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Breaking the ice: Online and in person

Remember the olden days? When meetings and professional development were in person, and you broke the ice by introducing the person next to you to the group, based on a brief conversation?

Broken sea ice
Photo by Tapio Haaja on Unsplash

And maybe later in the day you worked in groups to do something tricky with newspapers, paper cups, or ping-pong balls. The ice had already been broken, and the activity was intended to re-energise people and give them new ways to interact.

I'm still a fan of both those scenarios, but neither works so well in the online world, where the ice still needs to be broken, and the energy still needs to be replenished.

So what kind of activities work in the virtual and real worlds, and why should you add them to your toolkit?

Whatever you call them, these activities have the potential to generate laughter. As Kristen explains so well in her blog The humour effect: Be funny or else, humour and laughter bring us together. When we share laughter, we recognise that we're also sharing understanding or a view of the world.

These activities also shift the focus from the Chair or facilitator to the individuals in a meeting or workshop. Everyone has a chance to participate, and they give people different ways to shine.

Activities can also hook people back to a meeting after break, and create a sense of anticipation.

The following activities have been part of my online and in person workshops over recent weeks. I've explained how each works, and highlighted any learning opportunities.

I hope you find something new to try.

Most random thing in common

This is a good ice-breaker because it forces information sharing without demanding an emotional response. It is a very safe activity.

Participants are split into groups of 4 to 6 people for three minutes. Their task is to find the most random thing they all have in common. You can debrief on the techniques each group used and who took the lead as well as enjoying the random fact. People within the group will identify things they had in common that were not shared by anyone else, creating a hook for later conversation.

This works with breakout rooms online, and in standing groups in person.


The organiser allocates each person the name of another participant. They have 5 minutes off-screen to draw a portrait of that person using a drawing tool that everyone has access to, e.g. Microsoft Paint. This means you can't see who you are trying to draw.

Back together, each person shares the screen and the others guess who the portrait is of.

The host learns how to give permission for screen sharing and the participants learn how to share and stop sharing. And some people will get a great portrait out of it! This activity could also work with pencils and paper.

Don't judge me

This is not one to use right at the beginning of a session. But it can deepen trust in a group that has begun to bond.

The organiser asks people to use an interactive tool (Slido works) or use post-it notes to confess to something they feel guilty for having done, or not done, in the previous week. The organiser then shares these with the whole group and people respond without judgement. They often respond with laughter.

The confessions are great levellers because they show no one gets it right all the time. They also create opportunity for empathetic and generous responses.

When doing this in person, ensure everyone has the same pens and post-it notes, and dispose of the notes securely.


This activity sets the tone for events that are about making decisions, planning, or supporting one another.

The organiser has to do some preparation for this one. Come up with categories and then give people 30 seconds to name as many people or things as they can in that category. For example: famous moustache wearers, basketball teams, James Bond movies. You could add in work-specific categories, e.g. members of the senior leadership teams, or office locations.

You need as many categories as there are people or teams. You need a scorekeeper, and an online timer or a stopwatch.

City guesser

This online game can be played solo or in teams. Players compete to see who can identify cities or locations most quickly. This generates discussion about who has travelled, or watched lots of movies and documentaries! Consider whether this activity will draw attention to inequalities in the team or group. If that is a risk, choose another.


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