Building a remote community at IHME

Published July 20, 2023

laptop screen showing a large group of people meeting on a video call

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, everyone in the world had to pivot. Suddenly we at IHME were isolated from each other; our coworkers were little tiles on our computer screens. How do you build community if you aren’t physically together with your coworkers? That was the question IHME’s Organizational Development and Training (ODT) team wrestled with – IHME has over 500 employees, with different needs, personalities, interests – what could we do to help our staff feel seen, engaged, and part of a community? Early on in this transition, we started at the all-staff level and offered virtual “lunch and learn” meetings with staff presenting on trips or research they had done and with outside experts like Dr. John Marzluff from the UW. We held virtual happy hours with show and tell and dance breaks. Our annual holiday party was entirely virtual and streamed on YouTube, with folks engaging each other in the live chat and on Slack. IHME also instituted a virtual biweekly Town Hall meeting to bring all staff together to share important research updates and Institute news to ensure connectivity and communication.  

At the small group level, we have many Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which are identity- and experience-based groups for staff to come together and be in community. For example, we have an Asian and Pacific Islander (API) ERG, Black at IHME ERG, and Parents & Caregivers at IHME ERG. Our newest ERG, Remote@IHME is for staff who identify as remote employees. Additionally, we’ve created a “watercooler” Slack channel where ODT posts weekly prompts for staff to engage with one another in community, with the opportunity to win prizes each week. Staff have really enjoyed hearing from each other and connecting on a personal level virtually! It’s been great for building cross-team and cross-Institute connections. We maintain these watercooler prompts even now that we are a hybrid workplace. We also support teams in building community on their own teams, with funding provided specifically for this purpose. Using our employee intranet site, supervisors are able to request funds for team happy hours, for virtual team-building events like Airbnb experiences, and for recognition items for an individual or the whole team to celebrate milestones. We know how important time spent as a team and recognition of hard work are for supporting a culture of community.  

We also have programs aimed at developing one-on-one staff connections beyond their individual teams. We maintain a mentorship program between experienced IHME staff and staff more junior in their roles. Through the program, staff are partnered with a mentor and are able to receive support, guidance, and connection over the course of a year from a fellow IHME employee. We also pair all employees with new-hire “buddies” as part of their onboarding. Supervisors work diligently to pair their new hires with onboarding buddies who are able to act as a built-in friend and support person during a new hire’s first three months. Additionally, ODT provides funds for both supervisors and onboarding buddies to meet with new hires for lunch (whether virtual or in-person) to help build community and welcome new employees to IHME. Regardless of an employee’s length of employment, we know how important it is to continue to grow and expand one’s professional network and sense of community in the workplace. To foster connections between staff across IHME, we use the “RandomCoffee” program, which pairs participating staff across the organization for one-on-one coffee sessions and provides the opportunity to meet new people. RandomCoffee has been very successful with our staff – we have over 160 staff who have opted in to participate, and since January 2022 we have had nearly 800 connections made between staff!  

Importantly, the transition to a hybrid work environment has provided IHME with the opportunity to reach and recruit diverse talent across the country. Welcoming new folks to IHME completely virtually was brand new to us in 2020, and we knew we had to be thoughtful about how we intentionally create community among our remote staff. We made changes to our onboarding processes, including a virtual team meet-and-greet in a new hire’s first week and one-on-ones between new hires and their teammates. ODT also checks in with new hires during their first week and schedules a monthly new hire coffee chat to help new hires connect with each other face to face. Finally, our Chief Diversity Officer, Laurent Grosvenor, checks in with new hires during their second month at IHME. We believe that these virtual touch-points are important for increasing a sense of belonging and ensuring all employees feel welcomed and supported.

Now that IHME is fully hybrid, with many of our staff working remotely either full-time or partially (with the option to work in-office), we will continue to sustain our strong sense of community between remote and in-person staff. It’s an ever-evolving process, and we look forward to growing our community-building efforts as IHME’s community continues to grow too. 

This blog post is the first in a two-part series on the hybrid work community at IHME. Learn about other staff experiences with remote work in part one of this series: What's it like working remotely at IHME?

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