Ice Breakers For Virtual Teams

ice-breakersWe’re all familiar with ice breakers – the quick facilitated exercises that are typically done when a team or group meets for the first time.  There are many different types of exercises a facilitator or team leader can use; some are related directly to the project at hand, others may be more personal, and some are a little zany.  The exercises are an easy, fun, and fast way to get people to know each other.  In theory, these team building exercises will help people build relationships quicker, begin to build trust, and ultimately accelerate team progress.

Ice breakers are very common when people meet face to face, but I have rarely seen it done for virtual teams.  According to one consulting group, 65% virtual teams claim they’ve never participated in a team building exercise.   Given the communication challenges of virtual teams, one might expect that leaders would attempt more team building exercises for virtual teams than teams that are co-located.

Many of the commonly used ice breakers for face to face meetings can be used, with a little adaption, for virtual teams.  Here are a few examples:

The Question Game

  • How it’s usually played:  Participants write down a provoking question (or 2 or 3 questions) they would like to ask others in the group, i.e. “Where is the most interesting place you’ve ever traveled?” or “What would you be doing if money was no object?”  People are given time to mingle and ask others their questions.  When they get back together, each person can introduce one of the people they’ve met to the broader group.
  • Virtual team version:  It’s hard to mingle when you’re on a conference call or even online but there are a couple of different techniques to use in the virtual version of this game.  If your organization uses instant messaging, you can give participants a few minutes to contact others in the group over IM to ask their questions.  Alternatively, if your organization uses a desktop sharing application, give everyone a few minutes to type out a question, and then have each person share their screen with their questions.  Have every participant answer the question on the screen (Note: this works best with a small to mid-size group).

Map Game

  • How it’s usually played:  Hang a large map of the world and give everyone a pushpin.  As people enter the room they can pin the location of their birth to the map.
  • Virtual team version:  Easy to replicate with most desktop sharing apps.  Just show an image of a world map and have participants annotate their birth or current location.

The Artist Game

  • How it’s usually played:  Participants have 5 minutes to draw a picture with paper and pencil that best conveys who they are without writing any words or numbers.  The facilitator collects the pictures and then shows the pictures one at a time to the group.  Everyone has a minute to guess who drew it.  Each artist then has the chance to explain how the work conveys who they are.
  • Virtual team version:  Participants have a few minutes to go to the Web and find an image or screenshot that best conveys who they are and then emails it to the facilitator.  The facilitator can then flash each image on the screen one at a time and participants try to guess who it relates to.  Each person then has a chance to explain why they chose that image.

Three in Common Game

  • How it’s usually played:   The group is split into smaller groups of 3 people each.  Each small group has to find 3 (or whatever number you chose) things they have in common.  The commonalities have to be something a little unusual and not things like age, sex, hair color, etc.  After 5 minutes, the larger group reconvenes and each small group briefs the rest of the participants.
  •  Virtual team version:  This can be played in a very similar way as the face to face version if you’re using collaboration software that allows you to do breakout sessions.  For example, Cisco WebEx allows the facilitator to select participants and create breakout sessions.  At the touch of a button, participants in a designated breakout group are switched from the main conference call to their own separate conference call line where they can complete the exercise.  When they are done, they simply click a button and join the main group again.

You can find additional ice breaker ideas online with a simple Google search and with a little additional thought, and with very little effort, you can adapt these games for your virtual team.  Give it a shot!

Good luck,


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