Seven months into the pandemic, and with no clear end in sight, companies are beginning to take the long view regarding remote work. Google, Facebook and Twitter have extended their remote working policies into the beginning of 2021 and beyond. Other companies, large and small, are sure to follow.
Right now, approximately 44% of working Americans are doing their jobs from home.1 It’s clear that many will continue to do so even when COVID-19 is no longer a threat. A recent survey of 283 large employers found they expect nearly 20% of their employees to continue working remotely post-pandemic.2 The consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics predicts that 30% of the workforce will work offsite at least part of the time.3
What once appeared a temporary stopgap to meet shelter-in-place mandates and concerns over employee health is quickly becoming the new normal. But the ad hoc way most companies have been dealing with the largescale shift to offsite work isn’t sustainable over the long haul. For remote employees to be productive, effective and happy, employers need to implement or rethink home office policies, procedures and benefits. Understanding the challenges your employees face, and offering them the solutions they need, can help assure your success. Ignoring those needs could result in dysfunction, disgruntlement, and even lawsuits.
Let’s look at the financial burden many remote workers have been shouldering.
In the scramble to transition from office to home at the outset of the pandemic, nearly 57% of remote workers had to make do without their usual office equipment (because they weren’t allowed to take it home).4 A survey of 850 remote workers found that they spent an average of $194 setting up a makeshift home office.5 In addition to purchasing many office basics—monitors, printers (and ink and paper), ethernet cables, desks, chairs, etc.—many workers found it necessary to upgrade their home internet for video conferencing and large file transfers. In many cases, a personal smartphone has become the new “office” phone.
Yet many businesses don’t offer assistance paying for either the phone itself or its wireless service plan. In areas where home internet connectivity is lacking, those phones are put into service for more than calls and texts. According to one survey, 43% of workers have found it necessary to use their smartphone as an internet hotspot.6 To address this need, some carriers instituted a temporary grace period, providing customers up to 20GB of additional data at no extra charge. It’s likely, however, that all carriers will eventually pass the cost for additional data on to the user.
There are other expenses that go beyond office supplies and furniture, but which factor into employee comfort and productivity. For example, during this past summer, many remote employees saw a significant rise in energy costs due to increased use of air conditioning. (One study found that bills could increase by nearly 25%.7)
Prior to 2018, help with some of these expenses came in the form of federal income tax deductions. But ‘The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’ eliminated home office deductions for anyone who was not self-employed. In Alabama, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania, employees can take a deduction for unreimbursed business expenses on their state income tax return. But for most employees, employer stipends and reimbursements are the only solution.
Many companies have yet to take action. In one survey, two-thirds said they intended to provide tools and resources to remote workers, yet only two in ten had done so—and only one in ten were offering help with the expenses associated with working from home long-term.8 It’s understandable that in the first hectic months of the pandemic, most companies didn’t have the time or bandwidth to focus on benefits for remote workers. Now, however, a home office benefit program is becoming essential to employee productivity and satisfaction. Employees can’t work at the kitchen table forever. Nor are most willing to continue footing the bill indefinitely for tools, equipment and services necessary to do their jobs.
In addition, there’s also a legal component. States including California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Montana, and New Hampshire already mandate some level of reimbursement by employers for job-related remote employee expenses. How far other states will go to address the new normal remains to be seen. But legal experts anticipate a wave of lawsuits by remote employees looking for more assistance and reimbursement from their companies. And many believe that getting ahead of the matter now could save you money, hard feelings and legal fees later.
In our next post, we will look at what some companies are doing to support remote employees financially, and we’ll discuss some best practices for addressing your company’s needs.
Editor’s Note: TASC offers a Home Office Account and separately, an Office Supplies Expense Reimbursement Account, from more than 50 benefit offerings that can be instantly configured into custom plans that meet employee needs; where they are in life. https://www.tasclargemarkets.com/endless-aisle
1. “Is it Time for Employers to Reimburse Remote Workers’ Expenses?” SHRM, September 2020: https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/employers-may-overlook-reimbursing-remote-work-expenses.aspx
3. “This is the end of the office as we know it,” Vox, April 2020: https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/14/21211789/coronavirus-office-space-work-from-home-design-architecture-real-estate
4. “Is it Time for Employers to Reimburse Remote Workers’ Expenses?” SHRM, September 2020: https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/employers-may-overlook-reimbursing-remote-work-expenses.aspx
6. “6 Ways COVID-19 Will Change The Workplace Forever,” Forbes, May 2020: https://www.forbes.com/sites/williamarruda/2020/05/07/6-ways-covid-19-will-change-the-workplace-forever/#346a3160323e
7. “Heatwaves and COVID Mean Higher Home Electricity Bills,” Union of Concerned Scientists, July 2020: https://blog.ucsusa.org/joseph-daniel/heatwaves-covid-means-higher-electricity-bills
8. "Is it Time for Employers to Reimburse Remote Workers’ Expenses?” SHRM, September 2020: https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/employers-may-overlook-reimbursing-remote-work-expenses.aspx