Virtual icebreakers for pandemic times

Written by: Beth Kanter
Published on: Apr 22, 2020

icebreakers charles-deluvio

(Image: Charles Deluvio)

An engaging meeting or training should always start with a great opening. This includes orientating participants to the agenda, introductions, and a check-in or icebreaker: questions or activities used to ease people into a meeting or learning situation. 

During this time of disruption, isolation, and fear, it is more important than ever to build in time for a round of check-ins to let people share how they are doing. Of course, I am not suggesting that you make every meeting into a group therapy session. Group check-ins or icebreakers allow us to become more connected as humans, and also to name, claim, and move past distractions so we can focus on the meeting at hand.

If your group doesn’t already know each other, start with short introductions. In a smaller group, ask people to introduce themselves verbally with their name, organization, pronouns, and just one phrase to describe how they are feeling.

As the facilitator, you can model brevity: Aim for no more than 30 seconds. Call on people by saying the next is “A,” followed by “B,” to give people a chance to prepare. If you are using Zoom, you can ask people to add their pronouns, location, or anything else you might need for later in the meeting by customizing their Zoom profile.

In a larger group, you can conduct introductions through the text-based “chat” feature: Ask folks to type in their introductions.

For the check-on or icebreaker, consider these ideas:

Pandemic check-in: During normal times, I’ve looked for icebreaker questions from this collection of 300. When I train other trainers, I get them to share and brainstorm “Meet & Greet” questions are relevant to a particular audience or topic, such as this one from a group of fundraisers.

In light of the pandemic, I’ve been using different questions that allow people to reflect on how things have changed, and focus on coping techniques. Here’s a few from my list, some inspired by this tweet:

  • What are you grateful for today?
  • Who are you checking in on or connecting with in your network today?
  • What expectations of normal are you letting go of?
  • How did a friend tend to someone in your neighborhood, family, or community?
  • How are you getting outside today?
  • What desk stretch are you doing today? (You can also ask for a demonstration)
  • What beauty are you creating, cultivating, or inviting in?
  • What rainbow will you eat today?
  • Where and what is the small blessing in this horrible situation?
  • What COVID meme made you laugh in the past week? (You can also have people share their desktop on Zoom, or paste a link in the chat)
  • What item did you find on the grocery store shelf that made you smile?
  • What’s one thing you are secretly pleased that you don’t have to do now that you are social distancing?

Visual icebreakers: Video meetings don’t just allow us to see people’s faces. One fun and playful icebreaker it allows for is called “Sketch Your Neighbor.” Get your group to sketch the person next to them in their Zoom screen. Because most people aren’t great at drawing, this activity levels the playing field, positively reinforces group dynamics, and builds a more open environment.

You can use the online whiteboard platform Mural for this activity, or ask everyone to use paper and pen and hold it up to the camera. Everyone gets to guess who it is – and it always leads to lots of laughter!

You can also set up a series of fun emojis for people to cut-and-paste into the chat to express how they are feeling. Another activity is show-and-tell: Ask folks to share something on their desk that is meaningful or fun, or the last photo in their phone. (Hat tip Jen Bokoff)

CCC: This stands for the “Covid-Chat-Check-In,” and is based on an exercise from this playbook on liberating structures. It allows people to express how they are feeling during a change and to know they are not alone.

For this exercise, let people know that you will be sharing four prompts in the chat window; for each one, they should reflect and type in their answer, but they should NOT send it until you give the signal, so everyone can send at the same time. You can keep your prompts open-ended, or tie them directly to the pandemic or the topic at hand. Let everyone know that typos are okay, and if they send it early by mistake, that is okay too. When everyone has had enough time, give the signal to send. 

I’ve done this with small groups of ten, and also on larger calls with several hundred; with larger groups, tell people that if they feel overwhelmed by the responses, they should feel free to look away from the chat window.

Four prompts to use as-is or to customize:

  • If only …
  • It makes me …
  • I have to …
  • When all is said and done …

Spectrogram: You may be familiar with this icebreaker already, in which you ask people to line up according to a scale-based question, typically something that teases out people’s views on a topic. Then you interview people on different sides of the scale. 

To adapt this exercise on Zoom, you can ask people to raise one to five fingers indicating how they feel about a particular topic, using the standard agree-disagree scale, with one finger meaning strongly disagree and five fingers meaning strongly disagree. You can also set up a poll ahead of time. Here’s a write-up of this technique.

Meditation/Deep Breathing Opener: I’m on the NTEN board along with Meico Marquette Whitlock (The Mindful Techie), who is a trained mindfulness coach for nonprofits. At face-to-face board meetings, he has lead us in a meditation and deep-breathing exercise to help us focus. This icebreaker can help create a positive atmosphere by helping people relax, connect as humans, and get inspired. We need more, not less, of this during a pandemic – especially as these types of activities can be easily adapted to virtual meetings.

Pandemic Bingo: Create a bingo card filled with of-the-moment life and work experiences (or just use this one) and use the “breakout room” feature in Zoom to give people a few minutes to introduce themselves to each other and share their experiences; once you meet someone whose experience matches one on your bingo card, you can check it off. This is always a lot of fun! Alternately, you can skip the bingo card and do a few rounds of “speed dating” using the breakout room feature.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on Beth’s Blog.

Beth Kanter is an internationally-acclaimed trainer, speaker, and author, most recently of The Happy Healthy Nonprofit.

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