What is “Hushed Hybrid” and why are Dell employees doing it?

Latest workplace trend is the most controversial yet, as managers openly defy return to work policies.

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Helena Young
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Dell employees are using a new workplace trend known as ‘Hushed Hybrid’ to silently rebel against the company’s strict return to office mandate.

The concept refers to managers secretly allowing reports to work from home, contrary to office policy. It is a symptom of a clandestine battle between employers and staff, caused by some firms attempting to lessen the dominance of home working in today’s workforce.

Earlier this year, Dell rolled out various penalties for remote staff in a bid to improve office attendance. Yet, a report from Business Insider finds Dell managers are choosing not to enforce the new policies and are instead allowing workers to stay away from the office.

Dell’s RTO misfire

Dell’s worker rebellion was first reported by Business Insider. The outlet previously told team members they would risk forgoing promotions and pay rises if they chose to work from home rather than base themselves in the office full-time.

According to Business Insider, the threat has not worked. Internal data, seen by the media company, suggests that around a third of Dell’s international workforce have chosen to stay at home as a result of the ultimatum. In the US, the figure is as high as 50%.

Dell, which employed around 2,200 Brits in 2023, said it believes “in-person connections paired with a flexible approach are critical to drive innovation and value differentiation.”

It will have to agree to disagree with managers. That such a high percentage of employees are continuing to work from home suggests their team leaders are keeping hush on the number of days staff are attending the office, sneakily rolling out their own hybrid work policy.

Managers or peacekeepers?

Dell might have made headlines for its stricter RTO policy. However, it is not the only company battling with the Hushed Hybrid trend. Owl Labs’ hybrid work survey found 70% of managers have chosen not to enforce their company’s RTO policy.

An example of stealth management, the movement suggests that managers are permitting teams to WFH as a form of workplace conflict avoidance.

In the UK and globally, workers have taken to flexible working arrangements like moths to a flame. Most cite personal and financial benefits for the shift.

Indeed, of the 11 dissenters that Business Insider spoke to, most said the money they saved by not attending the office – such as by not having to pay to commute and office lunches – outweighed the financial incentives offered by career progression.

The findings align with a study by Business Name Generator, which found that flexible working is now more important than a pay rise to UK employees.

Hushed Hybrid harms culture

Multiple workplace trends, such as quiet quitting, have dominated water cooler chats this year. While the validity of each alliterative label has been hotly debated, all are emblematic of a troubling disconnect between bosses and workers in the UK.

Managers who carry out hushed hybrid working might keep their team members placated in the short-term. But the wider impact on organisational culture could be detrimental.

That staff feel free to disregard office policy indicates that workers do not value the opinions and wishes of their employer. It could also foster future dissent on other rules.

Boots has attempted to embrace the hushed hybrid trend by empowering managers to use their own judgement on a return to office. While admin workers should attend the office five days a week, it said, “there will of course be times when working from home is necessary.”

Is it time to rethink the return?

Boots’ flexible approach is undoubtedly preferable to brands such as Dell. But it does raise a simple question: what’s the point?

If businesses feel assured that they can still function with staff working remotely, taking the risk of alienating employees by demanding a return to work feels nonsensical.

Perhaps what the hushed hybrid movement really signals is that the time is up on RTO mandates. As Dell’s dismal desk drive shows, such policies are rarely successful and more likely to cause problems for companies than to solve them.

In response to the trend, business leaders intent on ridding remote work should take another approach to find the sweet spot between staff preferences and leaders’ authority.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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