Across many industries, working from home and an evolving environment of hybrid, distributed, or remote teams has become the norm.
With these changes come many advantages for individuals as they navigate life and work — people spend fewer hours commuting, and can focus on being effective first and foremost, instead of just physically present. As a result, individual productivity has gone up, but it has come at a cost: Team productivity has gone down.
How do we facilitate better teamwork in a virtual environment?
The key element to better teamwork, whether in person or remote, is connection. The more connected your teammates, coworkers, or employees feel, the more effective and productive the group becomes.
So, how can we build better connections in a remote workforce?
Just having more meetings isn’t the answer (in fact, it can even make the problem worse). The key is to build intentional and meaningful collaborative experiences into your work. These experiences can take many forms, but one effective approach is to use icebreakers to kick off a meeting.
What is an icebreaker?
An icebreaker is a team-building activity that helps group members get to know each other and feel more comfortable. Often used in team meetings or to introduce new students in a class, icebreakers foster a sense of community and help build rapport between colleagues, students, or team members.
Icebreaker activities can vary widely, but there are three main types of icebreakers:
Questions: Icebreaker questions are often simple conversation starters that provide an opportunity for team members or participants to find common ground or share something about themselves.
Activities: Icebreaker activities are a bit more interactive and may involve an aspect of problem-solving.
Games: Icebreaker games allow people to relax and have fun while communicating and collaborating. While these are the most engaging, they also take the most time to run.
Each approach can be as elaborate or as simple as you like — if you’re short on time or have a large group, just having a question in mind can do the trick. If you have a larger team, activities or games are sometimes the best options since they will allow for natural opportunities to break out into smaller teams or subgroups.
Below are 25 examples of icebreakers you can use to kick off a more impactful virtual meeting:
15 Icebreaker questions for virtual meetings
Icebreaker questions are an easy way to build connection over a video call. Other than Zoom or Microsoft Teams, you don’t need any extra tools or support. Simply ask the question, give your participants time to think about an answer, and let the team bonding begin!
1. Where in the world are you?
If you’re kicking off a virtual meeting with a new team, chances are you’re not all located in the same city or region (or even country). Have participants describe the city or town where they live, and name something they find iconic about that place.
2. What is your favorite film, TV series, or book?
Have everyone introduce themselves and give a 30-second pitch for their favorite film, show, or book. Did you know that your new Product Manager was super into Film Noir because of the underlying structure that mysteries provide both the narrative and the viewer? No? Well, now you do — and you’ve learned a little bit about how she thinks as well.
For this exercise, have your team introduce themselves and then describe one dish that they love, and what it means to them. This is an easy way to get people talking, and again offers insight into people’s personal history, likes and dislikes, and even ways of working. Also, a shared digital space can help make this even more engaging — and even educational (new recipes, anyone?).
4. If you could choose to have any superpower, which would you choose?
Ask your team to choose one or more superpowers (typically one, for the sake of keeping it short) that they might wish they had as a way to help them understand one another’s values and approaches to work. You could also tie this to an existing superhero, or even a feature film (since most of them seem to be about superheroes these days).
5. What was your very first job?
Ask each of your team members to share what they did in their first job, and (of course) bonus points for any funny stories that went with it. (Did you know that the ‘E’ in Chuck E. Cheese stands for ‘Entertainment?’ You’re welcome.)
6. What’s your nickname?
When establishing relationships, it can be good to learn familiar ways to refer to one another (pending comfort zones, of course), and the backstory angle adds a twist that can be fun and unexpected. Have everyone introduce themselves, and then share their nicknames and the backstories that go with them.
7. What animal are you?
Go around the meeting participants and hear what animal they think represents them the best. What animal each participant relates to the most may say a lot about them! Give a little bit of time before starting to let participants think about animals and what their favorite says about them.
8. What’s your cure for hiccups?
People sometimes have some pretty original ideas about how to do this! Also, it’s a lighthearted and unobtrusive way to kick things off with some potentially funny outcomes. Ask everyone to introduce themselves, and then encourage them to share a unique method of escaping the hiccups — you never quite know whom you’ll be helping along the way!
9. What’s the weirdest way you’ve met someone and become friends?
This offers teammates a way to share a personal (and probably funny) story without much risk, and gives everyone a chance to talk about not only themselves but their friends. Have everyone introduce themselves, and then share a short (1-2 minute) origin story behind one of their friendships.
10. What video game have you spent hours playing?
Just about everyone has played video games at some point in their lives (guilty), so it’s a pretty safe bet. Bonus points if you are familiar with the classics (and by that of course I mean NBA Jam and Crash Bandicoot).
11. What was cool when you were younger but isn’t cool now?
Does anyone remember parachute pants? The only risk involved in this one is that some folks are more sensitive than others about revealing their (approximate) age, but outside of that, the results are often hilarious. Use your discretion.
12. What's the first album you ever bought?
Again, there is the slight risk here of people feeling uncomfortable about age, but in our experience, many people love the opportunity to reminisce — a good follow-up question is what format. (Vinyl is back! But then, my first album was on a cassette tape — not back, yet…)
13. Who is your celebrity lookalike?
Ask your teammates to share the celebrity that people say resembles them most, and include an image reference if possible. With a visual platform, you could also gamify the experience by having everyone vote anonymously for the most convincing doppelgänger.
14. What's your go-to karaoke song?
This can be a fun way to introduce favorite kinds of music, with potentially hilarious outcomes. Also, singing has been shown to mediate fast social bonding. Bonus points if people have good stories about why they selected their songs — or particularly memorable performances.
