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How we survived a pandemic: Part 5 – Virtual team meeting ice breakers from the ALT Staff Team

This is a conversational blog post (cross-posted here) between Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell). We are using this approach to create some space to think together in ‘unprecedented times’. 

This month’s post is a bit different from the usual, as we celebrate a team effort of inventing ice breakers for our weekly team meetings, which take place for an hour every Wednesday morning. We’ve got everything from “share your four-legged friends” to “lockdown recipe swap” to “pandemic playlist” to “humble brag” to “Pictionary Jam” and more.

Thank you to our colleagues Jane, Fiona, Debbie and Emma-Jane, for giving us permission to share these ideas in the post for this month.  

September!

Maren: Since the start of July we have been rotating chairing our weekly team meetings. We have a shared document that we use as an agenda and each week we ask someone to volunteer to chair next week’s meeting. I have been delighted by how much everyone has contributed to our weekly meetings, bringing their own personality and style to the proceedings and I feel this new way of chairing the meetings has been an excellent addition to the way we work. One of the things we have started doing is ice-breaker activities to start the meeting, and I look forward to them each week. In this post, we are going to share examples of these starting with animal corner: For this activity we were asked to “share your four-legged friends here if you have one, or any animal that makes you smile!” . Another favourite of mine was to ask everyone: “What has been your favourite recipe discovered during lockdown?” through which is discovered Freezer Vegan Breakfast Burritos and Ottolenghi – Feta and oregano fries! 

Martin: Rotating the chairing has been a lot of fun, particularly seeing how others bring their personality to proceedings. My favourite activity has to be “Musical Mayhem” where we shared a link to “whatever song or piece of music that makes you feel alive !”. This ended up with a very eclectic mix of songs and also gave a sense of what made our team tick, covering tracks from the Bee Gees to N-trance. As well as pets, food and music the ice breakers are also nice ways to catch up with how everyone is generally doing. As the second wave of the pandemic comes crashing down on us, whilst increased measures don’t impact my homelife as much as they do for others, the knowledge that while I rarely have friends over to see us, knowing that currently we can’t feels a little suffocating. Making the start of team meetings more variable I think has ultimately created some very rich and fun social engagement. Have you got any other favourite ice-breakers and what do you think the impact has been?

Maren: It’s been interesting to see how little tech is needed for a very effective activity. In many cases a verbal prompt or question such as sharing box set or movie recommendations or finding out which Hogwarts House you belong to (our team includes someone from every house…) has stimulated rich conversations for everyone in the team. One aspect of our shared activities, comparing plans for an upcoming Bank Holiday weekend in August, for example, is that we learn more about each other’s local contexts. That might be a simple thing like sharing what the weather is like or indeed whether there is a local lockdown where we live or something a bit more personal, like what the kids are up to, which parent is having a birthday and what treats someone is planning on baking. I found out about a new kind of pizza oven as well as learning more about how two of our colleagues who are doing PhD are getting on with that. Each weekly activity has helped us combat cabin fever and the fact that we all miss each other. Since we become a virtual team in 2018 this is the longest period any of us have had without seeing someone they work with every day and that is a big deal! Talking of big deals… you provided a prompt for a team meeting in August that sparked some really great conversations – do you remember? 

Martin: Ah yes the “Humble Brag” activity where I invited our team to share “a thought or memory that you go to for virtual air punches?”. There were a very interesting range of responses to this, which like “Hogwarts House” stimulated some nice conversations. Afterwards I did however feel that this was also a bit of a tricky activity as it perhaps forced people to reflect back on a time when the world was in a very different state, particularly given examples included things like flights and organised running events. Perhaps reminiscing isn’t such a bad thing … I don’t know, thoughts? Whilst tech hasn’t been the focus of these activities where it has been used has been a lot of fun. One of more recent activities was “Pictionary Jam” where we had a round of pictionary each drawing on a Jamboard (an interactive whiteboard app available in G Suite). I’ve only used Jamboard a couple of times in the past so the activity was also a fun bit of CPD to learn about this tool together. Plenty of other whiteboard tools for others to try this out and if a Pictionary game isn’t handy there is a website for that at http://wordrawapp.com/online_generator.html. With our colleagues showing off such great chairship and ability to find fun and interesting activities I feel increased pressure when it is my turn to find something for the start of our meetings … or is that just me?  

Maren: For me it’s the other way round. I hadn’t realised how much work and thought I had to put in chairing the meeting week in week out and now I feel less pressure as we are jointly working on making each meeting work. I also think everyone is gaining more insight into why it’s important to prepare and actively take part. It’s up to us as a team to make our team meetings work and I have been delighted by the result of rotating who leads the meeting. I hope that it will help everyone realise how much each individual is achieving as well as how much progress we are making as a team, and that is especially important just now, with things being so uncertain. As you say, it’s not always a wholly positive thing to compare the here and now to previous experiences, and this new way of running team meetings feels like a positive addition to this year instead of being a slightly less fun version of a face to face meeting we may have had before. But now that the pressure is on… and I think it’s your turn to chair next week’s meeting… what have you got in mind to wow everyone 😉

Martin: Well for our weekly family video calls (pre-covid they were voice only) lately we’ve been having a quiz. As part of this the winner is quizmaster the following week. As I aced the Scottish trivia quiz last week it’s my turn to come up with the questions. I’m feeling a little reuse coming on, my call with my parents being an opportunity to test drive a set of questions for the team. Whilst our team icebreakers have also been mostly low tech inspired by our ‘Pictionary Jam’ I thought it would be nice to try out one of our partner organisation tools, particularly if it is something we want to use at the ALT Online Winter Conference. To that end having looked at the Vevox quiz tool and the recent leaderboard feature I think it might be interesting to dip back into the competitive streak within our team … what can go wrong.

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