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Dell reneges on remote work promise, tells staff to wear pants at least 3 days a week

Some say return to the office is a soft layoff, others blame Gen Z

Less than three years after an exec promised the majority of Dell staff would forever work mostly from home, the company has called workers back into the office for at least three out of five days per week.

The Register has confirmed that an internal memo from chief operating officer Jeff Clarke to workers this week stated that those living within an hour's commute to a major Dell office should come in for those minimum three days.

The email claimed the company would still be flexible with workers on which days of the week the commutes needed to happen and set a deadline for "as soon as you can arrange it."

"We know many of us have arranged our lives around remote work over the past three years," said Clarke. "This is not a light switch transition. We understand it will take time to prepare and adjust to being in the office more regularly again. This is the beginning of us more clearly defining hybrid work for our company."

It's a stark contrast with Clarke's early pandemic earnings call speech:

After all of this investment to enable remote everything, we will never go back to the way things were before. Here at Dell, we expect, on an ongoing basis, that 60 percent of our workforce will stay remote or have a hybrid schedule where they work from home mostly and come into the office one or two days a week.

At the time, Clarke said: "COVID-19 has made one thing clear to us: work is something you do, an outcome, not a place or a time. And it takes teamwork and a culture that prioritises outcomes and results over effort."

Clarke had said that although team members juggled parenting, caregiving, and other matters, employee engagement and productivity was at an all-time high.

"We are seeing a human transformation right before our eyes," he trilled.

Michael Dell himself doubled down on a commitment to continued remote work in September of last year, stating that those "counting on forced hours spent in a traditional office to create collaboration and provide a feeling of belonging" were "doing it wrong."

The concept of the digital nomad is one Dell has leaned into as an ethos for over a decade. It's certainly handy for marketing purposes.

"Whether it's hybrid work, remote work, flexible work or in-office work, one thing is fundamentally consistent: technology. It is the great equalizer driving collaboration and productivity, providing new experiences of flexibility and freedom," said a March company blog post featuring laptops and other Dell products.

Dell also spent some time and energy selling off buildings at its Round Rock headquarters as staff went remote. The company sold approximately 35 acres so Las Vegas-based datacenter developer and operator Switch could build a 1.5 million square-foot campus.

With fewer people coming in, the company also opted for "hotel cubes," cubicles shared among a group that must be signed up for in advance. One person commented in online forum that when the doors to the office were reopened in 2022, "no one came running back to work in shared cubes and reduced amenities."

According to Dell the man, 65 percent of employees were already using remote work opportunities one to five days a week before the pandemic, of which The Reg has been told two days in the office was standard before it was dropped to zero during COVID. The new increase to three days a week appears to affect most but not all groups - some individuals report their team has been given a reprieve. And after years of such reduced employee numbers on campus, it is reasonable that amenities had long been cut.

The Register is aware that some staffers are now concerned there may not be enough desks, parking and other resources, and that inadequate infrastructure is causing a degree of panic among employees.

But frustrations and concerns are easier to deal with when reasons for uncomfortable changes are explained – even if it means increased commutes and childcare costs just to sit on Zoom calls with customers elsewhere.

Unfortunately, Clarke's email seems devoid of it.

While rumors have appeared on online forums that the return to the office is a way to get unhappy employees to quit without paying redundancy compensation, others have speculated that it's for the benefit of a workforce that spans multiple generations.

One person commented on The Layoff:

I have always worked from home over the past 15 years. During COVID it worked for a while but then we kept hiring and hiring timid students and people who were attracted to working from bed.

It became a joke. Juniors send memes around about using text is better than phoning people. No initiative to do the work they are given and no one to help them. Because there is no one around them to learn from and their manager is missing and equally as unskilled they just go quiet.

So we have to hand hold them or do their work for them to keep others supported. It affects the pay of our team and we work twice as much to carry the wrong hires straight from college.

It's a sentiment backed up by Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, who said last December that newbies on the payroll are less productive when not in the office.

However, research from Microsoft published in September suggested staff are just as fruitful at home but their bosses don't know it, leading to a type of "productivity paranoia."

One thing is certain – Dell is hardly an outlier when it comes to bringing employees back on site. Salesforce called hundreds of workers back to the office in December. Amazon also mandated a return of 300,000 corporate staff in February.

As for those returning to Dell's campuses three days a week, may your coffee be hot, your commute be traffic-free, and your foosball tables dust off easily. ®

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