series of their favourite programme coming out, you’ll learn they love TV, they keep up with pop culture, what kinds of shows they like, and so on.

The other great point about this virtual meeting ice breaker is that it fosters a sense of support, camaraderie and closeness. It’s great to cheer people on as they share high points. But listening to low points is important too. So is sharing them. Opening up about the low points can be challenging. But doing so can actually alleviate the burden. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable will almost always encourage greater closeness with your team. Particularly as we’re often surprised by how sensitive and kind people’s reactions are.

Of course, what each person shares is up to them. As a result, nobody will feel uncomfortable or overly exposed. Again, though, when opting for this kind of activity to be aware of who is on the call. You want to ensure things are appropriate, both in people’s highs and lows and in their reactions to others’.

Two lies and a truth

You’re probably familiar with this one. You could have come across it in a wide variety of contexts. It’s often a great ice breaker for teachers, including in the classroom itself. It also works in universities: in fact, students will likely have played it as much in a seminar as in a student society and at a pre-drinks. Corporate events use it, as do small businesses. While this ubiquity might make you think this particular virtual meeting ice breaker is a bit stale and predictable, it is universal for a reason. It’s simple, it’s effective, it makes people get to know each other. If you’re looking for virtual meeting ice breakers for large groups and you’re tight for time, you might need to pick just a couple of people to share their lies and truth each meeting.

For those who need a refresher, the concept is very simple. The player makes three statements. Two are untrue, and one is true. You can even switch that around, so that two are true and only one is a lie. Then, the rest of the participants have to identify which is true (or which is a lie if you’re playing the other way around). If everybody is having a turn, then the person who gets the most incorrect guesses wins the game. You’ll be rewarding people for sharing quirky, unexpected facts about themselves, which will inevitably mean you get to know new sides of them!

Desert Island X

Here’s another virtual meeting ice breaker we all know about. ‘Desert island discs’ is a long-standing show on the BBC, for example. In it, guests choose eight songs that they’d take with them on a desert island, along with a luxury item and a book.

Again, we’ve chosen this activity because it’s a great, adaptable option: you could use it as a virtual meeting ice breaker for teachers, students, colleagues, strangers… You could keep it as discs, and have people choose their favourite songs. Even if you do, you can still switch up the number of songs. If you need virtual meeting icebreakers for large groups, eight might take up a lot of time. One or two wouldn’t, though.

Or you can fill in the X as you wish. Maybe it’s a food, or a film. You can even tailor it to your industry, helping keep a professional tone and get people’s brains in the right gear. For example, an advertising and marketing company might ask what people’s favourite ever ad was (they mightn’t actually want it with them on a desert island, but the general concept holds…). A toy company might go for ‘Desert Island Toys’. You get the picture.

Pick a penny

This virtual meeting ice breaker can be easily done from anywhere, provided people have some coins nearby. All they need to do is grab a coin at random and look at the year it was minted. Then each person shares a little bit about what they were up to that year, what that year makes them think of, a big event (whether personal or otherwise) that happened that year. Again, the beauty of this ice breaker is that you can tailor it to your situation.

Of course, as people opt more and more for contactless payment methods, there might be the odd person who doesn’t have a coin, or at least one to hand. There are plenty of ways around this though. You could ask them to grab a book and check its publication year, for example. Or mix in another ice breaker-type question and ask their favourite song, then use the year it came out – you’ll probably find that the song they pick was a particularly good year for them, as our favourite songs are often very contextually-determined! You can even assign years at random.

The point is to get to know a little more about your participants and their backstories. We often don’t take the time to learn about people’s pasts, instead focusing on their professional lives, or even just the current developments in their personal lives. But understanding people’s pasts is a key part of understanding them as people. This is a fun and safe way for people to share a little bit about where they’ve come from.

Make your virtual meeting ice breakers your own

These are just a handful of examples of virtual meeting icebreakers. The common theme which we hope you’ve picked up is that a really good virtual meeting ice breaker can be adapted to fit the situation. Any good leader has to be able to ‘read the room’, so to speak. Think of the tone you want to set and how your participants will be likely to feel as the meeting starts out. Plan your virtual meeting ice breakers accordingly.

The main, overarching aim is to make sure people feel comfortable and productive, so that you can have a really efficient virtual meeting. The best way to achieve that depends on countless contextual factors. That’s why you should give your icebreaker some serious thought. It’s as important as any other part of the meeting, if not more so as it sets the entire tone. Some people think of icebreakers as casual ways to pass (or even waste) time. But used correctly, they can be so much more.

Photo by Hubert Neufeld on Unsplash

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