When meetings are held in person, they naturally include a little settling into the room time. Often people greet one another and chat as they wait for the meeting to begin. In the past, even if you didn’t structure it into your meeting or workshop, participants were likely to get to know each other or make connections in an organic way.

However, with meetings moving online, this doesn’t happen naturally. Even if you let participants in early, a video call creates a different structure, with the host being all powerful, muting and unmuting or deciding who can come in and how everyone can participate. It doesn’t lend itself to the participants connecting to one another.

Therefore, if you are hosting a meeting or workshop in which it would benefit the attendees to know each other better (which is almost always the case), I recommend building interactive activities into the agenda.

Here are a few ideas for activities you can use with your group:

Show and tell: During the opening, let the attendees know that you will be asking each person to share an object within their remote workspace that is meaningful to them. You can offer a more specific prompt (like share an image, picture, or piece of art that you have near you when you work or share something you have had for a long time) or you can keep it more broad. Each attendee will take turns holding the object up in front of their webcam and sharing its meaning to them. Note that this will take time, so you can have all attendees share in the same meeting or take turns over several meetings if you have a larger group. You can also divide the cohort into breakout rooms to have the members share in a smaller group, but this will limit the chance for everyone to get to know each other.

Here is a video clip of me giving the instructions for this exercise during a virtual workshop:

Storytelling: One design criteria for every meeting and workshop is, “How do you want the attendees to feel?” An icebreaker that can help you set the tone and help generate a collective feeling in the group is Storytelling.

Ask attendees to share a story of a time they were proud of the work they were doing (or another story related to your mission or the purpose of the group). You could also have attendees post their story on a site like FlipGrid and then everyone can watch the videos at their own pace on their own time instead of needing to be present in another Zoom meeting. However, since this icebreaker is helpful in setting the tone, its worth it to make the time to do it live.

In a small group you can go one by one and have participants share. In a larger group you may want to try a structured format for sharing stories, such as the “1-2-4-All” structure.

Below is a clip of how I described variations on this activity for an AmeriCorps program:

If you have a new group forming who will be working together over time, you may want to go deeper into an activity that will help the members get to know each other personally.

Personal Board of Directors: This is an exercise that has been around a long time and I think it would be easy to give as homework before a video call and then have each person share their results with the group. Denise Brosseau did a nice job creating a simple worksheet you can use: Personal Board of Directors Worksheet.

If your group is going to be working with a specific community or in an organization which they are new to, you may want to consider an activity where they get to know that community or organization from different perspectives. In this case, they would get to work together and learn about one another while also gaining context for their work moving forward.

Place as Text: This is a good exercise if a “sense of place” or “sense of the community” would align well with your program. City as Text / Place as Text was created by the National Collegiate Honors Council as a way for college students to hone their observational skills and study their City or a specific location through multiple lenses.
During this very different time it could be an interesting way for group members to go out (safely of course) and explore the parts of the community that are open to them and answer reflective questions which may deeper their understanding of the place they are in. This could be especially helpful if the people did not grow up in the area in which they are serving. You could also do this with new employees or volunteers who are joining your organization and have them get to know the organization through what they can observe about it from the outside first. When they share their initial observations and insights with each other, it will probably be very insightful for you as well!

Impromptu Networking: Another great activity for deepening relationships among team members of an ongoing work team, you can use the structure of Impromptu Networking or a more planned shared pair interview format.
Share pairs: Before the meeting, randomly divide up your group into pairs and notify everyone who their partner is. Before the meeting, each pair will connect one on one by phone or video call. Give them a set of questions to ask one another or a broad outline of what they should find out about the other person. It is good to have a mix of broadly autobiographical information, such as where the other person grew up or how many siblings they have, as well as more work-related questions, such as “What is one example of something you were part of in the last three years that you were really proud of?” During the video call meeting, each person will take turns sharing what they learned about their partner. I suggest having a time limit for sharing or having the reporting out take place over a few meetings to space it out if you have a larger group. Most people are more comfortable speaking about someone else, especially when it comes to sharing accomplishments, so I find this method to be a better way of getting to know people than having everyone share their own background.

Online Assessments: There are lots of personality and communication assessments that can help each team member understand their strengths and needs better. Pick one that you would find helpful and have each person take the online assessment before the meeting and then discuss the results as a group. Here’s an example of one that I have used before: Job Personality Test.

As you can see, there are still lots of ways to connect and engage on a deeper level despite our constraints. These activities take a bit of extra planning and it may require you to get comfortable with new tech skills like launching breakout rooms. If you have any questions about how to create more engaging meetings or workshops, feel free to comment or use the contact form to reach out directly. I’m always happy to talk through ideas.