Meetings can be long and personally draining in the best of times. If your team is remote, it gets even harder. It's a psychological truth that video calls are more difficult to interact in than in-person events. There's a lot of science on why video calls are so tiring, from monologuing to self-gazing to mis-synchronizing:
"Eye contact plays a documented role in successful human communication.”
Christina Cauterucci, Slate
But most of us don't need the peer review to know what we already have experienced: the end-of-day Zoom-blues.
Don't worry, we have actual solutions! The trick is adding some levity and personal connection, and fortunately it isn't rocket science. The method begins, as with most social endeavors, by listening. And to listen, we need to prompt and allow for free speech.
Asking non-standard questions can widen the mind to non-standard answers. Opening the floor for off-the-wall ideas and "anything goes (workplace version)" conversation is a great way to get creative feelings flowing, remove the cooling effects of remote work and general office culture, and warm people up. Thus the name of the game ;)
"[Icebreakers] are helpful to encourage participants to bond, form a new team, get to know people from different backgrounds, and become involved with learning about new subject matter."
Breaking the Ice: A Pre-intervention Strategy to Engage Research Participants, NIH
How do you start off a meeting with everyone smiling? Sounds hard but if you break it down, it's the simplest thing: get them thinking about something that makes them smile. Here are the top ten icebreakers for your small group.
Sometimes we just need to let loose and have fun. We of course don't recommend this, work should be serious at all times, but there are those that say it's an important part of being human and connecting with one another.
Large groups are a whole other ballgame. It's tougher (impossible?) to foster person to person group connection when you're working with a group of 500 people. But the power of the icebreaker is that it can make people feel like their voice is an important part of the larger noise. The big change we'd make here is not using the icebreaker, but the format of your questions.
If you're in a large group, polling in a transparent way can be a good method. We have two suggestions for a very large group: "Have you ever / raise your hand if" questions, or a poll of multiple choice questions and displaying percentage of responses.
There are a few ways to make audience responses work in a large group over a video call, depending on your setup. If you've got many folks with cameras on, consider using your gallery view to its max visual potential.
There are a ton of tools (like SlidesWith) you can use to poll your audience and display responses, but there are other simple ways as well, like using [whatever] video tool's chat functionality. Ask questions verbally or on a presentation shared screen. Have people send in answers in the chat, and choose some to read, or ask either/or questions and get a running reply chain of answer selections as they come in through chat.
We've done so many group meetings, games, icebreakers, that we know a little bit by this time about what matters and how to use them. Here's the drill down:
Whenever we're making a game or presentation, our goal with icebreakers usually boils down to two basic things:
Your exact goals may differ, but the important thing is to know what you want to get, not just out of the icebreakers, but the whole meeting / culture of the company itself.
Once you know your goal, it becomes clear that using the right icebreakers is crucial. Sure, you can start off the meeting with "How's everyone doing?" or "What's your favorite color?", but you may not improve anyone's current mood much, and you're less likely to get many interesting answers.
There's a world of icebreaker questions to choose from out there, but some of my favorite are the goal oriented type. The much-vaunted "36 Questions to Fall in Love By" are a top-level example of this. They're a slow-build to real human connection, and they work.
"Allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another person can be exceedingly difficult, so this exercise forces the issue."
- Daniel Jones, New York Times On the "The 36 Questions That Lead to Love"
While we may not want to force the issue as far as falling in love with our morning stand up meeting coworkers, we may want to foster a few light feelings of camaraderie.
That's why we've focused solely on valuable, healthy icebreakers in this list. What does "healthy" mean? The stories we tell ourselves matter — framing these questions in a positive, adaptive shape is the key to having them leave you feeling good. Prompt your team members to think in the right stories by asking leading, positive questions.
Knowing your audience is the foundational way to make these questions and icebreaking moments worthwhile. It's important to know who's receiving the questions, and select and tailor to that audience. The next important question is, how many people? Let people answer in a way that the rest of the group can connect with, and that's different depending on if you have 6 vs. 50 people in the room.
The larger the group, the shorter/more scannable you'll want your answer types to be. Eg, "What's your favorite city in Europe?" vs. "What was something fun you did on a trip?".
You can also give people methods to answer that you can parse quickly by using the right tools, of course. Live polling software tools abound (check out this helpful overview and reviews of the best interactive presentation tools of the last couple of years).
This all goes to say — the stories we tell to the people watching are what they'll believe. If we want them to have fun, let's make it easy by prompting them to think fun thoughts. Simple!
Now that you know how to break the ice — go forth, and meet!