Creating authentic connections in virtual teams

Working with Matriarca, an Argentinian sustainable goods distributor, scientists from the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative leveraged an exercise known as ‘Fast Friends’ to improve online collaboration within the organization.

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.

Five Matriarca artisans at a table sharing a laptop.
Matriarca artisans. (Image: Fundación Gran Chaco)

Michael Platt, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the Perelman School of Medicine, the School of Arts & Sciences, and the Wharton School; Jerry Cai, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Senior Research Investigator Vera Ludwig, describe the successful implementation of this exercise, which resulted in improved relationships, trust, and cohesion within Matriarca. They write 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.

Platt, Cai, and Ludwig write that 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.

The researchers write that 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.

Facilitators helped participants access a Zoom room on a 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 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.

Platt, Cai, and Ludwig write: “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.”

Read more at Knowledge at Wharton.