In Practice: Lessons for and from Practitioners

Break the Ice, Build Connections

May 2020
Mohammed Alkurd
Ice breaker Zoom conference call

Building connections among staff members can feel especially challenging in a time when remote work and video conference calls make up most of our working day. Icebreaker activities are fun, useful tools that managers, supervisors, training facilitators, and coaches can use to enliven meetings and strengthen team and group bonds:

  • Start meetings and training sessions on a positive note—particularly when participants face difficult circumstances, or topics are complex or potentially conflictual.
  • Warm up a group for interactive discussions, to get thoughts and conversation flowing.
  • Help build ties between participants, reinforcing the foundation of teamwork and group cohesion.

This post highlights some of the icebreaker activities that we see programs using in creative ways, and that MDRC’s technical assistance teams use in our work with program staff. We view icebreakers as a best practice when developing meeting agendas, and generally use them at the start of a meeting. They can also be useful team-building activities during break times at longer training or work sessions—for example to break up a late afternoon discussion when energy often starts to flag. Programs can also use icebreakers as part of their service delivery with participants. Per Scholas, a program that offers technology training to unemployed and underemployed individuals around the country, uses a “Name Game” icebreaker in its broader team-building strategy at kick-off meetings with each new cohort of students.

The Name Game

  • The first person introduces himself and shares a fun fact.
  • Then the next person repeats his name and fun fact, then introduces herself with her own fun fact.
  • The third person repeats the first two names and fun facts, then introduces herself. And so on.
  • The last person gets an enormous round of applause for remembering everyone’s names and their fun facts!

Most activities listed here can be completed in 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of your group. To help choose activities that best suit your time constraints, activities are divided into two categories:

  • Icebreakers When You Have 10 Minutes or Less (Table 1)
  • Icebreakers When You Have a Bit More Time (Table 2)

Tip: Fun facts gathered during icebreakers can be featured in internal staff newsletters, weekly email blasts, or office bulletin boards—for example, you can list people’s favorite book titles, TV shows, or songs on staff playlists.

Table 1. Icebreakers When You Have 10 Minutes or Less

Activity Instructions Tips
Come as You Are (or as You’d Like to Be!)
  • Prior to video conference calls, send an email announcing a challenge:
    • Switch up your background or your attire and let us see your creativity in action or your workspace in a new light!
  • Take a screen shot of meeting attendees and send a congratulatory note after the meeting.

Three Words About My Neighbor

  • Divide participants into pairs.
  • People on the phone can be paired together.
  • Give participants three minutes to interview each other.
  • Provide pens and Post-It notes.
  • Report back: introduce partners using three different adjectives.
  • This activity is a good starter for a 60- to 90-minute meeting.
  • This might be more suitable for members of the same team or people that are comfortable with each other, rather than people meeting for the first time.

Fast Facts

  • Facilitator writes down a question on a whiteboard and asks staff to state their name and respond to the question, going rapid-fire around the table.
  • Example questions:
    • What is one sentimental item on your desk?
    • What is your favorite (blank)? Examples: dessert, ice cream flavor, cool drink on a hot summer day?
    • What was your first pet and his/her name?
  • This activity is a good starter for a 60- to 90-minute meeting and can also help energize a group that has been meeting for longer periods, such as an all-day training.
What Makes You Giggle?
  • Before the meeting, ask participants to bring an image or GIF that makes them laugh.
  • This activity works well for small groups, so that uploading and sharing pictures does not cut into meeting time.

In Six Words

  • Facilitator writes 20-30 words on a whiteboard. Examples: nice, funny, NYC, father, I’m, Chicago, iPhone, love, music, basketball, athlete, working out, swimming, like, in, married, dogs, son, traveling, hometown, abroad, Brazil, visit.
  • Make the board visible to everyone.
  • Facilitator sends word list to video participants by chat or email.
  • Each participant introduces themselves beginning with, “Hi my name is _____,” followed by a sentence using six words from the list.
  • A good starter activity for a 60- to 90-minute meeting.
  • Ideal activity for team meetings or with staff from different organizations.
  • Instead of preparing words in advance, the facilitator can ask phone participants to write five random words via a chat function.
Three Questions
  • The facilitator prepares three questions for participants, sharing them by video, chat, or email.
  • Participants choose one, take two minutes to reflect, and then report back to the group.
  • Keep questions fun and light. For example:
    • What famous person would you like to meet? Why?
    • What book are you reading right now?
    • What is your go-to comfort food?
    • What’s a song on your playlist right now?
    • What was your favorite TV show as a kid?
    • What is your favorite candy?
    • If you could travel in time, what year would you go to? Why?
  • Answers can be turned into lists and shared with the group afterward, through a newsletter or team email.
  • A good starter activity for a 60- to 90-minute meeting.
  • It can also be used as a five-minute break during a long training session.
Rock-Paper-Scissors
  • The traditional rock-paper-scissors game, adapted for a group.
  • Divide participants into two teams.
  • Let each team decide their move.
  • 1, 2, 3! Make your move online. Hold a best-of-three series.
  • This is more geared toward fun and can work well for teams with established connections.

