5 Work Icebreakers That Aren't Totally Awkward

The good thing about icebreakers is that they can help teams get to know each other better, go beyond assumptions if people think they already know everything, and help welcome new people into the fold.

The terrible thing about icebreakers is that they can be horribly awkward.

If you're a manager, HR lead, or an employee looking for new ways to bond, take one for the entire team by proposing one of these activities. Hopefully, they're far less cringeworthy than most — or at the least, you'll stick with it long enough to get into it.

Illustration by Abbie Winters.

Unique And Shared

How It Works: Participants form small groups and the facilitator hands out sheets of paper and writing instruments. For the "Shared" part of this icebreakers, a designated notetaker in each group must be the scribe, and write down a list of as many common traits or qualities that members of the group have in common as possible. (Skip the "we all are alive/are in this room/are all wearing clothes" easy gags.)

"The goal is for everyone to dig deeper than the superficial," Icebreakers.ws says.

Allow about five to 15 minutes for this, and then have a spokesperson from each group (ideally someone who was not the scribe) read their list.

You won't be finished yet. For the second half of this icebreaker, the "Unique" portion, decide whether you want to maintain the same groups or create new ones. On a second sheet of paper, have a scribe record the traits and qualities that only apply to one person in the group. Each group should come up with at least two unique qualities/strengths per person. (Again, strive for qualities and strengths beyond the superficial or obvious.) Allow another five or six minutes. Dedicate another five to 15 minutes for this half.

When time is up, share the unique qualities in one of the following ways: (1) each person can share one of their unique qualities themselves; (2) have each person read the qualities of the person to their right; or (3) have a spokesperson read a quality one at a time, and have the others guess who it was.

Why It Works: Like all icebreakers, the point of this is to help people get to know each other. This game also goes a bit deeper, and provides opportunities to learn (and talk about) how people see themselves as different from other members of the team, as well as discuss their strengths.
Illustration by Abbie Winters.

Connecting Stories

How It Works: Have everyone divide into small groups (six to eight people), and sit with Post-it notes and pens. The goal of the game is to connect mini-stories; each person must say something true that connects to the prior mini-stories. The longer the chain of stories, the better. Write down a few words on a post-it note to keep track of each part of the story.

For example, the first person might begin by sharing an interesting memory or experience that they have: "One time, I accidentally locked myself out of the house. So, then I spent the entire day working remotely at a coffee shop." Then, the next person might say: "I am a total coffee addict. Every day, I drink three cups of coffee, and I'm always hoarding cups at my desk." After that, the following person might say: "I love keeping photos of my dog on my desk. Whenever I look up and see her, I feel more relaxed, even for a second, and ready to continue on with my day."

At the end of the game, the group with the longest connected chain of stories is the winner.

Why It Works: "Connecting Stories is a fun team-building activity and get-to-know-you game that is all about finding common experiences or themes between people," Icebreaker.ws says. "This activity is a fun way to get people to share stories, while helping people learn similarities or common interests."
Illustration by Abbie Winters.

Fear In A Hat

How It Works: This exercise might be a little more intense than most — or sillier — depending on the group. The facilitator distributes a sheet of paper and a writing tool to each person in the group; everyone must anonymously write a work-related fear or worry that they have. The activity leader should explain that it's important to be as specific and as honest as possible, but not in such an easily identifiable way. After everyone is done writing a fear/worry (including the group leaders), collect each sheet into a large hat.

Next, the facilitator shuffles the sheets and passes them out, one per person. Everyone will turns reading a fear aloud — without any comments on the fear itself. Simply listen and go on to the next reader.

Finally, after all the fears have been read, discuss what some of the common fears were as a group, or any unique ones.

Why It Works: "This exercise can easily lead to a discussion of a team contract, or goals that the group wishes to achieve," writes Icebreaker.ws. "This activity also helps build trust and unity, as people come to realize that everyone has similar fears."
Illustration by Abbie Winters.

The New Hire Game

Author and entrepreneur Piyush Patel devised a thorough set of icebreakers, all wrapped into what he calls the New Hire Game. As the founder of Digital-Tutors, an online training company, Patel has a thorough grasp on tools that can help even remote workers understand each other a little better, in everyday ways.

"It's hard to build a great culture when your employees avoid face-to-face interactions by hiding behind a screen all day," he tells Refinery29. "Working at Digital-Tutors included an expectation to find a way out from behind your computer to get to know your coworkers." Part of that is aided through this game.

How It Works

At most companies, your first day includes a tour of the office, introductions to different teams, and an overview of who does what, Patel says. It takes most people a few weeks (if not months) to remember everything and everyone, so he suggests that hiring managers or human resources heads give newbies a worksheet with spaces for fill-in-the-blank answer to the following questions:

1. NamePatel says: "Everything about the game has meaning. Some of them are more straight forward, like getting to know people’s names and where they sit."

2. What’s your favorite memory at work?Patel says: "Right away, you’ll get an inside scoop on past wins that people have had at the company. This question helps you get a more personable insight into who your new teammates are, what each of them does and a peek at some of the sort of memories you’ll be able to make."

3. What’s your favorite food?Patel says: "This question helps you find people with similar tastes. Impromptu lunches with colleagues are the chance to get outside of the office walls and get to know the people you work with on a personal level. This question helps get you pointed in the right direction for lunch mates, and can spark invitations between new coworkers about the best restaurants around the office."

4. Why do you come to work? Patel says: "Everyone in the company should find some sort of meaning in their work. Sharing that meaning with others helps the new hire, get a peek into what it's like to work somewhere that offers belonging, affirmation, and meaning. A common answer at Digital-Tutors was some variation of 'the people.' To see a tight knit group of people who loved coming into work each day because they're inspired by their colleagues was vital to helping new hires integrate into the culture.

New employees have to get each person on their team to answer the questions (catching them at their desk or taking a moment to talk in a common area). Then, the team leader or manager sends a 15-minute calendar invitation for an end-of-day meeting one week from the new person's start date. The length of the meeting may change by team, but this deadline should be firm.

Why It Works

"Sending out a calendar invitation right away has a purpose by setting expectations up front," Patel adds. In other words, new hires have an opportunity to hit their first deadline mark, and everyone understands the meeting is important to commit to.

Finally, during the meeting, everyone can gather in a space with snacks and beverages. The manager should act as team lead (or can pick one volunteer who wants to facilitate), to ask questions on the sheet based on people's answers. The new hire should join in as a "contestant" to test their memories. (Placing each person to each answer will help get a handle on who is whom.)

For example, the facilitator might ask, "Who said that the company trip to Chicago was their favorite memory at work?" or "Homemade spaghetti is which person's favorite food?""Everyone in the company is welcome to fill in details for the answers," Patel says. "Dana might say the company trip to Chicago is her favorite memory, but in this setting, others can add some of their own stories from the trip."
Illustration by Abbie Winters.

Icebreaker Questions

How It Works: If all else fails, have everyone in a group write down their answers to three to 10 questions. You can have one person, likely the manager, read off each question and then ask for answers. (Making sure to participate as well.) Or, the manager can have others try to match the answers to the questions.

Questions can include things like:

If you had to be a superhero, which one would you be, and why?

If you could have any super power, which one would you have, and why?

If you had to describe yourself in three words, which ones would you choose and why?

What is the most surprising thing about you?

Other sites for question ideas are here and here.

Why It Works: These questions, especially ones that aren't on-the-nose related to work, can help members of a team learn more about other people — and see each other as people. You might learn that a colleague has an interest or dream you share, which could lead to more comfortable relationships, or even more meaningful work collaborations.
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