Glenn Fajardo, instructor at the Stanford d.school and seasoned online facilitator, joined forces with MURAL's Ward Bullard to demonstrate what a virtual classroom could look like.
Online Warm Ups & Energizers
Let’s face it: online meetings can be awkward, especially when you don’t know anyone in the video call. You might still be waking up with your first cup of coffee while someone else is bouncing with energy in a later time zone.
But, they don’t have to be so uncomfortable. With the right exercises, you can make any remote participant feel at ease within seconds. The key is to find a simple way to form an emotional connection that will help people bond, regardless of where they are or how well they know each other.
That’s where online warm ups and energizers come in. These are short, team-building exercises aimed at overcoming shyness and boosting energy with a group of distributed people.
Online warm ups are ideal to introduce new team members and get participants to learn more about each other.
Online energizers are great for reloading energy, having fun and can involve some form of physical activity.
In an ideal scenario, a facilitator will plan the exercise in advance, preparing the tools and the instructions needed for a smooth experience. These exercises can be done entirely online using a variety of digital tools, such as video conference calls, team chats and online whiteboards. They’re also a great introduction to help people get comfortable with different technology and digital environments used for online collaboration. Once your team is familiar with doing warms ups and energizers, you can incorporate them regularly into online or remote meetings and workshops.
Below is a comprehensive list of lighthearted yet engaging activities that can be prepared ahead of your next online session with your team.
What you’ll need:
- A facilitator
- The appropriate tools for each activity
- 💻 Video conference tool (audio + webcam)
- 💬 Online messenger/chat
- Online whiteboard
- A timer/clock: activities take up to 10-15 min, depending on the group size
- A playlist with music to play during individual brainstorming moments. Get inspired by MURAL’s playlist for remote workshops!
It’s a known fact that dispersed teams need to adapt their team culture to take their geographical distance into account. The physical separation often entails a slower process in getting to know everyone in the company, especially when new hires join the team. This doesn’t mean they can’t have an enriching and supportive culture, though.
When to do warm ups
Online warm ups are particularly useful at the beginning of an online meeting, workshop or any virtual collaboration session that takes place in a video call with a group of people. Think of them as an introduction to let people know who they’ll be collaborating with during the session.
Virtual warm ups are a perfect way to:
- Introduce new team members
- Get to know colleagues better
- Reduce shyness
- Make people feel comfortable
- Help participants familiarize themselves with digital tools
- Keep participants focused and away from distractions
- Encourage individual self-expression
- Bond with co-workers an an emotional level
- Develop empathy and strengthen team dynamic
- Improve and increase team-wide communication
- Boost creative thinking
Tip: Send the participants some information ahead of the online session. Having the agenda and the requirements to join the call with help set expectations.
For example, tell everyone to join the call from a quiet space with a webcam, headphones, and a good microphone and ask them to reflect on a question that you'll bring up during the warm-up. Keep in mind, though, that not everyone will be willing to share personal stories or experiences in a work environment.
- Ask everyone to start the online session by taking turns saying how they’re feeling today. Answers should be limited to one sentence or one word (tip: the facilitator can go first).
- If you notice any patterns, you can discuss more about the general vibe and how the session’s agenda will impact it.
Alternative: Ask people to share their expectations for today’s outcome. For more inspirational check-in questions, explore this check-in generator.
Sketch Your Neighbor
Tools: 💻 💬
Facilitator: Create a mural from the Sketch Your Neighbor template for this activity.
- Assign each team member with another person’s name and send them a direct message to let them know—it’s important to send it privately so the others can’t see the names.
- Share the mural link with the participants on the call. Give everyone 1 minute to silently draw the person they identified in the mural (tip: play music during the silent moment in the background and make sure the sound can be heard by the participants through your microphone).
- When everyone has finished drawing, take turns guessing who drew who.
Alternative: You can also do the exercises using pen and paper, and then share your drawings by showing them on the webcam. The facilitator should make sure everyone has pen and paper ahead of the session.
- Each person has 1 minute to give a tour of the place where they’re currently located using their webcam.
- Describe where you are (coworking space, office, home, outdoors), who else is there and what it’s like to work there.
- Let other participants ask you questions.
Show and Tell
Facilitator: Ask participants to take a photo of their current workspace before the video call and upload it to their computer for easy access later. Then, create a mural from the Show and Tell template and have it ready to share during the session.
- Ask everyone to upload a photo of their current workspace in a mural—don’t add people’s names next to their workspace yet!
- Take turns guessing which workspace belongs to who and why.
