Virtual Ice, Ice Breakers

- Remote Working

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by Louise Brace

So I’ve been working on this remote working team for nine months now and our team is pretty tight. Some of us are more online and virtually engaged than others, but we all get together at least once a week, normally twice and that includes our weekly Kitten Talk, where we drop work topics to chat about cats, Sergey’s off-the-grid week, or the weather (it’s raining cats and dogs here today).

When virtual teams are starting out, in fact when any new team gets together, there is always a period of ‘getting to know each other’ and learning team values and culture. Traditional work environments often call for us to get up and introduce ourselves in front of a group of people we haven’t met before, which can be hideously unnerving for the more bashful type (that includes me) and doesn’t teach our teammates much that will help them get to know ‘the real you’, as conversation tends to focus on our previous work experience, where we live and how many children we have. Rarely can you make an emotional connection with colleagues from a one minute presentation about yourself.

At our team we used Jurgen Appelo’s Personal Maps exercise to break the ice and find out the inside info on our coworkers. It’s a cool way to map out information about your family, hobbies, education, values and goals. And rather than present your own map, someone else presents for you, and you for them. The whole team then get to ask questions about each other’s maps.

Collaboration Superpowers author and remote team expert, Lisette Sutherland suggests setting up a ‘Get To Know You’ channel in your team communication tool (we use Slack). Asking questions like, “What’s your favourite food, first job or favourite moment”. You can read more of Lisette’s suggestions in her article on Virtual Icebreakers for remote teams.

A couple of weeks ago I chatted to a community member who is taking the concept of Virtual Icebreakers to a whole new level, bringing gaming into the business environment to deliver Virtual Icebreaker games and exercises to teams all over the world.

British Columbia-based, Gerard Beaulieu, had been toying with the idea of developing a dedicated Virtual Icebreakers tool for a few years, before he finally took action in 2014; leaving his stable career in an energy support company to realize his ambition.

In his previous life, Gerard had been managing remote teams for years, often finding it difficult to engage co-workers communicating on a project across different regions – his teams were situated in the UK, US and Canada. Although there was no issue with meeting as a professional team, there was a big hole in getting the teams to bond on a personal level and this led to a lack of energy, spontaneity and creativity. He knew the key was to find ways to connect his teams on an emotional level.

For a while Gerard continued balancing a full-time career with his research into gaming for business. However, it was life-changing personal circumstances that were to be the catalyst for leaving behind his safe, mapped out career to follow the rocky road of the start-up and the subsequent launch of Virtual Icebreakers. With four children to support, he is still wondering today if it was the right move, but start he did and now the only way is forward!

Virtual Icebreakers offers six virtual tools (plus one also available in Spanish) which can help virtual teams overcome the challenges of working in isolation and develop human connections with their remote coworkers.

The games are designed to engage and energize teams in the first 15-20 minutes of an online meeting. The contrasting game experiences range from simple ice breakers like Dream Vacation, in which common destinations are discussed and similarities found amongst co-workers, to more complex games like Budding Authors, where each team member has to write a short story around a group of keywords. Gerard even has an online version of Moving Motivators. Taken from Jurgen Appelo’s original Moving Motivators motivational exercise.

Taking Inventory is another game in development, which as well as stimulating team building, will also allow Creativity Managers to get a barometer on a specific project. The idea is that the team leader will set out a list of tasks or responsibilities that are needed to advance the project. The team will then make their own list of what they think they are contributing, or where they feel they should (or would) like to contribute more i.e. I am a problem solver, but have a huge amount of untapped creativity that I would like to contribute within the project. At end of the exercise, the moderator has a set of information to decide if the team is ideally distributed. It’s a great way to get team members to step outside of the project and talk about what they want to contribute in terms of skills, over tasks.

The great advantage of Gerard’s Virtual Icebreakers is the fact they are online and 100% analyzable. All the data can be captured and used to improve team engagement and productivity.  

Gerard realized a long time ago that gaming in the business environment was taking off and he wanted to be in on the wave. His computer engineer background spurred him to get a team together to make it happen. The first six months of the project were completely dedicated to game development and he took on a team to work with him to launch. The system isn’t hugely complex, but there’s still some fine tuning to do before he’ll be totally happy that he has a finished product range.

Since the Spring, Gerard and his team have been working on ways to promote Virtual Icebreakers to the global business community, to educate people on using games in a business setting.

Another big plus that Virtual Icebreakers bring to an organization is the ability to extend the tool up and down the hierarchy. The games can gel the teams on the ground making the project happen, with team leaders and bosses. Geographically the benefits extend up and down, something that wouldn’t normally happen in a traditional coaching or icebreaker session. Every employee receives the same level of respect and collaboration.

Is there a difference between engagement of the games by gender? Gerard admits he has noticed a greater uptake and interest from female clients. Why? Apparently women are more open to talking about themselves and their businesses. Men don’t like talking about themselves so much! I suspect it rather depends what men are doing the talking!

Aside from a host of new games and exercises, Gerard and his Virtual Icebreakers team are also working on tools that will make company information such as safety manuals or company guidelines more digestible and fun. Theory backs up Gerard’s confidence in his market. According to the entrepreneur, “Games definitely help in terms of retaining information and creating paths to improved engagement and motivation. As interest in our products increase, so too will the range of games and exercises available.”

I asked Gerard what he does to get away from his virtual gaming/business world. His offline world is totally dedicated to his four children. “I have too many kids!” Gerard jokes. “Our time is spent organizing and sharing activities together. I don’t buy my children things, I buy them experiences. It was mega important for me when I set this company up, that I could get a healthy work-life balance. Flexibility was the number one thing for me and I am just about achieving that, although we’re looking forward to a few more clients and a few more games rolled out” 🙂

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