Remote Team Meetings & Virtual Ice Breakers

Remote Team Meetings & Virtual Ice Breakers

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The most common types of meetings at the workplace are team meetings, followed in popularity by weekly project meetings. As the workplace transformed overnight with remote work from home becoming the norm in 2020, employees have to adopt a virtual workplace and rely on online communication tools to connect and collaborate with other team members and clients. Remote team meetings allow the team to bond and collaborate when employees cannot rely on casual encounters or water cooler conversations. 

Even before the pandemic, employees were besieged with too many meetings; 47% were overwhelmed by the number of meetings they attended. The shift to remote work has increased the frequency of team meetings, with the number of weekly meetings increasing by 153%, leading to digital exhaustion.

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Employer plans for employees include an average of two days of work from home. Even as hybrid work evolves, remote team meetings must be productive and engaging for employees and the organization. 

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Human Resources (HR) need to collaborate with multiple functional teams to understand challenges and identify best practices for effective and efficient remote team meetings. They can leverage the insights to create an organizational remote team meeting framework to enable business units to adopt best practices that suit their requirements.

What are the challenges of remote team meetings?

  • Digital exhaustion

Let's consider the length of a workday for employees with the increase in virtual team meetings. According to a study, the workday span for the average Microsoft Teams user has increased by more than 46 minutes, leading to employees working 13% more than they would in a physical work environment. That is 13% (46 minutes) since March 2020, and after-hours and weekend work has grown even more quickly, at 28% and 14%, respectively.

The average team user now sends 42% more chats per person after hours, according to Microsoft Work Trend Index findings. 

  • Productivity and efficiency challenges

Remote team meetings are more complex and challenging to manage than in-person meetings. It is easy to do poorly and difficult to do exceedingly well. In a remote working environment, how leaders handle team meetings becomes crucial to productivity and efficiency.  

Cultural differences get significantly exacerbated in remote work environments. If the team includes members from different backgrounds, the team needs to undergo cross-cultural training programs so that differences don't impede productivity and efficiency.

  • Building trust

There are two types of trust, cognitive trust, and emotional trust. Cognitive trust is based on the belief that others are dependable and have the capabilities to collaborate effectively on a common task. Emotional trust is grounded in the belief that others care and have concern for us. The lack of in-person interactions leads to a deficit in emotional trust, and remote team meetings can exacerbate or bridge the deficit depending on leaders' sensitivity and concerns.

What are remote meeting trends?

  • Changing meeting habits

Remote team meeting habits are still evolving. Compared to the previous year, teams start meetings later on Mondays and finish earlier on Fridays. The frequency of meetings during the afternoon has reduced, indicating that people are taking a midday break.

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  • Shorter team meetings

Though the frequency of meetings has increased, they have become shorter and more ad hoc. Ad hoc shorter calls have increased by 8% during 2020–22 and constitute more than 60% of all team meetings. Short meetings with a duration of under 15 minutes are becoming more common.

  • Increase in asynchronous meetings

The employee's monthly use of meeting recordings that enable them to catch up on meetings on demand has increased by 100% since March 2020. Other forms of asynchronous meetings are also on the rise, with members adding opinions or views on the message board. Instant messaging apps such as Slack don't require immediate responses enabling asynchronous communication.

What are the key principles for successful remote team meetings?

Assess the meeting’s purpose

The team needs to consider the meeting's purpose, whether for information sharing or collaborating with other team members. If the remote meeting purpose is information sharing, the team should cut back and instead share information asynchronously. Another aspect that needs consideration for remote team meetings is the participation of team members. Every meeting does not require the presence of all members. There is a need to ensure that meeting invites are sent only to members whose presence is a must. Team leaders must carefully assess the purpose and participants and accordingly decide on scheduling remote meetings. 

Less is more

The critical challenge in remote meetings with a geographically distributed team is synchronizing everyone's schedule. The work environment becomes more rigid with more meetings, so fewer remote meetings are desirable. Although it may not be convenient for all the members, reducing the frequency helps limit the inconvenience. With lesser remote team meetings, efficiency improves as the team is more focused.

Leaders should facilitate proactive conversations

The leader needs to facilitate conversation in any virtual team meeting proactively. Remote team meeting participants don't know when it's their turn to speak. The leader or the moderator should call people by their names to let them know it's their turn to speak. The leader should look for non-verbal cues indicating that somebody is interested in speaking up. These cues can be someone leaning towards the camera, indicating that they want to say something. The leader should also encourage participation by allowing participants to use chat features to convey their viewpoints, especially in large team meetings.

