7 group icebreakers that won’t make employees freeze up

 Even the frostiest introverts may find themselves melting into these exciting group activities.

A photo of a polar bear waving accompanying a story about icebreakers that don't suck. Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

Ah, the dreaded icebreaker. Every communicator knows it well and has likely seen new hires and old teammates alike recoil from their conference tables and Zoom screens as they announce whatever the obligatory get-to-know-you activity is intended to manufacture camaraderie among often-dispersed teams.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Really.

We asked a collection of communications and marketing professionals across all levels how they prefer to melt barriers of anonymity with their colleagues.

The answers revealed that shaking people out of the expected may result in bigger smiles and more profound connections — without the cringe.

Keep it snappy

Anticipation can be half the reason for the nerves and impatience that come with icebreakers. Rapid-fire activities can prevent the dread from building while employees wait their turn to share.

“At the start of an orientation call, my small cohort was given two minutes to go grab something for ‘show and tell,’” said Megan Scott, growth specialist at HubSpot. “Something you enjoy, something important to you, something that represents you, etc.”

Each member of the cohort then had two minutes to talk about it.

“I liked how open-ended this was and quick — no time to overthink what you show,” she continued. “I grabbed my 8-month-old daughter and had a Simba moment.”

Get the blood flowing

The prior example works well for both remote and in-person teams: Watching people in the office scramble for their favorite desk ornament or explain their favorite keyring can be an opportunity for creative generation on a deadline.

The show-and-tell scavenger hunt is also a great means of getting people out of their seats and moving, which automatically boosts the energy in the room, virtual or otherwise.

Whitney Magnuson, senior director of marketing at Northwestern Mutual, noted that setting some parameters such as “no pets or children” might also result in more creative objects. As an alternative, she said: “I like ‘Team Cribs’ where people give a Zoom tour of their home.”

For those remote teams who do prefer that everyone shares their pets, no problem: Magnuson suggested a “show-off-your-cat happy hour.”

Turn it on its head

How many times have we regurgitated the same few facts about ourselves — our hobbies, our desert island food? Shaking up the question may get people thinking and teach one another unexpected things about their teammates.

“My team does a nonsensical question of the week every Friday,” said Erin O’Donnell, social media specialist at Prime Therapeutics. “Questions in our chat range from our favorite holiday traditions to our second favorite book to ‘what is a boring fact about you.’ It’s a great way to get to know the team despite working remotely, and, since it’s optional, there’s no pressure to answer the question every single week.”

O’Donnell also likes that this has become a year-round tradition, she said, “since you should be consistently working on relationship building and not just during certain points of the year.”

This approach can also help foster a more inclusive environment as teammates are learning about one another.

Maree Jones, director of social media strategy at University of Alabama at Birmingham pointed out that the straightforward “tell me something interesting about yourself” question “lends itself more to people who come from privileged backgrounds and can potentially alienate those who might come from lower-income backgrounds.”

That is, someone who boasts the top tennis score at their local country club might leave the person who can’t afford that lifestyle unwilling to share their hobby of building indestructible popsicle-stick bridges.

Use a different mental muscle

For teams charged with developing copy, images and other creative or marketing assets, getting those neurons firing is a great way to keep teams energized and entertained.

One way to do this is having teams “[learn] to draw in a different way,” wrote Morgan Andersen, marketing solutions manager at Intel. “Example: Pick an image, flip it upside down then attempt to draw it on a new piece of paper. It’s super surprising how well it works! Effective for team building showing alternative ways for approaching problem solving etc.”

And how good are you at reading lips? Freelance writer and editor Diane Haddad recalled an instance at a previous job when the organizer sent each player a silly or strange phrase to say. “The person would mute themselves and say the phrase, and everyone else had to guess what they said,” she explained.

“We’d also do ‘This or That’—someone gives two choices (dogs or cats, sweet or salty, all white or color Christmas lights, etc.) and everyone picks one and says why,” Haddad said.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Sometimes the classic get-to-know-you icebreakers remain just as fun as they ever were.

“I always liked to start with two truths and a lie,” said Karina Martines, founder of sports tech platform DRAFTED and multilingual communications company The Avana House. “It’s a fun way to get creative and learn a couple of random fun facts about someone!”

Regardless of your approach, read the room and let people weigh in on how they’re engaged. Stepping back, letting teams take over and lead their own welcoming, engaging fun can ensure the best flow.

We’ll talk about more employee engagement tactics October 10-12 at Microsoft HQ during Ragan’s Internal Communications Conference in Seattle. Register now! 



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