‘Positive Psychology’: great ice breakers for returning teams

team not talking

After many months of working exclusively from our dining tables, the thought of re-starting the commute and stepping back into the office culture may seem daunting — not to mention making in-person small talk with someone other than your Amazon driver, says Sharon Aneja.

Our everywoman expert reveals how we can all play a role in a healthy and happy return toreal lifeworking, usingPositive Psychology’…


According to a recent Microsoft survey, digital teams have become more siloed in the past 18 months, with a 70% drop in interactions among wider team networks. Commenting on these findings, Dr Nancy Baym, Senior Principal Researcher warns: ‘When you lose connections, you stop innovating. It’s harder for new ideas to get in and groupthink becomes a serious possibility.’

To understand how we can make the move back to office life — and do so in a way that is fun, energising and boosts the wellbeing of everyone on the team — we’re going to look at Positive Psychology’s PERMA model. In essence, it outlines the five key pillars for flourishing and happiness at work.

Developed in 2011 by the godfather of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, this model unlocks tools for lasting happiness and wellbeing. Selligman’s scientific approach is not to be confused with the sometimes-toxic positivity in our culture that tells us just to ‘think happy’. His is serious science that — applied correctly — can create a fun and meaningful way for teams to connect.


PERMA stands for

Positive Emotions — making time to focus on emotions that make us feel good about ourselves and others.

Engagement — getting ‘into the zone’ to a place where time just slips away.

Relationships — developing authentic connections with others.

Meaning — focusing on what’s important to you, your team and your organisation.

Achievement — enjoying your journey towards goal attainment every bit as much as actually achieving your goals.

So how can we use PERMA in practical ways as we transition back to IRL teams? Below you’ll find some suggestions for office ‘ice breakers’ — each one draws on one of the five pillars of PERMA.



#1 Ice breaker (Positive emotions)

The P in PERMA isn’t just about feeling good; Positive Psychology is just as concerned with making space for difficult emotions. Workplaces rooted in psychological safety allow employees to express how they feel without fear of recrimination. They are at the heart of inclusive workplaces. But sharing how we feel verbally can be really difficult, so a great way to help your employees and colleagues break the ice and embrace any icky feelings about returning to the workplace is through non-visual clues.

A great example of this is the trend for ‘traffic light wristbands’. These are designed to help employees ‘voice’ their feelings about return to work anxiety by giving everyone a chance to say how they feel — without having to verbalise anything. It’s an inclusive way to make people feel comfortable and have their feelings heard and validated.

In this example, each colour of the wristband signifies the employee’s feelings about safety: red (I’d prefer no contact); yellow (elbows only); green (high fives and handshakes). But this is an idea that has endless possibilities, so why not raise the concept as a discussion point at your next Zoom team meeting, and brainstorm how it could be useful for your next IRL gathering.


#2 Ice breaker (Engagement)

Getting into the zone or a flow state is at the very heart of what’s called Optimal Functioning in Positive Psychology. You know the feeling — when you are so engrossed in doing something that time just flies by. According to Seligman, getting yourself into a flow state at some point every day or every week is one of the keys to flourishing.

There are some key ways to get yourself into a flow state — essentially the E for engagement in PERMA. Examples include limiting distractions, and doing the things that you love so that we can enjoy your tasks. The tasks you choose are also really important as they need to be challenging enough that they are enjoyable but not so challenging that you feel overwhelmed.

So how can you get people focused on deepening connections when they are together in the office and break down some of those barriers?

One way is using this brilliant ‘In the Office’ auto email reply from Finastra’s Future of Work lead Ryan Hopkins. It keeps everyone focused on connecting when they’re physically together — and making the best possible use of that precious time.


Dear xxx,

Im in the office today so you might see a delay in my IM and email replies as Im making the most of seeing people face to face. I will be in xxx area if you want to pop over and say hi.

I will be back online later this afternoon.



With this in place, we can set up ways to help people break down barriers and get into the zone through play. According to Stuart Brown, author of bestselling book Play, employees who relate to each other through play develop more personal, human, fresher, and authentic connections with them. These playful activities help people see each other beyond business roles, social masks, and job specifications, which in turn contributes to a more spontaneous and genuine communication between them.

