3 Remote Team Warm-Ups That Don't Suck (and how to use them)
"Before we dive in, let's do a little ice breaker"
Are there any more dreaded words in the corporate world? And with so many of us working remotely, we thought we had finally dodged the lukewarm attempts at team connection--no more "two truths and a lie" no more "grab a partner..." and, may we shout from the rooftops, "I don't know something about me that's interesting that no one here knows!"
Although most ice breakers are cringeworthy, they refuse to die as a concept because the motivations behind them are still valid. We DO need team connection, we need to humanize ourselves to each other, and most importantly, we often need to be in a very different mindset for the work ahead than we had entering the room. But just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, ice breakers have become notorious because they are so often irrelevant or unrelated to the task at-hand, uncomfortably forced on an unwilling team, or poorly-executed.
Reframe: Try "Warm-Ups" instead of "Ice Breakers"
If the term "ice breaker" inspires images of strained small talk at a cocktail party, and desperately trying to be interesting, try reframing to a "warm-up." Athletes understand the value of stretching and warming up their bodies before pushing the limits. Musicians will warm up their voices and instruments before a performance. Hell, you even warm up your car before driving in the cold (remote starters and heated seats--best invention ever?).
Calling these exercises "warm-ups" takes the focus away from the negative ( coldness, distance, rigidity) and towards the actual intention: transitioning from how you entered the room to being mentally and physically ready to do the task at-hand.
Choosing the right Warm-Up
When selecting a warm-up, you need to know what your team needs and lacks. Experienced facilitators can often take a read on the room and pull the right warm-up out of their tool belt on the spot, but if you are just getting started, try to think back to past meetings. When people have shown up, are they just waking up? Tired from a long day? Distracted or switching contexts? Do they know each other well, or not really? Does the team know how to listen? Is power evenly-distributed or are some people always talking while others are always quiet?
With a remote team, you also have extra considerations - will they be able to see each other? Have they been sitting at their home desks all day or are they in a public space? Do they have a way to take turns or share space? Do they understand the technology you'll be using for your collaboration?
Next, think of the task at-hand. Does it require laser-focus or broad, creative thinking? Does it require vulnerability? Active listening? Broad encouragement or candid critiquing? How long do you have? Does this activity even require a warm-up at all?
If a warm-up is called for, it should incorporate both the needs of your team and the needs of the task so your team is ready to meet the task head-on.
Ready? Here are 3 Warm-Ups I love that you can try with your remote team. I didn't invent any of these, but I've used them with lots of success.
Warm-Up 1: Where are you?
Good for: Creating presence and openness. Tasks that require grounded thinking, vulnerability, and shared context.
How it works: Take turns going around the group and telling everyone "where you are" but take this beyond just the obvious. Where are you physically, mentally, emotionally? Encourage people to take about 1-2 minutes to share this.
So instead of my typical answer:
"I'm in Harrison, NY!"
An answer might look something like this:
"I'm sitting at my desk in my home office, which is a small room on the second floor of my house. My house is in Harrison, NY. It's Spring here and the weather is gorgeous, so my house is quiet because my kids are outside, though I hear some shouting (and leaf blowers, damn them!) through my window. I'm tired today because I didn't sleep well last night, and I'm hungry so forgive me for eating during this meeting, because I haven't stopped for lunch today. I guess that means I'm also a bit hectic, I've been going nonstop today so my brain is in a million places. I almost didn't come, but I want to be here, now, so I've closed the other tabs on my computer because I want to be present and I don't want to look at my overwhelming inbox. I'm also really excited about some projects I've got in the works and feeling pretty optimistic....so that's where I am.
Why it works: Creating the space for people to take stock can pull them out of the frenzy of their day and into a conscious space. Even in the example above, just by calling out the hectic nature of your day will pull you out of it enough to slow down--like tapping on the breaks when you see a speed trap.
This exercise encourages micro-vulnerabilities, the sharing of small details that might not seem huge, but are personal, and open folks up for the bigger things that might come later.
Warm-Up 2: The Stretch Party
Good for: energizing people who have likely been sitting all day or just starting the day, getting teams comfortable with calling on each other and speaking up.
How it works: Put on some up-beat music and set the rules. Everyone stands up, and turns their camera on* (at least for their own turn). The facilitator starts by leading a stretch, it really doesn't matter which, and then picks the next person who leads a different stretch for everyone to do. When they're done, they pick the next person. Keep going until everyone has picked a stretch to do and, if you still have time in the song, end with letting people just move and stretch how they like.
Why it works: Most of us are more stationary than we want to be, and need to stretch more anyway. Putting on music shifts the energy of the whole group, and actually moving, a thing people are rarely asked to do remotely, wakes up both your body and your brain. By encouraging each person to lead a stretch and pick the next person, you're kicking off the meeting with all people taking turns in the spotlight and taking the focus off the facilitator be the go-to for "what happens next?" There is something subtly empowering about doing something as simple as doing a simple stretch and then seeing EVERYONE else do it that makes something click in your mind that you may have other things you can contribute that the group would go for.
I love this one first-thing in the morning and for evening meetings. I especially like using this over time with the same team, and letting different members pick the song.
*People who prefer cameras-off are asked just to turn theirs on to show us the stretch, or to call out something everyone might know "stretch your hands to to the ceiling! Aaaaannnnd down to the floor!"
Warm-Up 3: Fortunately/Unfortunately
Good for: smaller remote teams, activities that will need creative, broad, or collaborative thinking
How it works: Start by counting-off or establishing a "circle" of who is next to whom. Then explain to the group that they will be telling a story together, but each new person needs to alternate starting their part of the story with either "fortunately," or "unfortunately."
As the facilitator, give a example:
"Chris was walking down the street one day when it started raining. Then the next person might say 'Fortunately, Chris was armed with an umbrella and opened it up' and then the NEXT person might say 'Unfortunately, there was a huge hole in Chris' umbrella, and the rain came right through' and then the NEXT person might say "Fortunately, Chris was a frog, and LOVED the rain....' each person adds to the story but takes it on a new turn by starting with fortunately or unfortunately."
Once people get the concept, start a fresh story. I like to make this one much more ridiculous than my example. In a recent group where we would be brainstorming ways for group members to progress their careers, I started the story with "Hippo was walking down the street humming a tune to herself when she came across a sign that said 'Hippos Wanted!" This kicked off a wonderful tale about a hippo learning to do synchronized swimming from her fish friends that got our small group in the right mindset to come up with lots of ideas for how non-hippos could progress their careers, too.
The team may need a bit of coaching to get started, and sometimes you help folks remember if their turn is "fortunately" or "unfortunately," but most people get the hang of it pretty quickly. It's great if you can go around twice or do two rounds--so everyone has a turn to be both an optimist and a pessimist.
Why it works: We spend so much of our days in a practical space--checking things off lists and managing reality, that it's not always easy to be creative on the spot. This exercise gives people enough structure that they can wade into the creativity pool. It also requires listening to each other and building off of shared ideas in a way that "tell us about yourself" icebreakers do not. You can't plan ahead because you don't know where the story will be.
Have you tried these with your team? How did it go? Have others to share? Let me know in the comments!