Return-to-office drama at Dyson shows divide over working from home

Two dozen former employees say engineering firm took uncompromising measures to ensure staff returned to its U.K. campus

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Six weeks into the United Kingdom’s first pandemic lockdown, employees at the British engineering group Dyson Ltd. received an email from chief executive Roland Krueger.

The U.K. campus, a sprawling complex in rural Wiltshire, had “reopened,”said the May 15, 2020 email.

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The government had announced five days earlier that people who were unable to work from home could return to the workplace. Staff at Dyson Technology Ltd., best known for its innovative vacuum cleaners and air filters, would be organized into A and B teams and expected to return to the Malmesbury office the following Monday.

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But schools and non-essential shops were still shut, and businesses that could were working remotely. The virus was still rampant; on the day the email was sent, 1,337 people testing positive for COVID-19 were on ventilators in U.K. hospitals.

The decision was reversed less than 24 hours later following uproar by staff, and working from home was allowed to carry on as before.

Yet this early clash marked the opening of a cultural divide at the company: between the top executives who took a granite-hard approach to in-person staffing as lockdowns lifted, and a group of employees who balked at the ever-stricter measures Dyson took to ensure attendance at its U.K. headquarters.

Interviews with 27 employees who have now left the company paint a picture of how senior staff at the U.K. campus upheld uncompromising restrictions in the months after the corporate world reopened.

Staff were subjected to rigorous monitoring and warned of professional consequences if they failed to attend in person. Some former employees say flexible working requests were overwhelmingly declined, and some describe feeling pressured to leave children and dependants with care provisions provided by the company so they could still come into work.

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Dyson says having people working together physically is core to their philosophy, as espoused by the company’s iconoclastic founder, Sir James Dyson. “(We work) collaboratively, side by side, making discoveries through experiments and sparking ideas off each other,” he told the Financial Times in a statement. “You simply can’t do this kind of work from home.”

The company invited the FT to its campus in August to interview employees and witness how interconnected its teams are: marketing, for example, works in lock-step with sales, engineering and other functions. The company says this kind of organization allows them to better solve problems, collaborate and support customers.

The expectation to attend work in person should not have been a surprise to employees, says one person familiar with the business. “That’s the type of company we are, we want them all back … the philosophy of the company is what people (who join) buy into.”

The situation at Dyson is a dramatic example of the sorts of disputes that are still playing out across workplaces in the U.K. and beyond, as employers and workers hold differing perspectives of what the post-COVID workplace will look like.

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Some companies have accepted hybrid working as the new normal. At others, managers have attempted to bring employees back, sometimes with incentives and increasingly by disciplinary measures. Even Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which has a three-day office policy, has unveiled plans to include attendance rates in performance reviews.

But at Dyson, the more than two dozen former employees say the ever more rigid attempts to force workers to attend in-person changed the culture of a company recognized worldwide as a beacon of engineering excellence and a flagship of British industry.

Dyson, they say, became for a time a business where managers were pitted against workers, and employees felt hemmed in and controlled. Four people who ultimately walked away independently characterized the atmosphere at the time as one of “fear.”

The Dyson way

In the early weeks of the pandemic, hundreds of staff at the Dyson campus came to the office while other British workers were still under orders to stay home.

Their mission was to design and manufacture ventilators on its site for emergency rooms across the country, working with masks and other protection measures.

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Dyson says Sir James was contacted by then-prime minister Boris Johnson asking for his company’s help, and that the company paid for all the parts and materials itself.

The ventilator episode reinforced Sir James Dyson’s views and those of other decision makers in the company that it was not only possible to safely operate in person, but essential for the kind of work they needed to do.

“The ventilator was an extraordinary achievement but entirely typical of the way Dyson works,” the founder said.

So when, on Nov. 2, 2020, the business secretary declared that it was “vital that scientists and engineers working in R&D continue to come together in labs and workplaces across the country,” Dyson promptly updated staff in an email.

Those working in research design and development, operations or quality were told “you should work on campus.” Staff could only work from home in “exceptional cases,” it added. Much of the rest of the country, however, was preparing for the second national lockdown, which began on Nov. 5.

Some former staff whose jobs at Dyson did not involve being in the labs spoke of the frustration at being asked to come into the office when they felt able to continue working from home.