Alternative: Take photos of your shoes, meal, or personal object and let others guess who it belongs to.
- Ask everyone to describe their first job using sticky notes and images in a mural.
- Take turns telling stories about how you got the job, what you liked/hated about it, what you learnt from it, etc.
Alternative: Describe your worst job and what made it so bad.
Genie in a Bottle
- Ask the following question: “If you had three wishes, what would they be?” (choose either personal or professional wishes)
- Let everyone add three images representing their wishes and take turns discussing your wishes.
Where Are We?
Facilitator: Create a mural from the Where Are We? template for this activity.
- Ask people to write their name on a sticky note and add it on the world map where they’re located.
- Take turns sharing how long you’ve lived there and what you like about the city/country.
- Talk about time zones and how these impact the way you work remotely with your colleagues and clients.
Alternative: Ask people to point out where they’d like to travel and why.
Facilitator: Research some company statistics that could be used for a quiz. Prepare a mural with questions that people will try answering during the activity.
- Explain that you’re going to start a quiz about the company and that everyone should pick a different color sticky note to use for the warm up.
- Guide the participants through the questions. Give them 30 seconds to add sticky notes to answer each question (use the timer in mural to timebox the exercise). For example:
- When was the company founded?
- Who’s worked the longest at the company?
- How many nationalities/languages are there in the team?
- Who came up with a product feature/idea?
- After each question, have a quick discussion about the topic to reveal more stories.
Alternative: make it a game with the MURAL Jeopardy! template.
Facilitator: Prepare a mural with sections where each participant can add their answers.
- Ask the following question: “What’s your superpower? What skill do you bring to the team?”
- Let everyone add images and sticky notes in their section.
- Once everyone is ready, take turns explaining your skills and how they’ve helped you in the past. Encourage other participants to ask questions about their superpowers.
Blast from the past
Facilitator: Before you start, ask all the participants to send you a photo of when they were younger in a private message. Upload them in a mural before the warm up.
- Give everyone 1-2 minutes to add sticky notes to guess who is who in the mural.
- Go from photo to photo and ask each person to reveal themselves and share one good memory they have from that time of their lives.
Too Many Cooks
Facilitator: Before your start, ask all the participants to send you a photo of their favorite meal in a private message. Upload them in a mural before energizer.
- Show the meal photos and ask everyone to guess the cook of the meal and the ingredients on sticky notes.
- Once everyone is done, reveal the cooks and ask them to verify the ingredients used.
We’re all too familiar with that post-lunch drowsy vibe in meetings. When that happens, we need some invigorating action to snap us out of our sleepy state. In physical spaces, energizers often involve body movements and shouting, encouraging us to express our silly side and take ourselves less seriously. The same is valid online, although the stimulation is often more focused on imagination and visualization.
When to do energizers
Energizers can be done at any time and they’re great for increasing engagement. They should be fast-paced and exciting, leaving everyone in a positive mood and motivated to move forward.
Online energizers are an excellent way to:
- Stir up the participants’ vitality when they lack energy
- Transition from one exercise to another
- Set the tone for an upcoming topic in the agenda
- Discover people’s personalities and cultures
- Contribute to a more relaxed team culture
- Engage a group in a fun and memorable experience
- Explore new ways of interacting and collaborating
- Overcome social isolation from colleagues
- Make space for casual conversations
Tips: It’s quite common for people to feel uncomfortable in front of a webcam, even more so if they’re expected to do something nonsensical. To reassure the group, a facilitator can go first and lead by example.
- Pick a physical or visual attribute of an object and says it aloud (for example: “Touch something metal!”)
- Everyone else on the video call has to find something with that attribute and touch it (this usually leads to people stretching out or jump out of their seat to touch something that matches the description).
- Whoever is last to touch an object chooses the next attribute to touch.
Name That Sound
Tools: 💻 (audio only)
- Ask everyone to turn their webcams off.
- Call out someone’s name and ask them to imitate a sound (for example: an old dial-up modem, the sound of a printer, Christopher Walken, a Star Wars lightsaber, ocean waves, a sports announcer, etc).
- Have the others guess what sound they’re imitating.
Facilitator: Before you start, select ‘gallery mode’ for your video conference tool so you can view everyone’s thumbnails in a grid format (all thumbnails should be the same size).
- Call out a shape (for example: triangle, heart, square, the letter “A”, tree, house, …)
- Ask people to move their arms and hands up/down or left/right to recreate the shape in the gallery mode you’re viewing.
- When the team has managed to make the shape, ask them to hold it so you can take a screenshot. Share it with with the team and try to do another shape, progressively making them more complicated.
