Engagement

Post-Pandemic Icebreakers

A few weeks ago, a dinner party conversation turned to a particularly awkward icebreaker forced on a friend at her new job. A colleague asked everyone to share their favorite childhood camp experiences. My friend said the resulting conversation was painful, as one by one, it became apparent that this icebreaker leader was the only person in the meeting who grew up with enough resources to go to summer camp. All of my friend’s colleagues gracefully shared a nice childhood summer memory in lieu of a camp experience, but she said the rest of the meeting was challenging because of the careless icebreaker.

This got me thinking about the shifting role icebreakers have played in my work life over the past few years. Pre-pandemic, icebreakers were like our bread and butter at Civic Edge. We came up with creative ideas for “breaking the ice” internally and with our client teams. Favorite book, Olympic event, movie, restaurant, superpower - we had fun being creative with our questions.

Early on in the pandemic and the transition to working from home, I relied on icebreakers as a way to bridge the lack of face-to-face connections with my colleagues. It was new to not see them and I looked to icebreakers as a replacement for the “water cooler” conversations I was missing.

As the pandemic has hit its third year, I find my priorities have shifted to reducing the amount of time my team is spending on Zoom. The one thing I can give my colleagues (and clients!) that they most need is time back in their days, which means icebreakers get cut. It’s not as fun, but managing the exhaustion we all feel from working through a pandemic often overrides my interest in this type of connection.

As we enter a new phase of hybrid work post-pandemic, what should icebreakers look like? Are they still valuable team building tools? An easy meeting facilitation technique? An imposition on personal space at work? A waste of time? I lean toward the former sentiments and think they are still valuable in a professional setting. Icebreakers can:

Get people talking. A good icebreaker gets everyone in the room talking about something “easy” ahead of having to participate in a meeting in a more substantive way. Have something challenging on the agenda that you want everyone to weigh in on? It can be especially helpful to get everyone talking before you hit that harder item. The same goes for newer or entry level staff who might feel intimidated to speak in front of their colleagues. An easy icebreaker sets the tone that it isn’t just a “boss” who gets to speak at meetings.

Build connections. While it may seem insignificant to share your favorite street in San Francisco, it’s a way to better understand your colleagues and clients across differences. And we all know that human connection is what it’s all about.

Make room for fun. The right icebreakers do allow for some fun - maybe even a few laughs? They can be light and easy and get people smiling. 

Flex equity muscles. I’m not sure I ever really thought of icebreakers through a racial justice or equity lens until my friend’s story revealed the power of the conversations to uphold (or not) anti-racist values and fight (or not) white supremacy culture. If you check your privilege as you decide on icebreakers for your team, you also get to flex those important muscles in the process.

And finally, here are a few of my favorite icebreakers over the past couple of years that are simple, easy, and have worked for me in all sorts of meetings:

Simple

  • One feeling word coming into the meeting (e.g. “nervous,” “happy,” “tired,” etc. - you can use these types of charts to support the exercise). 
  • What will help you participate more productively in the meeting today?
  • A color that represents your way of being right now.

More involved

  • One thing you hope everyone will learn about the work we’re doing together.
  • One sentence about why you’re inspired by this work.
  • What’s the outcome you’re most excited about at the end of this project - great for kickoffs, but can also help inspire during a longer slog.

Zoom meetings

  • Take a moment to set a background that shows your favorite place, favorite animal, favorite movie, celebrity look alike, or any other fun, google-able-in-the-moment image.
  • Short breakout room dyads: set up breakout rooms for pairs to connect with loose directions like “share one thing that’s made you smile recently” or “what’s the best thing you’ve watched lately.” You can select the dyads rather than just making them random so that folks who don’t normally get to work together have a chance to connect.
  • Share a collaboration whiteboard such as Jamboard or Miro for a “brag and swag” space for your team to anonymously post kudos to their teammates or take credit for jobs well done. 

Amber Shipley
Partner