Staff say Dell's return to office mandate is a stealth layoff, especially for women

Employees feel frustrated by lack of communication and bosses' inability to tell them which offices are open

Exclusive Dell's "return to office" mandate has left employees confused about which offices they can use and the future of their jobs – and concerned the initiative is a stealth layoff program that will disproportionately harm women at the IT giant.

As El Reg broke this month, Dell told employees they each needed to choose between resuming a hybrid work schedule – working from a corporate office part of the time – or continue working remotely. Those who chose to remain as remote workers were effectively making a career-limiting decision.

The implications of choosing to work remotely, we're told, are: "1) no funding for team onsite meetings, even if a large portion of the team is flying in for the meeting from other Dell locations; 2) no career advancement; 3) no career movements; and 4) remote status will be considered when planning or organization changes – AKA workforce reductions."

Another employee said: "Choosing to be remote does indeed put career advancement at a standstill. If you choose to accept a promotion after going remote, that comes with the requirement of being in office 39 days out of the quarter" and you have to reclassify yourself as hybrid. The employee continued: "Even if you choose to make a lateral career move, the same expectation applies. In-role promotions are possible, but rare enough to not be a realistic option."

In the dark

Our first source told us that the new policy is ambiguous. It states that all employees must be either hybrid or remote and will have a one-time chance in March to choose their preference. But Dell is yet to provide a definitive list of approved office sites.

"February might as well become well known as the month Dell held its breath," this employee predicted.

Another told us, "[The RTO policy] has indeed caused some turmoil internally, with leadership not being able to provide guidance of any kind. However, an internal page was quietly posted in the intranet without any fanfare that seems to communicate the offices they plan to open in Phase 1 of their rollout plan."

Yet that document, which lists 17 office locations in the US as well as internationally, indicates that those who elect hybrid work may not be able to attend the office they choose due to capacity or business function constraints.

Dell itself appears to be uncertain about the office space it has available, as demonstrated by an unusual dictum in the location memo: "Note: Do not Google or show up at Dell locations/offices that you have not previously gained access to and expect to have access to that Dell location."

Our second source explained that, based on conversations with colleagues, Dell appears not to have a full list of offices that it owns or can access. "After the policy was announced, I and other team members frantically searched for the nearest office, since Dell was not providing that information in any capacity," we're told. "However, some of those buildings are either no longer owned by Dell or they have moved out."

Those offices would show up if employees searched for them. "The request not to Google and visit locations that aren't in that list is likely to [exercise] further control of employee locations," according to our source.

"Despite this information, leaders are still not confident that this will last long, as major metropolitan areas previously known to house large cultural pillars of the brand (Miami, New York City, etc.) are absent from this list," our second source said. "Given execs are now required to be in the office, it is upsetting folks throughout the company. Several VPs are in areas not present on that list, so I doubt this new policy will last longer than a year."

The official date for the opt-in election is March 7.

Stealth layoffs?

"Many believe this is a plan to force resignations so as to not pay severance packages," our second source alleged. "Then once the dust settles there [may be] a relaxation of the policy."

The other employee who spoke to us said the RTO mandate upends more than 15 years of accommodating remote work at Dell. Under that policy, articulated in a company memo [PDF] that appears to date from early 2021, 65 percent of Dell Technologies employees enjoyed flexible work arrangements. In 2020, founder Michael Dell suggested working from home would become a permanent fixture of life at Dell.

We're told that for the last 15 years Dell has made workers’ location a matter for their managers to decide. That flexibility helped the biz to acquire quality talent and boosted employee loyalty.

"These employees are the backbone of this company, which includes chiefs of staff, transformation leads, program managers, and much more," our first source explained. "Their years of service provide deep institutional knowledge, which has not only helped expedite decision making but has also reduced cost over the years."

This new policy on its face appears to be anti-remote, but in practice will be anti-woman. Anti-woman for career advancement. Anti-woman for bonus calculations next year

Our first source cited personal experience of the return-to-office order's impact and told us only two men were affected, compared to 29 women. Our source made calculations about the impact using internal data, and suggested women will bear the brunt of the RTO mandate.