The key is to find what playful activities motivate and engage your employees. Suggestions include cookery competitions, a running or walking club, board game competitions or tending to an indoor herb garden.

‘Active’ recreation has more benefits for wellbeing than ‘passive’ recreation, so stick to ones that get people moving! All of these playful activities help break the ice, foster camaraderie and help people get into a state of flow.



#3 Ice breaker (Relationships)

Building meaningful relationships is integral to PERMA — and a key part of building a thriving culture at work. But after time apart, and potentially with new team members thrown into the mix, how can we all get to know each other well beyond our work functions?

A fun way of getting to know your colleagues better is presented in Tom Rath’s Vital Friends: The people you cant afford to live without. In it he outlines eight categories of friends which he says are vital to have in our lives. We can apply this to the workplace too.

It works like this: Write up each of the 8 categories of friends below on separate pieces of paper and stick them on a meeting room wall.


BUILDER: a great motivator; a catalyst. They invest time in helping you develop, they don’t compete with you.

CHAMPION: an advocate; a personal promoter. They sing your praises even when you’re not around.

COLLABORATOR: relates to your passions. They have similar interests and ambitions in work and life.

COMPANION: always there for you in good and bad times.

CONNECTOR: helps you get what you want — for example by introducing you to others.

ENERGISER: A fun friend who always gives you a boost, helps you relax or get out of a rut.

MIND-OPENER: Expands your horizons and encourages you to embrace new ideas and opportunities.

NAVIGATOR: guides and advises, keeps you heading in the right direction.


Then each person takes post-it notes and puts their names next to the category of friend that they feel describes them the most. Each person then discusses examples of how they have shown this behaviour with colleagues over the past 18 months or — particularly if they are new — how they showed up for former colleagues.

This is a great way of getting to know each other beyond a job title and helps to break down barriers.



#4 Ice breaker (Meaning)

‘I truly believe that each one of us needs to find meaning in our work. The best work happens when you know it will improve other people’s lives,’ says Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella.

A Better Labs 2017 survey found that 9 out of 10 employees would take a 23% future pay cut for more meaningful work.

According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, there are three main levers to help make work more meaningful and each of them is about connecting the work to the impact on the end user. That could mean: showing your people how their work benefits others; demonstrating how others appreciate your people’s work; helping your people develop a deeper understanding of their customers’ needs so they see the value in their work

A great way to help make employees’ work feel more meaningful in their lives and feeling energised is with agile journaling sessions.

In the first 10 minutes of the session get everyone up and stretching to release endorphins to improve innovation and creativity.

Next ask everyone to take post-it notes or hang a piece of paper on the wall and answer the following questions:

  • What do you find energising about your work?
  • How can you positively impact the lives of your customers?
  • How does your role positively impact your colleagues?
  • What is important in your life and how do you bring that to work? 

By answering these questions and sharing their reflections, employees can feel more motivated and connected to their work and each other.



#5 Ice breaker (Achievement)

Feeling a sense of achievement is key for our wellbeing and enjoying work. It’s a great motivator and in a team setting brings people together. In Positive Psychology, marking achievement is just as much about savouring the achievement as it is about achieving a goal. In a 2020 Great Place to Work survey, 37% of employees said that more personal recognition would encourage them to produce better work more often.

Try using badges or stickers that celebrate your growth, particularly the journey you and/or your team have been on.


⇨ I got out of bed today;

⇨ I helped someone out;

⇨ I was scared and did it anyway.

This is a great way of communicating how we feel and the effort it has taken us to get there. It’s so important to meet people where they are and to celebrate their efforts for being them rather than an external performance goal.

An extra tip: connect personal or team achievement with the company through badges that celebrate company values.



When we intentionally create a more inclusive and positive workplace then checking back into the office can be a great opportunity for people to connect with a wider network of colleagues — and in a more meaningful way that boosts wellbeing and creates community.



Microsoft survey on hybrid work (March 2021)

PERMA model: Martin Seligman (2018): PERMA and the building blocks of well-being, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2018.1437466

Flow and the foundations of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman (2014)

Ryan Hopkins’ ‘In the office’ auto email

Play at work

Vital Friends, Tom Rath (2006)

Adam Grant study on meaningful work

Better Up labs 2017 survey on meaningful work

Benefits of stretching

Culture of recognition


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