Two years ago, someone at Dimagi asked a great question: “Winters in Boston are terrible. Why don’t we just move the whole company somewhere warm and awesome for a month next year?” With that the Dimagi Away Month was born, and 11 Dimagineers relocated to sunny Brazil for February of 2012. They worked from an apartment in Sao Paulo during the week and travelled to Brazil’s beautiful beaches, Rio Janeiro, and little towns on weekends. It went so well that Inc. Magazine wrote about how the Away Month proves that “letting employees work remotely pays off.” With warm weather and a closer, happier team, we had to agree.
Fast forward two years. This winter in Boston was so terrible that even weather.com had given up (see screenshot from January to the right). And so we decided that this was the optimal time to leave for the second Dimagi Away Month in Guatemala. We chose Guatemala because it is sunny, accessible, and there’s a ton to do. We also wanted to visit our partner TulaSalud, and see how their 200+ health workers are using CommCare to track women with high-risk pregnancies. Finally, our colleague Diego is Guatemalan and generously volunteered to coordinate the trip.
We definitely had some initial questions, the biggest one being: were we too big to do this again? Since the last Away Month, Dimagi as a company has grown from 20 to 80 people. This year’s Away Month was nearly three times the size of the first one with a total of 31 people attending, and was the first Away Month for 75% of the group.
We didn’t know the answer, but did everything we could to prepare for the upcoming month to balance out productivity and fun. We rented three separate houses in Antigua, a beautiful city in Guatemala’s central highlights. During the week we worked from home or from the many cafes in Antigua. At night, we’d go into town for dinner, play board games at the house, cook together, and take Spanish lessons.
On the weekends we took advantage of exploring the diversity Guatemala has to offer. Despite being optional, turnout for the designated weekend trips ranged from 80-100% of all Away Month attendees. We rented a schoolbus to bring us to all of these places, which took us a lot longer to get anywhere but also lead to some really great conversations & jam sessions. Later on when everyone was sharing their favorite parts about Away Month, several people said the bus ride conversations.
Over the month, we travelled all over the country. We spent a weekend in Antigua getting to know the famous colonial city, one at Lake Atitlan–confirmed for its reputation of being one of the most beautiful lakes in the world–swimming and hiking a volcano, and one at Diego’s beach house in Puerto San José, which was the first time many of us had been to a (hot) black sand beach.
One of the best weekends was travelling to Coban for a field visit to TulaSalud. We split up into two groups and had a chance to shadow two of Tula’s community health workers using CommCare to register and track pregnant mothers in Alta Verapaz, a region of Guatemala with the highest maternal mortality. The top right image below shows a community health worker “registering” one of our engineers, Danny. We listened as community health workers told us about how they see CommCare “more as a friend than a phone,” and how having phones has helped reduce the number of pregnancy-related deaths in their communities. For a few of our staff, this was one of the first times that they were able to see CommCare in action, and was a really special experience.
After visiting Tula, we travelled to Semuc Champey. In one day alone, we went swimming in caves by candlelight, jumped off a 50 foot bridge, swung off rope swings into a river, went for an hour-long hike, swam in Semuc Champey’s beautiful lagoons, and tubed down a river. The day ended when we were floating down the river, and a double rainbow emerged.
So back to the original question: does letting employees pay off, even when your company has quadrupled in size? Our CEO Jonathan Jackson thinks so, just for the “team bonding and satisfaction alone.”
“I was really excited to see the enthusiasm and diversity of team members who attended this year’s Away Month, including our new research team, communications team, dev, and members of our field team,” he noted. “Away Month is an opportunity to promote a lot of ad hoc work discussions outside of the office and between different groups, more so than we do when we’re at home.”
Employees seem to think so too. In a follow-up survey for all Away Month attendees, 95% of people said that they would be interested in going on another Away Month and that it gave them a chance to interact with colleagues they normally don’t interact with. The top five most popular responses to “what was your favorite part about Away Month” included weekend trips, getting to know colleagues, the field visit to TulaSalud, being in a warm, different place, and the conversations. For me personally, Away Month signifies Dimagi’s commitment to team cohesion and happiness, which directly translates into the work we do.