Six years ago, Brittany Podolak packed up her personal photos, file folders and computer and gave up her cubicle at Dell Inc.'s Round Rock headquarters.
Taking advantage of Dell's then-new emphasis on allowing employees to work from home, Podolak officially became a "remote" employee. Though she still goes into the office for meetings, Podolak said most day she's working out of her Cedar Park home.
"Everybody is spread out all over the globe," said Podolak, who is an executive director of human resources for Dell's global operations and supply chain. "There is no reason for me to fight traffic and go sit in a cube on campus when I'm just going to get on the phone."
Podolak is one of 3,000 Dell employees based in the Austin area that no longer have an assigned desk. The company says 25 percent of its global workforce now works remotely either full-time or part-time. That's significantly more than the private sector at large. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics, 2.9 percent of employees at for-profit companies telecommute.
It's not uncommon for companies to offer flexible work arrangements and permit their employees to work from home. Smartphones and laptops mean workers no longer have to be desk-bound.
But Dell has taken the commitment to letting employees work from home -- or wherever they are more comfortable -- more seriously than many companies. The company's goal is to have 50 percent of its workforce work remotely on a full-time or part-time basis by 2020.
"We are pushing for a culture where it simply doesn't matter where you work from," said Mohammed Chahdi, global director of HR services for Dell. He also happens to be remote employee himself, working mostly out of his home in Toronto.
The average Dell employee works remotely 9.7 times per month, according to the company's telecommuting survey. Of the company's Texas-based "remote" employees, Dell says they work from home 18 out of 20 days a month. Even the Texas-based staffers who aren't classified as remote still work away from the office seven days out of 20, according to Dell.
Encouraging employees to work remotely also makes good business sense, Chahdi said. The company says it has saved $39.5 million since fiscal year 2014 by consolidating office space or converting it to flexible unassigned work stations that can be used by any staffer.
'Communication, communication, communication'
Though Dell had always had an informal policy allowing staffers to work from home, Chahdi said it became a formal one in 2009. Not all Dell employees can take advantage of this policy, as some jobs require staffers to be on-site. To go remote, a Dell spokesperson said eligible employees have to get approval from their immediate supervisors.
But just putting that policy in an employee handbook isn't good enough, Chahdi said. The company, which has more than 100,000 employees in 180 countries -- with about 13,000 of those in Central Texas -- had to reassure employees that they were not going to be punished for not being in the office.
Chahdi said at Dell the key was "communication, communication, communication." The goal was for everyone -- from senior executives down to lower-level Dell employees -- to know that working remotely was "accessible within our culture," Chahdi said.
So the company created an employee resource group dedicated to employees who telecommute. They also highlighted workplace flexibility on their social media channels, such as Instagram or Facebook, and through Dell's internal website.
Being a tech company, ensuring employees had the right equipment to work from home was a bit easier. Chahdi said most Dell employees are given laptops that come with cameras and built-in videoconferencing software. Dell also has an internal social network called "Chatter," that has a special group dedicated to remote workers.
"You really want to make sure that your infrastructure" can help employees sprinkled throughout the globe communicate, Chahdi said.
Dell also restructured some of its job listings so that some jobs are not assigned to a geographic area.
A new way to work
As more employees began working remotely, giving up their offices or cubicles, Chahdi said that allowed Dell to "increase the overall usage of our facilities."
Translation: they could fit more people into the same-sized space, thereby saving money.
Dawn Longacre, a global workplace strategist for Dell, said when some staffers no longer have assigned cubicles it allows Dell to reconfigure the workspace to add communal areas and unassigned work stations.
"We typically see a 20 percent increase in capacity," Longacre said. But she said it's not just savings they look for. "Our first and foremost driver is about creating an environment that people want to work in."
On a recent Friday afternoon, Longacre showed off how Dell's work-from-home policies has led to interior design changes.
As construction workers climbed ladders nearby, Longacre strolled through part of the second floor of "Building 2" at Dell's sprawling Round Rock campus.
This section of Dell's headquarters houses the people that manage the company's online operations.
That floor is being converted from drab, grey cubicles into a colorful array of side-by-side work stations, gleaming whiteboards, green-and-gray carpet, and private phone booths and conference rooms. It intentionally resembles the headquarters of a tech startup.
Longacre explained that there are still plenty of cubicles at Dell's Round Rock facilities, and that this floor received the interior design upgrade first because these staffers need to work in close proximity and collaboratively. Plus, they were overdue for an interior refresh.
Dell executives also point out another benefit to offering more unassigned work spaces: Millennials like it. One of Dell's long-term goals is to recruit more recent college graduates.
Founded in 1983, Dell is a grandfather in the tech world compared to younger upstarts like Snapchat and Uber. That can work against them in recruiting young talent.
But Dell says 32 percent of its new hires in fiscal year 2016 were recent college graduates.
Chahdi notes that it's not just Millennials who favor flexible work arrangements. He cited an internal survey that revealed "all demographics," across all ages and races, said that working remotely is something that makes them feel successful.
Chahdi said Dell hasn't tracked whether working from home has led to less or more productivity from its workforce. But he said their "engagement" scores are equal or in some cases higher for people who work remotely. These scores are an indication of how committed someone is to doing their job, he said.
The last time Dell did annual performance ratings was three years ago, he said, and at that time there was no statistical difference in performance between remote employees and non-remote workers.
For Dell staffers such as Podolak, working from her home office has given her flexibility that she didn't have before.
She said some days involve early morning or late evening phone calls to colleagues in other time zones. But the flip side of that is she's able to attend more of her kids' events at school. Podolak has two sons, ages 11 and 15. This type of work-life balance is increasingly important to Dell's workforce, Chahdi said.
"It's up to me to figure out how I'm getting everything done," Podolak said. "It's been a gamechanger."
She's noticed other benefits as well. Her dry cleaning bill is much smaller, and her 18-month-old car only has 12,000 miles on it because she's not making the 15-minute trek to Dell every weekday.
Podolak said her home office has proved to be a sanctuary for productivity, and if anything, she works more total hours as a remote employee than she did before.
"It really frees me up to stay focused on what needs my attention," Podolak said.