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Creating Authentic Connections in Virtual Teams

Jul 18, 2023 | Public | 0 comments

In an increasingly virtual world, fostering connection and trust within remote teams poses significant challenges, yet offers valuable opportunities. A partnership between Matriarca, an Argentinian sustainable goods distributor, and the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative (WiN) exemplifies the effective use of a scientifically validated exercise known as “Fast Friends” for enhancing online collaboration. In this article, Wharton scientists Jerry Cai and Vera Ludwig, and Wharton professor Michael Platt describe the successful implementation of this exercise, resulting in improved relationships, trust, and cohesion within Matriarca. The article further explores how this pilot study could address problems of distance and distrust in distributed workforces, with a step-by-step guide for leaders looking to bolster team cohesion and productivity through virtual means. Its implications extend to remote teams worldwide, making a case for deeper, meaningful connections for collective growth and success.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath surfaced challenges and opportunities for working remotely. For leaders, working from home can make it hard to build employee engagement, trust, and communication. For employees, remote work offers flexibility and no commute, thereby reducing strains on busy families. Threading this management needle may benefit from exercises and practices that enhance virtual collaboration by making it more engaging and rewarding for employees, with positive spillovers for team cohesion, well-being, and productivity.

Here, we present a 2020 partnership between Matriarca, an Argentinian sustainable goods distributor, and the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative to illustrate an intervention for enhancing online collaboration. We also provide step-by-step instructions for using this method with your own team at the end of the article.

Matriarca artisans make products from local raw materials in northwestern Argentina’s Gran Chaco region, a large forest covering 200 million acres. Across this lowland, 2,700 artisans from several ethnic groups are unified under a single cooperative administered by a local NGO in partnership with Matriarca. The women craft clothes, bags, and accessories that Matriarca sells on their global e-commerce platform to consumers worldwide. Founded and operated together with Indigenous women, Matriarca serves as a unique model for sustainable economic development and business ventures in under-resourced communities through global online retail, with a focus on regeneration of the ecosystem.

Centuries of isolation and lack of infrastructure have made it difficult for rural artisans to trust urban consumers and distribution managers. Moreover, historic competition over resources between women in different communities further impairs trust and teamwork within the cooperative network. The COVID-19 pandemic brought these simmering issues to a boil when Matriarca shifted operations online, creating new financial and logistical challenges, as well as opportunities, like those experienced by thousands of other companies worldwide.

Matriarca artisans (copyright Fundación Gran Chaco)

In this project, we tested the impact of a scientifically validated conversation exercise in a virtual environment as a means to deepen connections among Indigenous women artisans, management teams, and NGO coordinators. Though only a pilot study, our intervention showed promise for overcoming distrust to enhance engagement, improve performance, and boost well-being in Matriarca’s highly distributed stakeholders and long value chain.

Becoming Virtual ‘Fast Friends’

To accomplish our goals, we deployed a well-validated exercise developed by Aron and colleagues that improves social connections. This exercise has become known as the Fast Friends Exercise or “36 questions to fall in love.” In the exercise, participants are given a series of 36 questions or tasks, separated into three sets, which become increasingly more personal. We adapted the original Fast Friends questions to be culturally appropriate and translated them into Spanish. For example, a question early in the list was, “In your opinion, what does a beautiful, happy day consist of?” while a question later in the set was, “Tell your partner something you like about them.”

A special challenge for this project was that the artisans live in remote rural areas, often lacking access to the internet or computers altogether. NGO facilitators and Matriarca staff traveled to the communities and enabled computer and internet access for this experiment. The artisans who volunteered met with the facilitators in person, ensuring COVID-safety protocols were met. Participants were members of diverse, Indigenous ethnic groups. Detailed information about the study was provided before participants signed up. The facilitators helped participants access a Zoom room on the provided computer setup. Artisans were then remotely connected either to a member of the management team at the time, to an NGO worker, or to another artisan from the company, located elsewhere in Argentina.

In the Zoom rooms, participants were accompanied by virtual moderators, who facilitated conversations, translated, and assisted if necessary. Moderators also timed the exercise and breaks. At the beginning of each session, the moderator introduced participants to each other and gave them about three minutes to get acquainted. Participants then discussed the question prompts. Each of the three question sets lasted about 10 minutes.

The participants discussed as many questions as time allowed. Half of the participants took part in the Fast Friends exercise, and as a control condition, half engaged in guided small talk. Small talk consisted of participants answering a set of questions that were comparable to Fast Friends but less personal (e.g., “Tell your partner all the places you have traveled to”).

After the exercises, participants individually completed surveys about their experience. They also rated their feelings of connection to their assigned partner before and after the conversation. Most participants did not know their partners prior to the exercise. Given the complexity of the study and the pandemic itself, our sample included only 20 participants — five pairs for Fast Friends and five for structured small talk.

Though only a pilot study, the implications are clear. Implementing evidence-based connection exercises in a virtual context can help increase workplace camaraderie and trust, especially for a diverse workforce.