Table 2. Icebreakers When You Have More Time

Activity Instructions Tips
Stand Up Sit Down
  • Facilitator prepares questions in advance that help the group identify unique characteristics about each other. An introduction might read as follows: “We have a dedicated and diverse group of staff here today, and I’d like to get a sense of who is the room.”
  • Sample questions:
    • Who has been at ______ [name of organization] for one year or more? Five years or more? Ten years or more?
    • Can you stand up if you are on the recruitment team/case management team/residental treatment staff?
    • Stand up if you are from _______ [name of site or program location]. This is best used when participants come from different places.
  • Facilitator thanks everyone for attending and participating.
  • This activity can be particularly useful in large meetings, retreats, or training sessions where participants come from diverse locations and may not know each other well.
Theatre in the Round
  • Create some space in the middle of the room.
  • Begin with a walking warmup: Ask participants to stand in a circle facing each other, and to follow your instructions.
  • Ask them to start walking slowly around the room, nodding their heads and saying “Hi” to every person with whom they make eye contact. Speed up, then slow back down as everyone turns their attention to the facilitator.
  • The facilitator announces, “Now we’ll do some role playing. Let’s try these scenarios.”
    • You finally booked your flight to visit your favorite city, and you call a friend to tell them about it.
    • You are running to catch the train to go home at 2 a.m. and miss it by a minute.
    • You sit down on the subway and realize your favorite actor is sitting next to you.
    • You are taking your friend, a first-time visitor, to your favorite spot in your city.
    • You are at a basketball game and your team wins with a last-second shot.
    • You are on safari, and a pride of lions appears out of nowhere.
  • After one minute, the facilitator gives a new scenario. The transitions should be quick and fun.
  • This activity is ideal for an all-day meeting or training session and can be done at the beginning or middle of the meeting.
Let’s Act! (Charades)
  • Split the group into two teams.
  • Ask for three volunteers from each team.
  • Assign each volunteer a sentence, a movie, or picture.
  • The two groups of volunteers will rehearse and perform a scene and present it to their teams.
  • Take three minutes to create and rehearse the scene.
  • The scene must be silent.
  • The team gets one point in case the rest of the team members managed to guess the right answer.
  • This is ideal for a longer meeting or training.
  • This activity can be done at the beginning or in the middle of a meeting.
  • People joining by phone can participate in the guessing part.
Write Me a Story…
  • Depending on the number of the attendance and how many people are on the phone, consider having one or two teams.
  • Ask one participant to write the first line of a story.
  • Another team member adds a second line.
  • Continue until the last person writes the last line.
  • The facilitator or participants will read the whole story—either at the end of the icebreaker, on a break, or at the end of the meeting.
  • This activity can also be used in the middle of a long training session or meeting
  • The paper version can be done when all participants are physically present.
  • With participants on the phone, use the chat function. The facilitator asks one person to write the first line and send it privately by chat to the next person. The next participant sends both the previous line and their own line to the next person. This continues until all participants have contributed to the story.
Reflect on Your Role Facilitator asks staff to do the following:
  • Take a moment to reflect on your role within the project.
  • Make notes on a Post-It about things you are excited about, things you are nervous about, or things you are wondering about.
  • Consider these three statements:
    a. I feel confident about this.
    b. This may be a challenge, but I can handle it myself.
    c. I definitely need support with this. 
    Place your notes into one of these three categories.
  • Note: Depending on available time, facilitators can have staff move these notes around as perspectives change.
  • Walk around and make a note of what others are saying.
  • Take a moment to review the reflection questions below and discuss reactions in a group. Use these guiding questions for discussion if necessary:
    • What surprised you in this activity?
    • Where do we differ the most?  
    • What do we most have in common?
    •  What other reactions did you have?
  • This can be a useful warmup for groups assembled to reflect on current practice and learn new skills to change or improve their approaches.