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You’re sitting in your home office, have an hour-long meeting, know only some of the participants and wonder who is behind the cameras? The atmosphere of a meeting or a training session benefits immensely from the relaxedness and the mood of the group. But how can this be actively influenced in a positive way?

The great anonymity

Sitting in your home office, you are having an hour-long meeting, only partially know the participants and wondering who is behind the cameras? Until the beginning of 2020, this problem rarely existed. At meetings or trainings, you get to know the participants as soon as you arrive or by asking if the chair is still free. The coffee kitchen is the central meeting place for brief small talk during daily breaks. What was quite natural in the daily “pre-corona” life at the office or at training sessions must be actively generated in online meetings. Such situations are familiar to me as a student, too. The third digital semester has just begun. In seminars, we work together with other students we have never seen before. We are randomly assigned to each other and do not know how our counterpart works, what strengths and weaknesses he/she can bring to a group effort. Something has to change in order to work together in a motivated and productive way despite the personal and spatial distance. To meet this challenge, meetings must be initiated or interrupted differently. A useful medium for this is called “Icebreaker”.

What are icebreakers and when are they used?

Icebreakers are short game units that have two advantages. First, you improve getting to know each other, second, Icebreakers help to lighten up the mood in long meetings and to bring back concentration. Icebreakers can be used both in physical and virtual events. Let us say, a new project is about to begin, and your team members are people you don’t know or only know slightly. For a project to be successful, the basic fundament is to function as a team. Therefore, a common way to start working together is the classic round of introductions – name, professional background and private interests. Unfortunately, it is hard to remember the information of everyone in a larger group – anonymity remains. Icebreakers are adequate alternatives to get to know each other in the long term and to create a foundation for a long-term network. The most important thing is that participants engage with the Icebreaker and are lured out of their shells to share something personal. This creates fun and interesting outcomes that make you forget hierarchy and age and unites your team. Icebreakers may evoke different effects and be used with different objectives. From creativity to improved communication or more “WE” in the team.

What do Icebreakers in fact improve?

The effect of teambuilding is often underestimated. The development cannot be expressed in numbers and therefore, it is not visible and measurable for many. Michael Norton provides a counterexample in a Harvard University study on Icebreakers. As part of the study, 221 people took part in a scavenger hunt in small groups of two to four. They were asked to complete as many tasks as possible in 45 minutes and take a photo of each solved task. Half of the groups should perform an icebreaker before the scavenger hunt. To do so, they gathered, clapped and stomped rhythmically, and shouted “Let’s go!” at the end. These groups were able to take more photos in less time, and in a post-event survey, they were more likely to say they liked their team colleagues than the other half of the groups. What does this tell us? Good team bonding is important for achieving better performance, generating increased productivity, and working more efficiently. Processes run more smoothly, the team entrust each other even more, and colleagues work together as a team. This is what is possible to be achieved by team building activities like Icebreaker.

4 ideas for Icebreaker in your online team meeting

In the following I will introduce you to 4 proven Icebreakers.

  1. Grab a thing

You set the first task, e.g. “Grab something blue”. Every team member shows a blue object into the camera as fast as possible. The last one is asked to set up the next task.

  1. Tell a story

Ask your team members to pick up a personal object and tell a short story about it. This can be anything from a photo to a souvenir from your last vacation.  

  1. Let’s Post-it!

Each participant sticks a Post-it in front of the camera. Sentences – e.g. about characteristics or personal interests – are read out. If a statement applies to a team member, they should remove the post-it from their camera. The game ends when you can see everyone again.

  1. Good old times

Before the meeting, have children’s photos sent to you from all your colleagues. Show the pictures one after the other and give room to speculate who might be behind them.

Let’s break ice

There are two criteria to consider when choosing an icebreaker. One criterion is the time factor. The more people participate in the meeting, the more time you may spend on some Icebreakers and your team starts to get bored. The other criterion is the heterogeneity of the team. Wide age ranges, for example, can become a problem in some guessing games. Therefore, look for varying, exciting and entertaining Icebreakers that promise fun for the whole team.

Icebreakers give you the chance to achieve great things with small means, to optimize group dynamics in a short time and to obtain efficient and productive teamwork. Especially in the current daily life it is important to actively reduce the distance and to unite your team. Collaboration is more than just working together – the team should function together, understand and trust each other for optimal results.

Tabea Weber | Intern at GREWP

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