Forging Stronger Connections

After completing the exercise, participants in both groups reported feeling substantially closer to their assigned partner, and most participants described the experience as pleasant or extremely pleasant. Although no strong statistical conclusions can be drawn due to sample size, the Fast Friends exercise tended to more strongly increase social connections between partners than did mere small talk.

Matriarca founder and director Paula Marra said the project was a turning point when we connected with her two and a half years later:

We observed improved relationships, and some conflicts seemed to fade. The artisans were more open to others in the company who were not like them, and they developed renewed trust in the leadership team. Before the project, interactions were often confrontational or transactional. Suddenly they became more personal (“Aren’t you the one who likes…?”). There was also more of a feeling of community. Some artisans even began bringing friends to company meetings. The overall sentiment shifted towards inclusion and closeness with thoughts like, “If we can even be close to each other during a pandemic, then we can definitely do it afterward!” 

Though only a pilot study, the implications are clear. Implementing evidence-based connection exercises in a virtual context can help increase workplace camaraderie and trust, especially for a diverse workforce.

Remarkably, in 2021 the Matriarca management team donated the company to the cooperative and the artisans are now fully self-sustainable.

Becoming Fast Friends in Your Virtual Team

Here’s a step-by-step guide to facilitate the “Fast Friends” exercise, originally developed as an in-person activity, using a virtual meeting environment like Zoom.

Preparation

  • Curate the list of questions and compile them in a document.
  • Either use the 36 original “Fast Friends” questions, or adapt them to your specific context. Avoid diluting them to mere “small talk,” however, as their impact relies on depth. Questions become increasingly personal throughout the session.

Explanation of purpose and establishing safety

  • Begin by explaining that the purpose of the exercise is to help create and sustain more meaningful relationships, which is beneficial to overall health, team effectiveness, and business success. The original exercise consists of three sets of 12 questions each. Participants work in pairs and get 15 minutes for each set (10 minutes for an abbreviated version), resulting in 45 minutes (or 30 minutes) in total. One person reads the first question from the first set and answers it, then the other person answers it as well. Afterward, the second person reads the question first, etc. A timer indicates when it is time to switch to the next question set. It is not necessary to finish all the questions in each set within the allotted time.
  • It is fine to abbreviate the exercise. Even a short Fast Friends session spanning only three to five minutes before a meeting can be beneficial. However, the most impactful results are derived from comprehensive sessions (45 minutes or 30 minutes).
  • Particularly in a work context, it is important to emphasize that participation is voluntary and that it is okay to skip questions that participants feel uncomfortable answering, without justification. Also, stress that participants are free to end the exercise at any time if they wish. You may want to establish additional ground rules among participants, such that all content from the exercise will remain confidential.

Pairing

  • Randomly pair up participants. Be mindful of hierarchies: In many contexts, this exercise might be best suited for peers at the same organizational level to ensure comfort. If you do include supervisor-subordinate pairings, let the supervisor answer the first question. You may also choose only to pair individuals of the same gender or general age group if that seems most appropriate.

Practical aspects

  • Use the breakout room feature in Zoom (or another interface) to split up the participants into pairs. Share the questions with all participants via email or a link to a cloud storage service like Google Drive or Dropbox. Set a timer and broadcast each switch to a new set via the chat feature.
  • If you want to add a scientific element, you can ask participants to rate their level of trust or connection to their assigned partner at the beginning of the session and at the end (e.g., on a scale of 1 to 7), although no one should be obliged to openly share these ratings.

Debriefing and follow-up

  • After the exercise, bring everyone back into the main room. Encourage participants to share their experiences.
  • You may also want to check in with individuals or teams a while after the exercise via email to see how Fast Friends impacted team cohesion, well-being, trust, and work outcomes.

Brief variation for a group context

  • In a short ice-breaker variation of the exercise, you can have one person on Zoom pass one of the questions to someone else in the group, who either answers or skips, and then passes another question to the next person in the group, for several minutes.

Points to keep in mind

  • While the goal of the Fast Friends exercise is to build connection and trust among colleagues, it can also be crucial to maintain a certain professional distance to keep the workplace environment healthy and comfortable. Keep both aspects in mind when conducting this exercise and respect if someone does not wish to take part.
  • A potential concern is that personal revelations can be used against someone by competitive peers or managers. However, the WiN team’s experience when using this exercise in executive education has been highly positive: Participants tend to enthusiastically bond with their assigned partners. Importantly, Fast Friends may also serve as a catalyst for diminishing negative, toxic workplace dynamics by fostering authentic human-to-human connection and mutual understanding.

Acknowledgments: We are very grateful to Matriarca founder Paula Marra, as well as Eduardo Serantes and Fabiana Menna, who made this collaboration possible. We also thank all other Matriarca team members and NGO facilitators who worked tirelessly to make this project a reality. Finally, we are grateful to Nai Ming (Norman) Chen for helping with the project, Zab Johnson for providing valuable input, and the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM) for providing financial support for the students carrying out this project.

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