15. What are the last 3 emojis you typed in your phone?
It’s hard to predict, but this one could get interesting, so our advice is to use only with established teams. Given that there are so many ways to interpret emojis (and, in fact, those interpretations often change across demographics), this exercise can also be useful in terms of clearing up any potential miscommunications across your team in platforms like Slack, or other tools where emoji reactions have become ubiquitous.
[Bonus] Virtual icebreaker question generator
Look, sometimes you just want to click a button and get a great icebreaker for your next virtual meeting. That’s why we created this simple icebreaker generator — so you can get a quick icebreaker idea and focus on running better team meetings.
These questions can help people open up, get to know one another, and spark further discussion (and even friendships) down the road.
One thing that can make for a good icebreaker is building strategies for working together in an open and informal way. Activities offer opportunities for team members to work together in a format that is lighthearted, but still impactful.
If you’re running a larger meeting with more than 10 people, you may want to create teams and have them run the icebreaker in a breakout room. Once 5-10 minutes have passed, bring everyone back together and share the funniest moments from the activity.
16. One-minute introductions
Short introductions are a good way to take the pressure off people when getting to know one another and set expectations. For brevity’s sake, it’s best to break it down into simple categories such as first name, last name, and one fact about each person.
17. Define ways of working together
Working together to build a team charter is a great way to learn about teammates as well as establish ground rules for engagement. Define things like: What’s the best way to get in touch? Do you prefer asynchronous work or would you rather set a meeting? How are you accustomed to collaborating with teammates? How have you handled this in your previous experiences?
We’d recommend using a visual medium for this, like the hybrid team charter template, so teammates can get a better understanding of their virtual and physical workplaces, as well as more information about time zones for synchronous and asynchronous communication.
18. Share your workspace
This activity is centered on sharing the space around you. Have everyone introduce themselves and then pick out one aspect of their workspace that is important to them.
Note: Using a visual platform where still images can be provided instead of live video can mitigate any potential discomfort during a team meeting. It can also inform colleagues about ways of working together and work styles that can build empathy and spark conversation.
19. Most embarrassing stories
It’s a fine line (so having some guidelines like ‘work appropriate’ for stories up front is the way to go), but when people share personal stories, it offers diverse groups an immediate window into their colleagues’ experiences, and fosters empathy and understanding that has measurable, positive effects on team creativity. As people introduce themselves, ask them to pick a 1-2 minute anecdote that was embarrassing for them in the past, and what they learned from the experience.
20. Show and tell
This one is a throwback to elementary school — but it’s still fun! Have everyone pick an item they want to share with the group, and allot 1-2 minutes per person to keep things moving. Questions and back stories encouraged!
Pro-tip: If you want to add more visual interest to this activity, you can use the (free) Mural show and tell template and have all your meeting attendees submit photos before the meeting starts.
5 Icebreaker games for virtual meetings
Sometimes a little (unserious) competition can be a great way to build camaraderie — here are a few of our favorite icebreaker games for virtual meetings.
21. Company trivia
See how well your team members know the organization with a simple trivia game, and reward the winners with kudos (or maybe even a little swag?). This can be as quick as 5 company-related questions, or more involved, like a traditional game show. Just make sure the emphasis is heavy on family and light on feud (jokes!).
This one is both a walk down memory lane, as well as a nice opportunity for some good natured humor. To run this game, have all your attendees send the facilitator an image of themselves as a child prior to the meeting so that you can get started right away, and then take turns guessing who’s who.
23. Name that tune
Play a snippet of a song (or better yet, sing a few lyrics, strum a couple chords — anything you can do to make music) and see who can be first to guess the name. If you want to make it more difficult, ask your attendees to guess the artist and the year as well!
24. Two truths and a lie
This is a classic icebreaker that can easily be played virtually. To play, each person will share three things about themselves, two of which are true and one of which is a lie. Everyone else in the group then has to try to guess which of the three things is the lie.
25. Virtual scavenger hunt
This is a great icebreaker for larger groups as it encourages people to work together in teams. To play, divide the group into teams and give each team a list of items or tasks that they need to find or complete within a certain time limit. The team that finds or completes the most items on the list wins.
Alternatively, you can apply this same approach to smaller groups, with the Mural obstacle course template — whoever accomplishes all the tasks first gets a (virtual) gold medal!
Why should you use icebreakers?
Whichever approach you choose, icebreakers are meant to be a fun opportunity to get to know your team, while at the same time having a measurable, positive impact on team performance.
When people are more comfortable, they are more likely to participate and engage in your meeting, leading to stronger connections and better group outcomes. But how can you make people feel comfortable in a new, virtual setting?
Icebreakers contribute to are an important part of an environment of great stepping stone to psychological safety — that is, an atmosphere of respect that promotes confidence among team members that they can share their thoughts, feedback, and concerns without fear of retribution. This approach leads to a greater diversity of ideas, and ultimately more productive meetings.
By allowing people to relax, find ways to relate to one another, and connect with each other on more informal terms, icebreakers can help set the baseline of mutual trust and respect that can grow into healthy and productive working relationships in the future, and even reinforce existing friendships.
More ways to break the ice
Yes, icebreakers can sometimes feel cheesy, but it's a fun way to learn more about your coworkers, build trust among team members, and make online meetings more engaging.
Mural is the visual work platform that allows all kinds of teams to do better work together — from anywhere. Team members get aligned faster with templates, prompts, and proven methods that guide them to quickly solve any problem. They can gather their ideas and feedback in one spot, allowing them to see the big picture of any project and act decisively.
That’s what happens when you change not just where, but how you work.