The leader has a crucial responsibility in a virtual hybrid meeting as people join from different locations—some in a co-located conference room and others on their webcam. The challenge for the meeting leader is ensuring every member's participation and getting everybody to talk to each other.

Effective remote communication best practices

Participants must follow remote communication practices in a virtual team meeting. The first thing team members need to do is to ensure that their background is uncluttered and non-distracting. The objective is to be respectful to other meeting participants. The background should not divert other participants' attention from the message one delivers. 

The second is to ensure nonverbal communication is as effective as verbal. Facial expressions have assumed greater significance in remote team meetings as it helps prevent monotony and convey messages effectively. It requires one to focus on lighting on the face so that facial expressions while speaking are visible to others and can easily be read. 

The camera should be at eye level. If one uses a webcam embedded in a laptop, one should elevate it, or if an external webcam is being used, one should use a tripod to set the camera at the proper height. 

Audio Quality

In remote meetings with multiple participants, we have often heard people say that someone is not audible or that the audio quality is poor, which also happened earlier during Pre-COVID-19 times. These instances have increased with remote team meetings becoming the norm and the number of participants increasing. Even as visual aspects of remote team meetings are essential, great audio is critical and should be prioritized. 

Individual participants should ensure that their microphones are of high quality, while co-located participants in a conference room should have enough good-quality microphones so that everyone is audible. All participants should check the audio quality before every meeting. 

Remote meeting technologies evaluation and adoption

As hybrid work becomes the norm, providers are investing in improving hybrid meetings; new innovative features are being introduced to enhance face-to-face communication among in-person and remote attendees.

Zoom's Smart Gallery uses artificial intelligence that allows meeting participants to appear in a gallery view as if they were sitting in different remote locations, even though some may be co-located in one conference room. Moreover, it also gives remote workers a better view of non-verbal communication, such as body language and facial expressions. Microsoft is enhancing the remote team meeting experience by developing new types of meeting rooms. 

The HR team must constantly evaluate remote meeting technologies to enable the latest technologies adoption by all functions across the organization.

How do you make remote team meetings engaging?

Remote team meetings can become monotonous because of the lack of human connection. Virtual meetings can be overwhelming, especially for members and new hires who have never met in person. This may negatively impact team bonding, collaboration, and decision-making. The key challenge is to keep team members engaged and actively contribute to the agenda. 

Introduce the participants

Introducing meeting participants at the start is vital whenever new members join the meeting. Even when the regular team meets virtually, it will be beneficial to provide short introductions to make members aware of who is present in the meeting. Member introductions are especially important for fast-growing teams to facilitate free and engaging interactions. 

Icebreaker to fuel creativity

If the meeting includes employees who may not know each other well, start with an icebreaker activity. Icebreakers remove barriers to create a relaxed atmosphere that encourages open communication, collaboration, and creativity. As members get to know each other, they interact better, which helps build an engaging team environment.

Set meeting agenda and expectations

There is a greater emphasis on high remote team productivity as members must make time for the meeting keeping aside other tasks. The leader must ensure the meeting is about an important topic that cannot be discussed asynchronously. The meeting agenda should specify the objectives and expectations of other member participants. The leader should mention time in the agenda and specify team roles in advance. The members who are supposed to speak or present should be sensitized about adhering to the timeline and keeping the focus on key deliverables. If the team needs live collaboration through Google Docs or Worksheets, links should be shared with the group along with the agenda.

Send a follow-up and track the progress

The meeting coordinator or moderator should summarise critical points and send meeting notes to ensure all participants are on the same page. In remote working relationships, tracking progress and keeping everyone involved is vital to maintain focus and ensure everyone moves in the same direction.

Include fun activities

The "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy" adage also applies to remote teams. Remote team meetings should not only be about work. You can include fun elements such as online virtual happy hours at the end of a workweek to support after-work team bonding, even though it may be less exciting than in-person events. 

Although online virtual happy hours encourage team interactions, 20% of remote employees still experience loneliness. You can include online office games for such employees. The team can select appropriate games to unwind with after a long virtual meeting.

What are the guidelines for different phases of remote team meetings?