"Per sample data pulled, this group is disproportionately female," with women whose partners serve in the military perhaps especially impacted as life in uniform often means relocation.

Dell has a program to recruit military service personnel and their spouses.

"This new policy on its face appears to be anti-remote, but in practice will be anti-woman," our first source said. "Anti-woman for career advancement. Anti-woman for bonus calculations next year."

Of those adversely affected, most have more than eight years of experience at Dell and most are 40–55 year old women, we're told. Dell normally pays out severance to workers let go, but those who resign don't get such payments.

Employee departures – particularly among those with some seniority and higher salaries – may be where Dell aims to save money. Research suggests bringing remote workers into corporate offices doesn't boost profits.

We're told the lack of consideration for the policy's impact on women isn't surprising, given the lack of women in Dell's executive ranks.

"With all of the talk of trying to promote females to leadership, Dell is still a boy's club," our first source remarked. "This new policy will only hurt this situation further."

Our other source agreed with this claim. "In my tenure here, Dell has always given the short end of the stick to women, so that does not surprise me."

"You can also see it in the new parent (maternity/paternity leave) policies. Male employees can come back to do the same job again, whereas female employees are guaranteed a job when they return, but there is no guarantee it will be the same one they had when they left."

A billion is not enough

Our first source suggested financial concerns have motivated the RTO mandate. "We had an unbelievable year 2020–2022 … everyone bought extra and early. But our stuff lasts three to five years."

Our second source reckoned that assessment appears accurate. "Units are moving very slowly, and maybe reaching ten percent of expectations – both for new products as well as additional configs."

In November, Dell reported Q3 fiscal 2024 revenue of $22.3 billion – down ten percent year-over-year. Profits were healthy, however, at over $1 billion for the quarter, a 317 percent year on year rise.

Those who spoke to us expressed frustration with the way Dell management has handled the RTO mandate, citing the inconsistency of managerial messaging in group settings and in private, lack of accommodations for individual circumstances, and disinterest in employee needs.

Our second source admitted it's not confidence inspiring to see not only employees, but managers and VPs departing.

There is little sympathy for folks who moved out of metropolitan areas during the pandemic, which Dell encouraged and supported

"Many calls are tense as we are all aware of the turmoil, and feel as if we are going to be on the chopping block," this person explained. "We all continue working slowly, and absorbing as much as we can, as no one knows who will be here next week, or who will be responsible for picking up the pieces.

"Dell has communicated they plan to get below 100K employees, which seems fairly arbitrary as we continue to cut costs somewhere and 'do more with less' as many leaders parrot that mantra. VPs to new grads, no one is safe from the unemployment hammer, only to reenter the workforce in one of the worst job markets in recent history. There is little sympathy for folks who moved out of metropolitan areas during the pandemic, which Dell encouraged and supported.

Tax breaks

"Reading between the lines of the RTO mandate, 'local laws and policies' are mentioned publicly and in multiple calls. This can be traced back to the tax breaks the business receives at the state level for having a certain capacity in different offices. This is what likely drove the specific locations that are called out in the new guidance on metros that are available.

"The company is also calling for AI to reinvigorate sales from B2B to gaming, but has seen little lift on consumer purchases (seen by the reduced finances mentioned). Each new memo on the RTO continues to bring AI into the conversation; positioning the solutions as bleeding edge, meanwhile the house is barely being held together internally."

The Register asked Dell to address the claims made by our sources about the impact of the policy change and its rationale.

A Dell spokesperson replied that the computer corp had nothing to say beyond the statement provided for our previous story earlier this month: "We shared with team members our updated hybrid work policy. Team members in hybrid roles will be onsite at a Dell Technologies office at least 39 days per quarter (on average three days a week). In today's global technology revolution, we believe in-person connections paired with a flexible approach are critical to drive innovation and value differentiation." ®

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