A colleague recently shared what might be the most gauche icebreaker I’ve heard. “I was just at a business dinner where they asked who your first kiss was,” she said. “Why someone thought that was a good idea is completely beyond me.”
We’ve all been on the receiving end of icebreakers that feel designed to embarrass and drum up awkward laughs. I, for one, turn red at the mere mention of an icebreaker activity, whether or not I’m on the receiving end.
But even I must admit that they have a time and a place. When you’re welcoming a new team member—especially if they’re a remote employee—hosting a company retreat, or kicking off a company-wide meeting, icebreakers can help build rapport and encourage communication.
Here, we’ve compiled a list of questions and activities that won’t alienate anyone, and might even spark a good conversation:
Welcoming new employees, online or offline
When you’re introducing a new employee, you may want to supplement a rundown of their work history with questions that are personal—but not too personal.
1. What was your first job—or worst job?
Everyone has an answer to this question, and it doesn’t put the onus on a new employee to entertain or divulge personal details.
2. What are you reading, listening to, or watching right now?
This question is low-stakes and can span books, podcasts, music, television, and more. (In other words, it doesn’t put pressure on a new employee to think of a book title that made President Obama’s summer reading list.) Depending on the answer, this can also be a launching pad for conversations around the proverbial water cooler (i.e., Slack) or work-related segues.
3. What was the first concert you went to?
Most people should be able to field this question—even if it means admitting that for much of your youth, you attended only classical music concerts, like some people I know—and it can also encourage colleagues to wax nostalgic about their own experiences.
4. What’s your favorite cereal or breakfast food?
People have strong feelings about food, be it coffee or fake meat or a deep-fried BBQ-chicken-stuffed pizzadilla. Cereal is no exception. Here’s a potential follow-up question for the millennials who don’t like cereal: How do you like your eggs?
5. What’s the worst icebreaker you’ve been subject to?
Tackle the awkwardness head-on and commiserate over the cringiest of cringeworthy icebreakers.
Kicking off a meeting or retreat
Sometimes, you’re dealing with a number of new employees, or you’ve brought together employees who don’t usually work together. In that setting, you may want to employ an activity rather than posing the same question to everyone in the room.
6. 3 things in 3 minutes
The design firm Ideo recommends this exercise for when you want to “break down barriers.” Everyone in the room has to partner up, preferably with someone they don’t know well. Each pair has to find three things they have in common, in as many minutes. They should go beyond the physical or immediately obvious—as Ideo notes, “we’re both wearing glasses” is a cop-out. When time’s up, everyone shares their findings with the room.
7. Design a scavenger hunt
This is a little more time-intensive, and sure, it might be a little hokey. But as The Muse points out, for new employees, it can be a quick way to get up to speed on company history or where to find the free food. It can also liven up a team offsite or retreat, especially if you divide your staff into teams and introduce riddles with photo and video elements.
8. Tell your story redux
Anita Hossain used to run the Knowledge program at VC firm First Round Capital, through which she led countless events for entrepreneurs. One of her go-to activities for building empathy and trust is to have people share a bit about themselves with their neighbor for two minutes—then have them do it again, but tell the story differently.
“Usually, the first go at this is almost all about work. It’s an automatic script,” Hossain says. “People tell each other where they went to college and their paths through various jobs that got them to this moment. When forced to do something different, they immediately start sharing things they usually never would in a professional setting—and they get really into it.”