Managing remote team meetings is a skilled task that requires time and practice to master. It is easy to manage the environment and observe people in a physical meeting environment but extremely difficult in remote team meetings. Leaders can follow these simple guidelines or checklists mapped to three remote team meeting phases.

 

Pre-Meeting 

 

Agenda and  Outcome

What is the objective of the meeting? 
Can the objective be achieved through Asynchronous meetings? 
What is the expected meeting outcome?
 

Participants

Who are the necessary participants required for the meeting?
What are the inputs participants need for the call?
Technology evaluationEvaluate and finalize technology for meeting to successfully achieve the desired outcome.

 

During the meeting

IntroductionIntroduce team members depending on their level of familiarity with each other. 
Leverage virtual icebreakers to improve team bonding and collaboration.
Video or AudioDetermine if the remote meeting will be conducted through audio or if a video is required.
Meeting protocolEstablish a remote meeting protocol for orderly and systematic conduct of the meeting.
Directions to team members to use chat functionality to ask questions, post links, and comment on the discussion. 

  

After the meeting

Follow-upSend meeting notes along with the next steps.
Meeting AnalysisWhat went well and what didn't go right?
What are the improvement steps for the next meeting?

The success of virtual team meetings requires time, practice, and experimentation to get it right. The inability to interpret body language and facial expressions in a remote team meeting denies the members equal opportunity to make an impact. It may lead to an imbalance in the team, with some members prevailing while others feel left out. It can be disadvantageous to individuals, specifically if they are new employees or have recently joined a new team. The lack of employee bonding and collaboration can harm the team and organization's efforts to create a high-performing remote work culture.

The challenge before HR and team leaders is to bring all employees on a common platform so that no one feels inferior. Virtual icebreakers have emerged as the preferred option to create a level playing field for team members and employees across the organization. Companies use it in various situations and circumstances, enabling them to improve the remote employee experience, which directly correlates with individual employee work performance and the organization's financial performance. Virtual icebreakers also enable organizations to create a great work culture that has assumed greater importance in hybrid work environments.

What are virtual icebreakers?

In the post-pandemic remote and hybrid workplace model, getting to know team members has become challenging. Employees no longer have the luxury of walking over to someone's desk for a quick chat or informal communication with fellow employees around the water cooler. The lack of communication and engagement opportunities is challenging for new employees, and team members who may be familiar with each other also find it difficult. 

Even as remote teams interact through digital communication platforms, finding common ground with people with varied backgrounds, cultures, and temperaments is often difficult. The problems become amplified as team sizes and meeting durations increase, and anonymity becomes the default choice. As a result, people feel detached and engage and speak less; this is particularly true for introverted people.

Virtual icebreakers are online games or activities an organization can conduct with team members to facilitate communication and get them to know each other better. They help break communication barriers caused by remote work and bring teams together.

How can organizations use virtual icebreakers?

Organizations need to make concerted efforts to break the silos of anonymity among team members. Virtual icebreakers can significantly help organizations overcome the challenge of remote team engagement and create bonhomie among team members for greater bonding. People need to be intentional about getting that social time in when working remotely.

Icebreakers are the simplest and most effective team-building activities to get started. It only takes a few minutes to get initiated and limited time investments lead to disproportionate high-value outcomes with more engaged employees and productive collaboration.

An organization can use icebreakers for the following purposes.

  • Introducing team members

Virtual icebreakers are fun activities that eliminate inhibitions and awkwardness in introducing oneself to the remote team. As everyone is similarly introducing themselves, the barriers of the inferiority complex are broken, and members openly express themselves.

  • Onboarding new employees

In a remote work model, the induction of new employees can be daunting for human resources (HR) and team leaders. It is essential to onboard new employees to make them feel like they belong to the organization and demonstrate high involvement from the beginning. Virtual icebreakers can be an excellent means to onboard new employees engagingly.

  • Improve cooperation and collaboration 

In an organization, new teams are formed with members who may not be familiar with each other. In a remote workplace model, it becomes challenging for team members to collaborate due to invisible barriers and low comfort levels. Virtual icebreakers help develop a collaborative work environment through fun-filled activities. They reduce the time from days to minutes to create a strong bond among members that facilitates cooperation and sharing of ideas.

