Making icebreakers relevant and fun.

Best Practice

Author: Julia Borkenhagen, CXO and Co-founder at Whitespace

Date: 30 May 2022

At Whitespace, we LOVE icebreakers. Over the past 2 years of confinement and online collaboration, we have found that these exercises are not just “fun”, but essential for any workshop.

Besides using these techniques in client meetings, we have also gotten fond of using them internally.

How to plan and conduct meaningful icebreakers online

Here are some key takeaways on what to consider when planning successful meetings and workshops:

Flowchart diagram explaining why icebreakers are important

Don't call it an icebreaker

crocus breaking through the snow and ice

We have noticed a little “icebreaker” fatigue lately. Some individuals may even resent the word and feel that they are wasting their time. So, the first rule in our book is not to talk about icebreakers, but about activities. Indeed, in a successful workshop, the right mix of fun and more serious activities is essential to making the participants feel more relaxed, establish an open mindset, get to know each other better, and ultimately collaborate more efficiently and successfully.

Choose your "icebreaker" with care

An icebreaker without a purpose is a waste of time. We have identified 5 main reasons to engage participants in an icebreaker activity: building team spirit, rising the energy level, encouraging creativity, learning in a playful way, or just plainly having fun.

5 rasons for icebreakers: team, energy, creativity, training, fun

1. Fostering a team spirit

Does the team already know each other well or not at all? Are there some newcomers who need to be integrated into the team? Is this exercise done at the beginning of a journey or in the middle of a project? If so, are there potential conflicts that need some “ironing out”? Team building icebreakers don’t have to be “cheesy” and are needed at every step of the journey.

2. Get the team energized

You’ve had a nice lunch and are faced with another 2-hour workshop in the afternoon. How are you feeling? Energizers are a way to get the neurons flying again. They can be as simple as practicing stretches on zoom or building a tower with what you find on your desk. For a great selection of ideas, take a look at SessionLabs.

3. Encourage creativity and thinking "outside the box"

People get hung up about “not being creative” when in fact it’s all about the state of mind. Ideation workshops require participants to come up with a lot of ideas, and quantity is valued over quality. The typical opening icebreakers will focus on the concept that “everyone can draw” and artifacts produced should be “quick and dirty”. Time-boxing (as for most exercises) is key to avoid the lingering perfectionist in some. Exercises such as the "30 circles in 3 minutes" are a perfect intro for these kinds of sessions.

4. Learning new tools while having fun

Remote workshops can be highly effective, but participants first need to be comfortable with the tools at hand. While everyone can manage to write on real stickies and put them on a physical wall, it takes some practice to feel comfortable in the online world. When engaging with a diverse audience in a remote workshop, we always spend some time “training” the participants on the tool, in our case Miro. And we make sure that we tick the "having fun" box at the same time!

5. "Just" having fun

When I said in the beginning that we LOVE icebreakers at Whitespace, I was not kidding. We take them very seriously. NO weekly UX meeting would be complete without an innovative icebreaker. There is an unwritten rule that you should come up with something new each time, so the pressure is ON! Here are some of my  favorites:

  • Tell a story with emojis (dziękuję Kasia Konczak)
  • Write captions for cartoons (merci Nathalie Raux-Copin and The New Yorker)
  • Seasonal activities such as decorating a scull for Dia de los Muertos and coming up with the perfect tombstone quote (köszönöm Peter Horvath)

Be mindful of your audience

icebreakers audienceWorking with international clients and conducting workshops across continents has taught us how important it is to know your audience well. A couple of factors come into play when deciding on the workshop agenda and icebreaker activities:

  • How technically savvy is the audience? Should we organize a prep session or allow for some time at the beginning of the workshop to familiarize the participants with the collaboration tool? (Hint: the answer usually is YES)
  • How good is the connectivity for the different participants? Some collaboration tools such as Miro can make the experience sub-optimal when bandwidth is low.
  • Do we have an international crowd? Be mindful of certain references which may not be easily understood by everyone, such as baseball analogies. On the other hand, explaining cultural differences in such settings can be very enriching and helpful for the team to better understand each other.

Get your timing right

If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that we ALWAYS want to pack in too many activities into workshops, very often due to external time constraints. This will inevitably lead to stress (on the facilitator’s side) and some frustration amongst the participants.

It is particularly important to be time-sensitive about icebreakers, which are sometimes perceived as “nice-to-haves.”

When selecting the appropriate icebreakers (in the beginning, during, at the end), think about the following:

  • How large is the group? For larger groups (more than 8), doing individual icebreakers as a group may become lengthy and tedious. In that case, either do break-out sessions or select an activity that doesn’t require each person to speak up.
  • Have you done this exercise before? If not, do a dry-run with some volunteers to be more comfortable as the facilitator. (Nothing is more stressful than a stressed-out facilitator.)

As a rule of thumb, icebreakers should not take up more than 10% of the workshop duration.

Do it yourself

Once you start getting into the habit of icebreakers, there is no limit to your imagination. In my experience, some of the most meaningful moments came from activities prepared with TLC by my colleagues. We have done group meditations, analyzed websites in foreign languages, put together a personal storybook, and much more. I can honestly say that we have grown as a group and may not have known each other as well without working from home and connecting online.

Icebreaker example of decorating a skull for Dia de los Muertos
Decorate your skull and write a tombstone quote (Peter Horvath)

Related content