Tools: 💻 💬
- Pair each participant with someone else.
- Ask each person to choose a title of a book, movie, TV show or song that their partner will have to imitate in front of the webcam to the rest of the group.
- Tell participants to send the title they chose in a direct message to their partner.
- In pairs, take turns acting out what your partner sent you. The rest of the group has 1 minute to guess what you’re mimicking.
Alternative: Play emoji charades. Choose an emoji and act it out in front of the webcam. Everyone else has to guess which emoji you’re trying to be.
Spin a Tale
Tools: 💻 💬
- Assign numbers to each participant, starting with n°1.
- Ask person n°1 to start telling a story in a direct message to person n°2 (maximum two lines).
- Once they receive the message, person n°2 continues the story in another direct message to person n°3 (without including the first part), and so on...
- In the end, everyone needs to read out the story in the order you started.
Tools: 💻 💬
- Ask everyone to think of a title of a film, book or song.
- Once they’re ready, tell everyone to describe the title in their chat tool using emojis only.
- Take turns guessing each title during a video call.
- Ask the following question: “If you could go back in time, which period would you go to?”
- Let everyone share their thoughts using images and sticky notes in a mural.
- Encourage the other participants to ask questions to each other (for example: “Would you come back or would you stay?)
Alternative: If you could meet anyone from the past, who would you like to meet and why?
Facilitator: Prepare some phrases before the session. These can be expressions, quotes or any short phrase which can be described visually later.
- Pick a phrase (for example: “Actions speak louder than words”) and add it to a mural.
- Ask everyone to find the best GIF to represent this phrase and add it in the mural beneath the phrase (tip: GIPHY has a great selection of GIFs).
- Once everyone has added a GIF, start a voting session in the mural so people can vote for their favorite one.
- Do several rounds to turn it into a GIF tournament.
Facilitator: Create a mural from the Animal Speed template for this activity.
- Ask someone to pick an animal.
- Give everyone 1 minute to draw that animal on a sticky note.
- Compare your drawings and let the person who picked the animal judge which animal is the best drawn.
- Do another round and reduce the drawing time to 20 seconds and then down to 10 seconds. Let the person who chose the animal judge the best drawing.
Alternative: Use the voting feature in MURAL to let participants anonymously vote for the best drawing.
Two Truths, One Lie
- Ask everyone to think about three statements about themselves: two of them must be true, and one should be false.
- Make each person add their statements on sticky notes in a mural.
- Let others guess which statements are true and which one is false.
Alternative: Ask participants to share a dream they wish was true, and phrase it as if it was a truth. Then participants will have to guess which statement is a wish and which ones are truths.
- Ask the following question: “What’s the first (music) single/album you bought?”
- Let everyone search an image of the single/album cover and add it on mural.
- Let everyone share where they bought the single, why they liked it at the time and what format it was (8track, cassette, CD, vinyl, mp3…)
Facilitator: After the session, surprise the team with a music playlist of all the singles. It will mess up everyone’s Spotify algorithms 🙂
If you were an animal...
Tools: 💻 💬
- Send a direct message in your chat tool to assign a participant’s name to each person on the video call.
- Ask the following question: “If the person you’ve been assigned were an animal, what would they be?”
- Let everyone add an image of the person’s animal on mural and add sticky notes describing that animal’s characteristics that represents the person.
- Once everyone is ready, let the team try to guess who each animal is meant to represent.
Alternative: Try the same exercise using car models, food, drinks, etc.
Broken Picture Telephone
Tools: 💻 💬
Facilitator: Create a mural from the Broken Picture Telephone template for this activity.
- Assign numbers to each participant, starting with n°1.
- Person n°1 sends a direct message with a simple description to person n°2.
- Person n°2 receives the message and draws what they read in a mural.
- Person n°3 looks at the drawing and describes their interpretation of the drawing in a direct message to person n°4.
- Person n°4 draws the phrase they received in a mural, and so on...
- The cycle continues until everyone has taken a turn either describing or drawing. In the end, compare the final interpretation with the first description.
Give it a go
Warm ups and energizers are a simple and effective way to improve online collaboration. It gives participants the confidence to use the tools and get to know each other in a new way. The more activities you try out, the more you’ll be able to experiment and come up with your own exercises!
Laïla von Alvensleben
Laïla is a remote work coach and UX designer. She helps distributed teams improve their collaboration practices and cultivate a remote working culture that will enable them to work from anywhere. Laïla tweets at @lailavona
September, 24 2018