  • Enhance creativity

When the team gets stuck in problems and needs elements of creativity to move forward, virtual icebreakers can be used innovatively to achieve objectives. Albert Einstein said, "You can't solve a problem using the same thinking that created it." This means that the thinking pattern to solve the problem needs to change, and some activities that can help people take their mind away from the familiar thinking pattern needs to be undertaken. Virtual icebreakers can help the team take a break of 10 to 15 minutes to spark new creative ideas that will provide fresh perspectives and enable them to progress with the problem resolution.

The practice can also be followed before any brainstorming session, product design meetings, and others.

  • Improve communication abilities

An icebreaker activity can help improve communication skills in minutes, which a longer-duration formal program may not achieve. Individual participation in virtual icebreaker activities allows them to open up and communicate effectively with different team members. It makes them aware of the sensitivities required to communicate effectively with people from different backgrounds and evolve as better communicators.

How can virtual icebreakers be classified?

Virtual icebreakers can be classified based on the difficulty level and method of conducting the icebreaker.  

Icebreakers classification based on difficulty level

Based on difficulty, there are three levels of icebreakers, easy, medium, and challenging, often represented as Levels I, II, or III, or using colors such as green, yellow, or red or similar terminology.

Level I

These are easy icebreakers suitable for groups with new members or a low familiarity level. At this level, questions are designed not to warrant participants sharing their personal information. The questions are simple and can be answered by anyone without inhibitions. For example, they could be simple as "How do you drink coffee?"

Level II

Level III icebreakers are for teams whose members have a high degree of familiarity and comfort with each other. The questions at this level require vulnerability, which improves the bond among coworkers. The questions are designed to elicit personal information from participants. For example, the question can be, "Which is your favorite book?"

Level III

Level III icebreakers are for teams whose members have a high degree of familiarity and comfort with each other. The questions at this level require vulnerability, which improves the bond among coworkers. The questions are designed to elicit personal information from participants. For example, the question can be, "Which is your favorite book?"

Teams should gradually move along different icebreaker levels depending on the members' level of familiarity. They should not race ahead to Level III if they are not ready for it. 

Icebreakers classification based on the method of conducting icebreakers

In addition to the difficulty level, icebreakers can be classified into traditional sequential and Never Have I Ever formats based on the method adopted to conduct the icebreaker. 

  • Sequential format

The sequential format is the standard for icebreakers in which team members answer questions in sequence. The critical issue with this format is that many teams conduct the icebreaker as a free-for-all in which no one knows whose turn will be next, adding anxiety for introverted people who are not comfortable speaking in groups. 

To encourage healthy member engagement, the leader can begin by saying that they will initiate the icebreaker by sharing their name, hometown, and the name of the first school they attended. It also gives the team time to think about their answers and encourages participation. In the professional context, the question sequence can also be helpful as it will help some members clarify the pronunciation of their names, which may be mispronounced. The other questions may help people get familiar with each other on a personal level.

In the physical environment, members can sit in a circle in which there is a clear indication of whose turn it is to speak. In a virtual environment, it will be challenging to figure out the speaker sequence so the leader starting the icebreaker can name the next person. The series can proceed accordingly, with each person calling the next one in line to answer the question.

  • Never Have I Ever

The second format, Never Have I Ever, is for larger teams whose members don't know each other well. In this format, team members sit in a circle, and everyone takes turns telling others about life experiences they never had. For example, "Never have I ever been to Japan" or "Never have I ever eaten non-vegetarian food."

The team member can start with five or ten fingers up, which works well on video conferences replacing the physical circular group formation. Each time someone narrates their "Never have I ever" experiences, other team members who had been through the experience drop their fingers. The team can decide the winner as the first person who has put all their fingers down. It works for remote team building as the process highlights shared experiences, which helps members bond and come together to form interest groups to take their collaboration beyond professional realms.

In the icebreakers, the leader can prepare the prompts for the "Never have I ever" experiences in the professional context, and members can accordingly put their fingers down for each prompt. Based on the prompts, the winners can be decided as the person with all fingers down or most fingers up.

How to plan virtual icebreakers?

Human resources (HR) must play an active role in helping teams plan and select appropriate virtual icebreakers. They can create virtual icebreakers that are common across the team and collaborate with the teams to create specific ones.

