Letting Employees Work Remotely Pays Off // Inc.

Liz Presson • 28 October 2014

It was an idea born of a cold New England winter and a few beers among co-workers at Dimagi, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company that develops mobile apps designed to improve health care in developing countries. Next winter, why not move the whole company someplace warmer? Danny Roberts, a software engineer who had spent part of his childhood in Brazil, recommended it as a destination, and the idea started to gain traction.

It wasn’t such a crazy notion. The company had just 15 employees in its home office (another 14 were working elsewhere, including company offices in India and South Africa). And given that Dimagi has projects in 25 countries, its workers–mostly programmers–were used to working remotely, connecting via email and Skype, and saving their work to a cloud server. “All we really need are our laptops and a power supply,” says the chief technology officer, Cory Zue. What’s more, Dimagi’s work force consists mostly of twentysomethings, so leaving spouses and families behind wasn’t a concern for most. Still, although it made sense to the employees, clearing it with the boss was another matter.

Roberts pleaded the case with Dimagi’s CEO, Jonathan Jackson. An informal planning committee had already worked out several technical details of the proposed work-cation. The most important detail–a place to stay and work–was settled later, when Roberts’s grandmother offered her apartment in São Paulo while she was away on vacation. A nearby hostel would provide additional beds.

“By the time the plan got to me, it was already pretty big,” says Jackson. “The employees were driving this, and I wanted to support them. From a business-development perspective, getting a better understanding of South America and scouting potential partners there made sense. But I wanted people to know that this wasn’t just a way to party down in Brazil. They needed to be able to communicate with the team at home, and remote clients as well.” Given that there was only a one-hour time difference between Boston and São Paulo, and after a successful Internet speed test was performed by Roberts’s grandmother, Jackson was reassured that long-distance collaboration was logistically feasible. He also trusted that his young team was mature enough to stay out of trouble abroad.

Even though everyone at the company was invited, one of Jackson’s main concerns was that those who couldn’t make the trip might feel left out. “I didn’t want people here to feel that the people in Brazil were wasting time,” he says. Because not everyone could go, Jackson insisted that employees who wanted to go would pay their own way. “Nobody argued with that at all,” says Zue.

Team members deployed in two waves starting in late January 2012. Almost everyone made it for at least a week, with a core group staying on for a full six weeks. At the peak, 10 people were working out of the São Paulo apartment. The team gathered laptops around the kitchen table, sprawled on a couch, or vied for a prized spot on the small deck. By and large, the close quarters improved communication among co-workers, and bickering was rare. “There was a lot more casual asking questions across the table,” says Zue. “And we tended to work later in the day than we would at home, since we were having dinner together almost every night.” It also helped that there were no major technical glitches. “Our Internet service in São Paulo was actually better than we had in Cambridge at the time,” says Zue.

By Adam Bluestein

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