Now that we’re a few months into lockdown, many of us have settled in to working from home. It’s rarely perfect - kids running around, dining table computer setups, and awkward video calls are the norm.
Is it the end of the office forever? Probably not. But it looks like this is how we’ll be doing things for quite a while. Gradual openings are on the horizon, but it’ll be a long time before rows of desks will be filled.
The lockdowns have forced companies to face an underlying truth: lots of work can be done at home.
With all the changes and uncertainty of the last few months, we’ve focused on the practicalities of making it work. But there’s been a rather large economic shift alongside this - one that hasn’t had much attention yet. Who pays for it?
Who pays for a home workplace?
Providing workers with a workplace is an expense every business has to deal with. Usually, it involves renting a certain number of desks in an office building, along with the facilities to make them comfortable - electricity, heating, internet, security, toilets, kitchens, breakout areas, meeting rooms, and maybe somewhere to eat.
Now that almost everyone’s working from home, this arrangement's going through a bit of a shake-up. Office leases are being paused or cancelled. Even after lockdowns end, social distancing will remain and offices will have fewer people in at any one time. It’s a bad time to be a commercial property owner, but their occupiers will start to see an upside - less money spent on hiring these facilities.
But those working from home have to be sheltered too. A roof over their heads, heating when it’s cold, plumbing, power, and internet.
They also need a comfortable setup. Working at a dining table just won’t do. To really thrive at home working in the long run, they’ll need proper chairs, desks, arm rests, and accessories for working while standing.
So if companies are saving big chunks of money not having to rent office space, and employees are relying on their own electricity, internet, heating and equipment to provide a work environment… shouldn’t the costs be paid by the companies?
A complicated arrangement
There’s a few reasons it’s not quite so simple.
Firstly, the evolving nature of the global situation means changing policy can be quite difficult. Many managers won’t know how long people will be working from home for. And there may be complications with office space if long-term leases were signed before the global situation occurred.
Working from home on a laptop isn’t feasible for many people - not only for those that find it uncomfortable, but those that need multi-monitor setups or peripherals like drawing tablets. Sure, companies could pay for these, but having the space to use them comfortably isn’t guaranteed. So do they need bigger desks, too?
And long-term home working just isn’t feasible for people in small spaces. Most city-centre apartments don’t have spaces for a decent desk, let alone a dedicated office room.
People further along in their career might have family homes with more space, but younger workers are much less likely to, especially in cities like London where you might be paying half of your income to rent a single bedroom in a shared house that doesn’t even have a lounge.
What we don’t want to see is people with big houses having an advantage in the job market because they’re better suited for home work (although if those with bigger houses are generally further along in their career anyway, they might not be competing for the same position.)
But it does raise an interesting question. If the home becomes an office space - literally the place where work is done - should employers contribute to rent and mortgage payments? And if so, to what extent?
How it could be achieved
As mentioned, the extra funds will be there for lots of businesses. It’s just a case of figuring out how to implement a payment scheme.
We’ve seen other employee support funds from remote companies before. Buffer’s comes to mind - their growth mindset fund (learning and development stipend) is $800 per year, and they provided up to $200 of reimbursement for drinks & snacks bought at coffee shops while working, so staff could get out of the house and work in new environments part of the week. That’s in addition to the new laptop and $500 ‘home office setup’ fund for each new employee.
Supporting staff to take time off and invest in their learning and development is an increasingly common sight. But when home working is an unavoidable part of getting work done, you could argue it should be prioritised over these.
Something to remember for companies offering home working expenses is that there are certain tax, National Insurance and reporting obligations - here’s the government’s advice on how it all works.
(Things are a bit different for those running their own business - they can claim some relief on business rates if they use a home office to do most of their work. Some outgoings can be claimed as expenses, such as a portion of the home utility bills.)
Will the home working stipend become more common?
Whether a home working stipend will become a normal thing is debatable. There are so many variables involved, and differing opinions on who’s responsible for what.
It’s likely that companies that have remote work part of their culture already will be more open to this sort of thing. Support for home working will probably continue to be a perk for progressive online-only companies that believe in the power of positive company culture to drive performance. It might be seen as a benefit to attract talent, rather than a necessity that workers have the right to.
We might see endless dithering and ‘maybe soon’ excuses from bosses that don’t want to commit. Or it might become a widespread expectation for all companies in the New Normal, driven by political will and union activism. As always, the future is hard to predict.
For more resources on working from home, check out our guide to healthy remote work, and if you’re looking for more legal and financial guidance on home working, the ACAS guide is a good place to start.