Define the purpose and decide on the virtual icebreaker 

The team leader must select the virtual icebreaker activity depending on the purpose or objective, which can be the introduction of team members or the onboarding of new employees or others. Accordingly, the team leader needs to select the virtual icebreaker activities keeping in mind the purpose, team composition, and members' sensitivities. The leader should ensure that everyone easily understands and is involved in the icebreaker to achieve the desired objective.

Specify goals

Based on the purpose, the leader must specify the measurable goal that can be used to assess the success of the virtual icebreaker activities. The measurable goal can be tangible—such as team efficiency—or intangible—such as team bonding or individual enhanced social connections.

Take activities time into consideration.

The icebreaker's purpose will help decide the time required for the activities. The team can limit the duration of the icebreaker activities by limiting the questions taking into account the participating members' workloads and locations.

Team members’ location

Team members may be operating from home or collating with other members in an office or across different cities or countries. The member location needs to be factored in according to if they are in a different city, country, or time zone. This will help determine the duration members can spend on virtual icebreaker activities.

Decide on the frequency. 

The team needs to decide whether to make the icebreaker a one-off activity or conduct it periodically. How often the icebreaker needs to be changed or altered with different icebreakers should also be considered.   

Technology consideration

The team must ensure that all members use the same video software and are familiar with its key functionalities and features. Moreover, the team needs to agree on a protocol, such as everyone should be logging in using video.

Diversity and Inclusion

The plan should take into consideration cultural differences and biases to avoid unintentionally offending any members through the activities.

What are the top five virtual icebreakers?

Popular virtual icebreaker activities for remote teams are as follows.

Virtual icebreaker questions

The virtual icebreaker questions at the beginning of a call help create a relaxed team environment. Open-ended questions encourage members to converse and promote bonding. The questions should be interesting enough to encourage members to get into dialogue. It is advisable not to select questions with one-worded answers so as not to limit conversation and engagement opportunities.

Some reference questions are

  • What is the important thing you miss most about the office and why?
  • Which personality has influenced you the most and why?
  • Which are the apps without which your life will be incomplete?

Association Introduction

It is a suitable virtual icebreaker activity for small groups and ideal for introducing team members. The facilitator assigns numbers to each member, with the participant assigned number one as the first to introduce themselves. The member assigned number two will introduce themselves as the first person. Each successive member will introduce themselves and all the members introduced before them. The introduction session continues till the first person becomes the last and then introduces all other members.

Me Too

This is one of the top virtual icebreaker ideas for team meetings. In this icebreaker, team members with similar experiences are paired. The leader will select one member to initiate the game. The chosen member will name a hobby or activity they have performed. Then, other members with similar hobbies or activities will shout "Me Too" and mark themselves one or zero. The next member will share an experience, and the same continues until one member's scores add up to five. The objective is to identify common characteristics or traits among the team.

Virtual icebreaker Bingo

The team uses Bingo card questions as conversation prompts. The team is split into manageable groups with members not numbering more than five. The leader will generate Bingo questions beforehand, and participants will use those Bingo cards to ask each other questions. Whenever the description on the card matches any team member, the member holding the card ticks the square. The game continues until a team gets five square boxes checked across a row or down a column.

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Marooned 

This is one of the quickest and most effective virtual icebreakers and also helps improve communication and problem-solving skills. Members can compete as individuals or collectively as a team. The team leader provides a survival scenario to the team, which then brainstorms for five minutes to find the solution. In the end, each group shares their answers.

Conclusion

The remote workplace model has provided employees flexibility without negatively impacting organizational performance. The lack of in-person communication impacts team bonding as members miss out on group gatherings like milestone and birthday celebrations, team lunches, and other informal communications that promote collaboration and engagement. Additionally, too much digital communication leads to exhaustion, causing emotional and mental agony. 

Remote team meetings are a new reality, and employees and organizations must find ways to address the engagement and collaboration challenges. The organization can leverage innovative technology solutions such as online office games or virtual water cooler conversations to improve employee engagement and build organizational culture. Human resources must also promote virtual icebreaker activities to encourage person-to-person connection and team bonding.

Virtual icebreakers are the online version of icebreakers that help eliminate barriers between individuals and bring them together as a team. The organization can use different icebreaker activities to meet specific needs, such as onboarding new employees, introducing team members, enhancing collaborative work culture, etc. HR needs to work jointly with teams across the organization to enable them to understand the value of virtual icebreakers and guide them to select the most appropriate activities for their team.

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