Virtual Ice Breakers

Help Remote Teams Break the Ice

Virtual Ice Breakers - Help Remote Teams Break the Ice

© iStockphoto

Find the right activity to break the ice.

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 different countries or time zones, and rarely, if ever, meet face-to-face.

In this article, we explore how you can use virtual ice breakers to help remote teams break down communication barriers. We look at when they can benefit your team, as well as the situations where they might not be appropriate. We also include four virtual ice breakers to get your virtual meetings off to a great start.

What Is a Virtual Ice Breaker?

An ice breaker is simply an approach you can use to get conversations flowing, and to break down barriers or shyness between team members. You might use one to kick off a face-to-face training session, to get everyone "in the mood" for a meeting, or to energize a team event.

Virtual ice breakers are the same, except you use them in online situations like tele or videoconferences. They help team members "warm up," engage with one another, and learn more about one another.

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 Ice Breakers

You can use virtual ice breakers at the start of any tele or videoconference. But there are a number of scenarios where they're particularly valuable.

An ice breaker 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 dynamic that typically develop in an office.

Perhaps you've had to bring teams together from different organizations, for example, following a company or departmental merger. There may be initial suspicion about the "other" group at first, but a virtual ice breaker can help the different "sides" build trust with one another.

Ice breakers also encourage people to build rapport, which can enrich their relationships. For instance, if they tend only to communicate by email or social media, an ice breaker can help them communicate with one another better. Ideally, the rapport that develops between them during the rest of the meeting will continue afterwards.

Furthermore, an ice breaker can be great for introducing new people to a team. An exercise can calm any first-meeting nerves among new participants, however "casual," relaxed or open you think your team is.

When Virtual Ice Breakers Aren't Appropriate

Ice breakers might not be appropriate for every virtual meeting.

For example, 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.

You might also hold off using one if a senior manager joins the call. While it may be tempting to demonstrate your team's great working dynamic, it's more important to recognize that his or her time is likely limited. Getting to the point quickly might be a better idea!

Even if your team works remotely, an ice breaker might not be necessary. Participants might see the activity as patronizing or as a waste of time, if they're already in regular contact.

An ice breaker could help break down any unhealthy 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:

Establish Goals and Objectives

You need to establish what "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 particular problem?

Make People Feel Comfortable

Think about whether there are any obstacles you need to take into account that could hinder the success of your ice breaker, such as differences in language or culture.

Steer clear of activities or topics that might inadvertently cause people offense. Information can get "lost in translation" among cross-border teams, so bear in mind that humor and jokes don't always travel well!

Take Time Into Account

Do you want your ice breaker to be a quick five-minute activity, or something more substantial? You'll need to take into account the meeting goal or objective, your team members' workloads, and whether they are calling from different time zones.

Similarly, consider whether the ice breaker is a one-off, or if you want to include one regularly. How frequently you use ice breakers 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.

Keep People's Location in Mind

Think about where your participants will likely be during the meeting. For example, will they be in an office, at home, or in a noisy café or airport departure lounge? This might affect how long they can spend on the call, and whether they'll be able to participate with and focus on the activity.

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, or may not have the technology. 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.

What to Communicate in Advance

You will have to decide how much information you give participants in advance of the ice-breaker 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 ice breaker a surprise, if you want people to flex their creative muscles and be spontaneous!

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Virtual Ice-Breaker Ideas

There are many types of virtual ice breakers, with different objectives. Here are four simple ideas to get your meeting off to a great start:

Take a Picture of Your Shoes

The idea for this ice breaker comes from the online meeting service Lucid Meetings.

Ask team members to take a picture of their shoes and upload it ahead of the meeting. This activity is best for videoconferences, but it can work on teleconference calls if everyone has access to a screen.

Then, 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.

Vary the exercise by asking team members to take a picture of an object on their desks, and getting them to talk about it.

The Social Question

The idea for this ice breaker comes from the online training service Guided Insights.

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 weren't on this call, what would you like to be doing?
  • 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 vacation?

The Time Machine

The idea for this ice breaker comes from the About Continuing Education website, which provides resources for students, teachers and parents.

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

The idea for this ice breaker was developed by new media consultant Joitske Hulsebosch.

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."

Key Points

Virtual ice breakers 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 ice breaker is appropriate for your meeting, organization or participants. Think hard about your goals and objectives before you design or choose it. You'll also need to take into account the functionality of your participants' technology, as well as any differences in time zones and culture.

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Comments (6)
  • Over a month ago Gerard wrote
    We have developed a tool specific to help with virtual ice breakers.
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    You're welcome Sharna.

    gregemma, it certainly helps to put people at ease.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago gregemma wrote
    how very true every ones is very nervous and scared to say some thing wrong so just ask or tell little joke to put at ease
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