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Dyson says that at the time, three-quarters of Dyson employees were still working from home. For those whose role required them to attend, Dyson deployed safe working measures that went significantly beyond government guidelines, the company says.

As vaccines began being rolled out, the company let employees know what was expected of them. On June 16, 2021, an email to staff from the company’s chief legal officer, Martin Bowen, said the company in the U.K. was “asking all Dyson people to spend the majority of their (working) time on campus.”

When the government reintroduced working-from-home guidance in December that year, as the new Omicron variant spread, Dyson leadership continued to ask many of its U.K. staff to work in the office. “All Dyson offices will remain open as normal,” an email sent to staff on Dec. 9, 2021 stated.

The list of those teams who were expected to work in the office “as normal” was extensive and included commercial, research, development, estates, security and IT.

Dyson said: “As a global technology company there are certain ways that we work to ensure research and development processes, creativity and collaboration are encouraged, and confidentiality is maintained. This is the Dyson way.

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“We brought people into the workplace in line with government guidance on the subject and when that guidance indicated that certain staff should work at home, we sent them home. Dyson, at all stages, behaved responsibly and did the right thing.”

Attendance allowance

As the pandemic subsided, what had begun as a concerted effort to ensure workers returned to the office morphed into what some who subsequently left described as a culture obsessed with monitoring staff attendance.

Attendance and absence levels were logged on spreadsheets and reviewed weekly by senior directors on Friday afternoons. Several former Dyson managers said they would be notified by HR if a member of their team had failed to come into the office.

They said they were given template emails to send to their more junior colleagues, reminding them of their obligation to be in the office, which the former managers describe as “aggressive” and “condescending.”

One former member of the company’s HR team says they felt they were being asked to send a message to staff about the potential consequences of non-attendance.

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“There was a real pressure on the HR team to threaten people that if they didn’t come to the office, there could be disciplinary action,” they said. “We really felt that.”

Dyson says this is a mischaracterization of “sensible and reasonable” internal communications designed to keep employees appraised of working conditions that changed often in the post-lockdown months. Staff reviewed employment data, it says, to “ensure working practices always remained safe and appropriate.”

Nevertheless, for employees already living through a deeply anxious period, the tone of these policies had a marked effect.

The FT has spoken to four former employees who went off on a formal period of sick leave and cited work stress as the main contributor to their worsened mental state.

One younger employee who later left described having regular panic attacks and taking themselves to the office bathroom to “settle down.”

Another, a manager, describes the stress of pressuring their team to come into the office. “I didn’t agree with any of it,” they said.

“I had to check like a school teacher who was coming in when, and force people back in the office,” a second former manager said. “It wasn’t my style of leadership … there was a real culture of fear.”

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There was a real culture of fear

Former manager

Before the pandemic, some in the company had agreed flexible working practices with their managers, typically for family or child care reasons. But afterwards, the discovery of these informal agreements by senior managers triggered a consultation process of people’s working practices, according to two former HR employees.

The old flexibility was gone. Unless staff had pre-existing arrangements formally written into their contract, they were encouraged to accept working in the office five days a week, or to put in a formal flexible working request.

“This is when it got farcical,” claims one of the former HR employees. “They barely approved any of those requests. It was horrendous.” The other says they too believed almost all requests were rejected.

Dyson disputes this, and says any pre-existing authorized arrangements continued. Informal or unauthorized arrangements were assessed by reference to the needs of the business and the specific role being performed by the individual and a decision was made as to whether that arrangement should continue. The majority of such arrangements continued, it says.

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It was entirely appropriate and necessary to seek to understand the range of working practices or arrangements that were in place, Dyson adds, and review how they needed to evolve.

A return-to-work scheme in September 2021 showed the extent Dyson wanted staff on site. Anyone whose regular child-care arrangements fell through was encouraged to call a back-up care provision service that would send a carer to the employee’s home, paid for by the company.

Dyson says this was introduced as part of a package of measures designed to help staff, and emphasizes it was a benefit that people could choose to use as they wished.

But former staff say that while the child care was not mandatory, they saw it as a way to ensure attendance at all costs. “It was all part of the (psychological) contract, this pressure to come in,” said one former member of the campus’s human resources team.

