Icebreakers for Distributed Agile Teams
by Sococo Bob
Getting to know new coworkers is relatively easy when you work together in a physical office space. When you spot a new person at the water cooler, you’ll eventually say hello, chat about weekend plans, and become better team members and collaborators as a result. But if you’re working from a home office, it’s easy to keep your head down, get your work done, and fly under the radar without anyone ever noticing you—and that’s not a good thing.
One of the keys to Agile transformation is to focus on face-to-face communication and people over processes. But in a distributed environment, that’s easier said than done. As new people join the team, or as the organization changes form and new teams begin working together, it’s easy for newcomers to slip through the cracks. That’s why you have to make a concerted effort to introduce and integrate new members of your organization. Try these icebreakers that will help groups of individuals and new teams come together to break down barriers and start to form great working relationships.
What Makes a Good Virtual Icebreaker
Not all icebreaking activities are created equal—what works for a team in a physical office simply may not work for a distributed or partially distributed team. The best icebreakers for distributed Agile teams possess the same three characteristics:
We don’t need to tell you how busy you are. Who has time for a week- or even day-long training session in the middle of a work sprint? Icebreakers for an Agile team need to pack a lot of punch in a short amount of time. Consider activities that take only 20 minutes or so to integrate your new team members swiftly without building resentment within your already-existing team. Nobody wants to spend an entire afternoon performing trust falls when they’re on a tight deadline.
Some icebreakers seem to be pulled from the playbook for your elementary school Field Day. Seriously, some exercises require you to craft pinewood derby cars because your team added a new software developer to the group.
Stick to icebreakers that don’t involve too many supplies or too much prep work. If it’s something a stranger could participate in even if they just wandered in off the street, that’s a good thing. Some (or all) of your team members will be joining this bonding session virtually, and they need to be able to participate with whatever they have sitting right in front of them at their desk.
3. A “Get to Know You” Element
If you work in a distributed environment, it’s easy to say, “Oh, that’s Dan! I don’t know much about him. He lives in California, so we’ve never talked.” And sure, it’s difficult to feel like you really “know” a person you never see, but if Dan’s the only distributed team member (or one of a few), that’s a surefire way to exclude him from the team’s culture and good vibes. And if everyone is distributed, that means you’re all strangers to one another, which isn’t exactly useful for collaboration.
Because of this, the most fruitful icebreakers are conversation-heavy and involve a “get to know you” element. There are plenty of team exercises that focus on problem-solving or collaboration (and you should totally do them!), but it’s key to begin by helping your team talk—to develop a sense of trust, understanding, and camaraderie among one another.
Sample Icebreakers for Distributed Agile Teams
With these three characteristics in mind, here are four icebreakers that will help your distributed Agile team learn who their colleagues are behind their screens.
You’ve probably heard of this one, as for years it’s been used everywhere from corporate retreats to beginner acting classes. But that’s because it’s easy to do and makes for great conversation.
Each person takes a turn sharing three facts about themselves—only one of them is actually a lie. The other members of your group then debate which two facts are true and which one isn’t.
Play this game in Sococo: Make sure the person who is sharing their truths turns on their video to replicate how this game would be played in a physical environment. Fellow team members will have the opportunity to observe their body language and tone of voice to make more educated guesses about which facts are actually tall tales.
“Favorite Things” is a great icebreaker because it’s low stakes, a lot of fun, and provides little nuggets of information that make good conversation starters later. The game is played exactly how it sounds: Team members share their favorite things (movies, tv shows, desserts, animals, etc.) and explain why. If you’re looking for an alternative way to play to spice things up, pick one category and have each team member list their top five favorites within that category (e.g., “Top Five Favorite TV Shows of All Time”).
Play this game in Sococo: Send your team to a conference room in the center of your map. Then, quickly rename smaller, breakout rooms with different possible favorite answers, such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Parenthood for possible TV favorites. Count to three and have everyone pop into their breakout room of choice to “vote” for the best TV show. This gives team members a chance to use the tool and see who else on the team they share a common interest with.
This icebreaker requires just a touch of planning ahead, but not so much as to exclude it from the list. Have each of your team members take photos of their home offices, views out the window, etc., and have them email these over to you in advance. Share each photo with the group and have everyone guess whose office is whose. It’s a great way to get a peek at everyone’s physical space (something you probably take for granted with your co-located teammates).
Play this game in Sococo: Ask several moderators to post up in breakout rooms and screenshare photos from each individual office space. Your team members can “tour” the home offices by popping from room to room and flipping through the photos with the moderator. Afterward, everyone can come together and share their guesses for which office belongs to which coworker.
Consider your company culture before you suggest this exercise. Is your team generally quite close? Do they share a lot of personal details with one another? If that’s the case, a warm and fuzzy icebreaker will be a fun exercise and integrate new team members into an already strong, close company connection. If not (and it’s okay if that’s the case!), this exercise might push your team out of their comfort zone rather than yield its intended effect.
If you’re looking for an icebreaker that digs a little deeper emotionally, “The Best Moment of Your Life” is a great option. Here’s how to play: Ask everyone to close their eyes and spend 30 seconds thinking about all the highlights of their lives. This part gives them an opportunity to reflect on their successes and sources of joy throughout their life. Then, ask them to distil it down further. Ask them to pick (and share) one 30-second moment from their entire life that they would choose to re-live if they had only 30 seconds left on earth.
Play this game in Sococo: Participants should turn off their audio and video while they reflect on the “highlight reel” of their life. That way, they can truly focus. This can be done by retreating to individual office spaces or by having everyone simply switch of their controls in the group conference space. Then, when they are ready to share, bring everyone together in one space with audio so they can talk through their best moments.
Keep the Fun Alive
Icebreakers are a simple way for distributed Agile teams to break through the screen and get to know each other as if they shared a break room every day. But your team can’t be expected to bond with their teammates in a single day. By fostering a culture of fun and regularly playing games with your colleagues (not just when a new person joins!), you’ll encourage self-organizing teams and help them to make individual connections with people they otherwise would literally never talk to. For more ideas on how to make icebreakers and group games part of your distributed workplace every day, try these 10 ways to have more fun in your virtual office space.