Since Dimagi’s earliest days, our work has been driven by conversations and collaborations which happen both in-person and virtually. As offices begin to reopen, travel resumes, and team members start to meetup around the world, we are learning from the interesting discourse occurring across organizations about the future of in-person vs remote work. I’ve just finished my tenth year at Dimagi, and along with that my tenth year of working remotely – which has had its share of ups and downs. While most of that time has been “hybrid” I’m looking forward to imagining how, post-COVID, we can be more intentional about creating a thriving hybrid work environment.
A Hybrid History
In many ways Dimagi was a hybrid organization before we knew what it was to be hybrid. With three hub offices (New Delhi, Capetown, and Boston), partners spread all over the world, and with a good portion of the team traveling at any given time, team meetings and partner engagement have included remote participation for all of Dimagi’s 20 year history. It was so rare for an entire office or team to be together that for a period Dimagi implemented an annual “home week” during which everyone would be at their homebase office, a complex feat which required extensive planning. Ensuring almost all internal meetings had a remote option meant that just because someone was doing user testing in Ethiopia for a week didn’t mean that they would be excluded from an all-company meeting.
In the years prior to the pandemic my experience as a remote employee was a bit of a mixed bag – I enjoyed the freedom to work from a smaller city, and appreciated the flexibility to join team meetings even when on extended field assignments. However, in practice the remote collaboration was less than stellar. I always felt guilty that my joining a meeting at the office meant that someone would have to arrive early to sort out our conferencing setup, which somehow never seemed to work as expected. One weekly meeting had a standing agenda item for the first three minutes dedicated to resolving the inevitable AV issues. After technical issues were resolved I could look forward to missing out on all the small talk in the room, while my picture waited awkwardly on a giant projector. In addition, all of our offices had connectivity and bandwidth issues which meant we very rarely used video – I could go weeks without seeing the face of another Dimagi employee.
Things changed quickly when the pandemic hit. Suddenly everyone was joining remotely, with all participants on an even footing. The use of cameras suddenly became a norm, and the types of informal chats that would happen around the office switched to Slack. In most ways it was actually a very smooth transition, and underscored that it wasn’t really so important to have staff based in offices. After years of being one of the handful of remote employees it was in a way refreshing to have everyone collaborating in the same way.
The pandemic also accelerated a trend of growing our cohort of remote employees. Over time it had become clear that not only was it unnecessary for people to come into the office every day, but some people were more productive working from home or other remote locations. Much of the team collaborates most closely with partners or team members in other geographies, so the offices were often a big game of call room tetris to enable everyone access to space for their virtual meetings. Between May 2020 and May 2022 Dimagi hired over 150 new staff, and the majority of these are based in locations where there are no other Dimagi staff.
A Permanent Shift
With offices reopening, earlier this year Dimagi launched a new hybrid work policy, and as part of that let most staff decide whether they wanted to be categorized as remote, or as office-based. For some people living far from offices the choice was clear, but we were very interested to see what people living close to the offices wanted for their future. The results are now in! As of April 2022, Dimagi staff are 63% permanently remote. The vast majority of new team members are remote, and Dimagi is committing to being a hybrid company going forward. Hiring from a broader set of geographies has enabled us to reach a more diverse set of talent than we would have been able to by just focusing on a few cities. Many staff who live close to offices have also opted to be remote, appreciating the quiet and space of their home environment or the elimination of a lengthy commute.
With an organization that looks very different from pre-pandemic with a new remote majority, the reopening phase provides an opportunity for us to intentionally rethink how we can make this new phase of hybrid work as productive as possible. Some of the questions we have been grappling with include:
- How do we more effectively and equitably approach collaboration as a hybrid team?
- How do we maintain and grow Dimagi’s culture and keep everyone connected?
- How should we rethink our benefits?
- What is the role of our offices in this new world?
Keeping Pace with Policy and Practice
Dimagi has been looking to learn from the approaches that other organizations are taking to determine how to improve its approach to benefits for remote employees. In early 2022 Dimagi released an updated set of benefits intended to better support remote staff.
- All staff, regardless of remote status, receive a stipend upon joining Dimagi to set up a home office space.
- All remote staff have access to a monthly stipend which can be used to offset costs associated with working remotely, such as Internet expenses or other office materials.
- Remote staff who do not live close to an existing office but would prefer an office environment can also use their stipend to offset the cost of a coworking space.
- Non-remote staff who prefer to do so can continue to use the office every day.
Beyond benefits, we have been spending a good bit of time trying to think through how to more effectively collaborate.
- Meeting Protocols: As offices reopen and people start to attend meetings in groups, we have been experimenting with new approaches wherein even those in the same room join separately from their own laptops. In a Zoom or Google Meet this keeps everyone on the same footing with their own separate video feed and ability to interact with chat and breakout rooms. It takes some getting used to, but we are trying out new tools and functionalities like Google Meet’s Companion Mode to improve “Collaboration Equity” among remote and in-office attendees.
- Videos: Before the pandemic, despite being a remote-friendly organization, it was very rare at Dimagi to use video during meetings. While this was partly due to bandwidth limitations in some of the places we work, it also did not feel as necessary when there were regular in-person interactions. During the pandemic the change was swift, with videos quickly becoming the norm. While that was great for establishing and maintaining relationships, it can also be exhausting! Going forward we’re hoping there can be an open dialogue about when it’s important/useful to have video, and when they can be switched off.
- Team Culture: Team summits have been a central ritual for Dimagi’s culture since its founding. Getting together for several days in a remote location has been an important way to build team culture, deepen relationships, and tackle tough or complex issues. As travel restrictions ease we are looking at ways to support the newly important role of summits. We’re also thinking about other times where in-person gatherings might have significant yield, such as onboardings, and reimagining the role of our offices.
- Supporting Growth and Relationship-Building: Many of us have observed that being in the same space does enable a lot of interesting or useful informal discoveries or conversations with people in other parts of the organization. As people join the organization fully remote we want to make sure that there are opportunities to meet a wide range of people – not just those they work with day-to-day. This will require intentional thought about mentorship opportunities, and exploring tools like Slack’s Donut to enable both informal and formal cross-pollination.
The past couple of years have certainly reinforced the importance of being adaptable. We’ve shifted from efforts to urgently find more office space, to totally rethinking the role of the office. We’ve also learned a lot about individual preferences – some people have thrived being able to work remotely, while others can’t wait to get back to the office. As a permanently remote employee I’m grateful Dimagi is being both intentional and thoughtful about designing a work environment that works for each of us. And I’m excited to learn from this new phase of intentional hybrid collaboration at Dimagi. Will our portion of remote employees continue to grow? Will we have more or fewer offices in the future? How will engaging with our partners change? How should our benefits evolve?
If you’re interested in joining us on this journey, check out our Careers page where you can see some of our remote job postings!