Virtual Meeting Check-Ins & Icebreakers During A Pandemic

Meico Whitlock (Mindful Techie) leads the NTEN Board in a meditation meeting opener.

I’ve been working in my pajamas since the early 1990s, during the early years of the Web.  My first remote job was to work with a virtual team to manage an online network for artists, called Artswire. Since those days, I have continued to hone my virtual facilitation skills to design and deliver effective virtual meetings and trainings.   As nonprofits are impacted by the CoronaVirus and need more virtual meeting skills, I’d like to share what I have learned.

This post is #2 in a series I’ll be publishing on virtual meeting facilitation.  The first post was an overview of 9 virtual facilitation tips.  This post takes a deeper dive into meeting and training icebreakers and check-ins.

An engaging meeting or training should always starts with a great opening. This includes orientating participants to the agenda, introductions and a check-in or icebreaker, questions or activities used to help people ease people into a meeting or learning situation. 

During this time of disruption and fear, it is more important than ever to build in time for a round of check-ins to let people share how they are doing.  Whether it is a team meeting, external meeting, or  training with people coming together for the first time.  In the past, people have given side-eyes to using icebreakers or check-ins, one person even calling is “hippy touchy-feely shit.”  

I am not suggesting that you make every meeting into a group therapy session.  Group check-ins or icebreakers allow us to become more connected as humans as well as name, claim and move on from distractions and focus on the meeting at hand.  During a time when many of us are required to be social distancing, feelings of isolation and loneliness may become a fact of daily life. Also, with many of us working, schooling, and living at home with families can also add more stress.

Check-ins and icebreakers also help build relationships and now more than ever we need to be feel a sense of human connection.   Many check-ins and icebreakers can be adapted to virtual meetings and working in an age of a pandemic. Here’s a few ideas.

Pandemic Check-Ins & Icebreakers

Short Introductions:  When you are meeting with smaller group where folks do not already know each other, you can ask people to introduce themselves verbally with Name, Organization, Pronouns, and just one phrase how they are feeling.

As the facilitator you can model it with brevity – it should be no more than 30 seconds.  Then call on people, saying the next is A, followed by B.  This gives people who a chance to prepare.

If you are using zoom, you can ask people to add their pronouns (or location or anything else you might need for later in the meeting) by customizing their zoom profile.

If you have a larger group, this can be done through the chat – asking folks to type in their introductions.

The basic introduction, however, is not a check-in or icebreaker.  That comes next.

Longer Introductions with Pandemic Check-In Question:  You can add on a check-in question.  During normal times, I’ve looked for questions from this collection of 300 team icebreaker questions based on how well people know each other. When I train other trainers (this one is face-to-face), I get them to share and brainstorm “Meet & Greet” questions that are relevant to a particular audience or topic, such as this one from a group of fundraisers.

In light of the pandemic, I’ve been using different questions that allow people to reflect how things have changed and focus on coping techniques.  Some of these were inspired by this tweet.   Here’s a few:

  • What are you grateful for today?
  • Who am I checking in on or connecting with in my network today?
  • What expectations of normal am I letting go of?
  • How did a friend and tend to someone in my neighborhood, family, or community?
  • How am I getting outside today?
  • What desk stretch am I doing today? (You can also ask the person to demonstrate it)
  • What beauty am I creating or cultivating or inviting in?
  • What rainbow will I eat today?
  • Where and what is the small blessing in this horrible situation?
  • What is the most humorous COVID meme you saw in the last week that made you laugh? (You can also have people share their desktop on zoom or pop the link in the chat)
  • What item did you find on the grocery store shelf that made you smile?
  • What is the one thing you are secretly pleased that you don’t have to do now that you are social distancing?

Visual Icebreakers: Video allows us to see people’s faces and objects on your desk or something you bring to the meeting.  A fun and playful icebreaker that can also be done on zoom is called “Sketch Your Neighbor.” You begin your meeting by having your team sketch each other – the person next to them on the Zoom square. Most people can’t draw, so this activity levels the playing field and it positively reinforces group dynamics and builds a more open environment.

You can use the online whiteboard platform Mural for the drawing tools or ask everyone to use paper and pen and hold it up to the camera. Each person shares their drawing and you guess who it is. There is always lots of laughing!

You can set up a series of fun emoji for people to cut and paste into the chat or google document to express how they are feeling.

Another one is to have folks share something that is meaningful or fun on their desk. Or the last photo in their phone. (Hat tip/Jen Bokoff)

CCC:  This stands for the “Covid-Chat-Check-In” and is based on an exercise from Liberating Structures Playbook.  It allows people to express how they are feeling during a change and to know they are not alone.  I’ve done this with small groups of ten and also on larger calls with several hundred.  With larger groups you have tell people that if they feel overwhelmed looking at the chat, to feel free to look away.

Let people know that you will be sharing four prompts in the chat and after one they should reflect on it, type in their answer but don’t send it.  You can keep it open-ended, relate to the Pandemic, or the topic of the meeting or training.  Let them know that typos are okay and if they send it by mistake, that is okay. Then when ready, tell people to send it all at once.  The prompts include:

If only …
It makes me …
I have to …
When all is said and done …

Spectramgram:   You may be familiar with this icebreaker where you ask people to line according to a scale or answer to a question, typically something that teases people’s views out on a topic. Then you interview people on different sides of the scale.  This is an adaptation on Zoom asking people to raise fingers from 1-5 about how they feel about a particular topic (pandemic or not).  Here’s a write of this technique.

Meditation/Deep Breathing Opener:    I’m on the NTEN board along with Meico Marquette Whitlock (The Mindful Techie) who is a trained mindfulness coach for nonprofits.  While he has done this at our face-to-face board meetings, he lead us in a meditation and deep breathing exercise to help us all focus on the board meeting topics.  Later in the meeting, I facilitated small group breakouts to do the first part of an exercise to develop NTEN’s theory of change.  (I’ll share that recipe in another post)

A good ice breaker or check-in can help create a positive atmosphere, help people relax, help people connect as humans and inspire people. We need more, not less, of this during a pandemic.  And, these types of activities can be easily adapted to zoom and other virtual online meeting platforms.

Pandemic Bingo:   One icebreaker that I have used in larger meetings is to create a bingo card and people have wander around and introduce themselves to each other and find something on the bingo card to check-off.   You can send folks the bingo card ahead of time and use the breakout room feature in Zoom to do a several rounds of speed dating.   It is a lot of fun!  You can skip the bingo card and just do regular speed dating using the breakout room feature.

Of course, not everyone enjoys or wants to participate in icebreakers and you can institute the “I Pass” protocol.



Using Online Interaction Tools for Icebreakers and More

Tips for Good Openings

Meeting Facilitation Playbooks (many include icebreaker ideas)

 Icebreakers that Don’t Suck 

Epic List of Icebreaker Questions

Check-Ins for Connection & Care

What icebreakers or check-ins have you been using with your team?

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