During this period, many decided this culture was not for them. “There were weeks we were getting six or seven resignations a day,” said one former member of the company’s campus HR team. “It was every day in the office that somebody else had handed in their notice,” added another former senior employee.

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There were weeks we were getting six or seven resignations a day

former HR team member

Dyson says voluntary turnover of staff in the U.K. in 2021 was 20.2 per cent. Total turnover including involuntary leavers was 26.8 per cent, a level that Dyson says is below industry norms for the time.

One person still within the business says that attrition rates actually fell during the period, in part because Dyson kept paying all of its staff during the pandemic, and because of the wider uncertainty about leaving jobs at the time.

Many of the former employees who contacted the FT say their experience was made worse by the high expectations they had of working for a shining light of innovation.

“It should be one of the best places in the U.K. to work and it’s just not and that is one of the saddest things,” said one former senior employee. “They have the best technology but it is a draconian culture.”

A performance business

Dyson’s employees acknowledge that it is not an ordinary place to work.

The ever-expanding site in Wiltshire merges the allure of a Californian tech campus with the founder’s deep love of aircraft: a Lightning XM173 jet fighter hangs from the ceiling of its canteen, where meals are free.

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Despite the glass facade on its office buildings, the company is obsessive about secrecy. The business is paranoid about competition, especially from fleet-footed Asian rivals who often bring out devices that are eerily similar to the U.K. group’s own designs within months or sometimes even weeks of Dyson’s own models hitting shelves.

Visitors to the campus are typically asked to sign confidentiality forms, while potential suppliers are required to fill out detailed non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, before even holding preliminary meetings. (Dyson waived its standard non-disclosure requirement for the FT’s visit.)

Such discretion is not unusual among highly innovative companies that are desperate to keep their latest projects secret, whether carmakers or consumer device makers such as Apple Inc.

In this context, Dyson argues that its monitoring of attendance was not unusual; staff movements were already closely watched because of the need to swipe in and out of the myriad security gates throughout the site.

“Inevitably, when you bring people back in, then you start to measure it much more sharply,” said one person familiar with the business, who adds that attendance rates became a “key performance measure” to help the company gauge its productivity.

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Employers have a legal duty to be aware of where their staff are located and the circumstances in which they are working, they add. The priority in all of its decisions was to protect staff and keep them safe, Dyson says.

During its five-hour visit, the FT was shown how Dyson employees collaborate. The marketing, sales and research departments work in the same building. In one room, a giant trading floor-style screen streams live data showing the number of customers browsing Dyson websites around the world, allowing the marketing team to divert increased advertising spending.

Another screen shows live data of global air quality — fed back from the air filters Dyson has sold around the world — that the business uses to track potential markets for its new air-filter mask.

Down the corridor, a team is filming a social media advert in an in-house studio. These videos are produced rapidly, sometimes within 24 hours, in response to sales trends and demands.

Engineers often feature in the videos, to explain technical details of the products. “We work closely with the engineers when they’re developing products,” said studio head Dan Bird, one of the 25 employees who were selected in advance to speak to the FT.

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The battery laboratory is also on this site, filled with specialized machines for experimenting with cells. The engineers are frequently working here, said lab employee Ken Armstrong. “Getting hands on helps to understand the problems.”

“You can’t sit in front of a computer and do this stuff,” added Mark Taylor, Dyson’s chief research officer.

The messaging about returning to work was not all stick and no carrot. There was “lots of discussion” internally about the right approach to get staff back on site, says one person familiar with the business.

You can’t sit in front of a computer and do this stuff

Mark Taylor, chief research officer

Several measures, including free meals, free transportation to and from campus and free fertility treatment were all introduced during the period, though Dyson says these were to reward staff rather than to induce people to return to campus.

But what one set of employees viewed as reasonable measures to bring back employees and keep productivity levels high, another smaller group saw as an attempt to ratchet up pressure on workers. COVID, one said, was a “turning point.”

In many other companies, the pandemic-era restrictions gave way to a more elastic working environment where people’s jobs were not tied to their offices. Perhaps for some workers at Dyson, that reset expectations for how they should be treated. To senior executives, however, the culture has remained the same since before the pandemic.

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“It’s a tough environment, we’re a performance business,” said the person familiar with the business. “James hasn’t built up this company without having a vision that isn’t absolutely clear.”

© 2023 The Financial Times Ltd

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