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Dell's return to office policy is raising questions about the future of work

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Are you an office worker who started working from home as a pandemic necessity, but found that you liked it? - liked remote work, I mean, not the pandemic. Well, you're not alone. And according to Business Insider, some employees of Dell, the computer maker, are willing to stake their professional future on it. Dell is among NPR's financial supporters, but this story is Polly Thompson's. She covers global business news, tech and workplace culture for BI, and she joins us now from London. Thank you for being with us.

POLLY THOMPSON: Hi. Nice to be here.

KURTZLEBEN: So as the pandemic receded, many companies simply told employees that they need to return to the office on terms the company laid out - their way or the highway. Now, Dell didn't do that. What did Dell initially say about returning to the office?

THOMPSON: Yeah. So initially during the pandemic, Dell were very positive about remote working. Michael Dell, in fact, kind of bashed other companies in a LinkedIn post, telling them that they were doing it the wrong way. But then come around to March 2023, and Dell started to ask workers that lived an hour away to come back to the office at least three days a week. And then in February of this year, in 2024, Dell introduced a new hybrid work policy, which affected the entire workforce, and that was the big change, the big reversal after the pandemic. Under that new policy, they requested that all stuff classify themselves as either hybrid or remote. And if you choose to - opt to be a remote worker, you can stay home, but that means that you're no longer eligible for promotions, and you can't change roles.

KURTZLEBEN: Wow. And how have Dell workers responded to that?

THOMPSON: Just under 50% of all employees in the U.S. chose to reject this back-to-the-office push from Dell, and they said, we physically can't return to an office or it's not worth it to us.

KURTZLEBEN: Not to ask you to disclose any confidences, but how did you find that out?

THOMPSON: Yeah. I found out that number through a source that I have who has access to employee data.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, you published this report last week on June 19, and it's gotten a lot of attention. I'm wondering, what does Dell say, either about your reporting or just in reaction to all of the TikToks about this?

THOMPSON: Dell have not been particularly responsive to me personally. They essentially feel it's what's best for the company, is what they say. But, yeah, a lot of people, aside from the company themselves, are saying that, actually, this is a form of quiet firing, which for anybody that isn't familiar with that phrase, that's when an employer makes working conditions really uncomfortable or just unpleasant in order to sort of get workers to voluntarily leave. And it's a way to just allow them to avoid bad PR and having to pay severance packages. So, yeah, there's a suspicion among a lot of workers that though Dell say this is about the company culture and the business, it's actually the fact that some headcounts need to happen and this is a subtle way to put that into place.

KURTZLEBEN: But it sounds like it might be backfiring, right?

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, a huge proportion of the workforce seem to be rejecting it, and that also means that for those that did choose hybrid, in some locations, they've told me that their offices are actually really empty. And so even though they want to encourage that communal spirit that you get in an office, they're not able to do that because others have just decided to reject it and stay at home.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Polly Thompson of Business Insider. Thank you for speaking with us.

THOMPSON: Thank you for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: And we did reach out to Dell for comment on Polly Thompson's reporting. Their response reads in part, outside the United States, about 75% of our team members have opted to return to the office in a hybrid capacity. In the U.S., nearly 70% of all team members who live near a major Dell office opted for a hybrid role.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.