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When Joseph Skewes checked his electricity bill he was shocked. His power usage had shot up by nearly a third compared to the same time last year, and that was despite his air conditioning unit being out of action due to a fault for a third of the time. The Australian, who works in IT for the public sector in Adelaide, is one of a number of people worldwide who have taken to social media to complain about bearing the brunt of increased costs as workplaces have encouraged employees to work from home.
He’s one of 40 per cent of Australians who believe the cost of their utility bills has gone up since the coronavirus outbreak began, according to Ipsos-Mori polling. And in the UK, bigger bills are a big worry, too. Thirty per cent of Brits say their bills have increased during the crisis.
Early research indicates that the increase in working from home could lead to the average household paying 37 per cent more for their energy this year. Given Office for National Statistics data shows nearly half of us are working from home in some form right now, up significantly from before the pandemic, the issue is of concern for many.
But what can employees do if the new normal involves turning houses into offices?
“In general, employers are not obliged to subsidise the costs of working from home or travel,” explains Alexandra Mizzi, legal director at Howard Kennedy, a London-based law firm. But there are exceptions to this. While employers don’t have to pay for your phone or internet bill – or the increased electricity usage you’ll likely have when plugging in your laptop all day, every day – they do have a legal obligation to do everything ‘reasonably practicable’ to maintain your health and safety. “The employer must assess any risks to health and safety and take steps to reduce those – which might well include providing a suitable desk and chair if the employee’s set-up is liable to cause backache or vision problems,” says Mizzi.
That’s something a number of employers have done. When Nominet, the registry company that oversees the .uk domain name, began sending people home, it realised it had to offer alternatives for the new work from home normal. “What we found was people’s home infrastructure was set up to work from home, but not for a prolonged period of time,” says Russell Haworth, the company’s CEO. The company, which has said it won’t expect employees back in the office until January 2021 unless they want to work from a collaborative building, began shipping office chairs, monitors and keyboards to its workers, as well as offering a £100 stipend per employee to buy anything else they might need to work comfortably – such as a desk or a footrest.
That’s important as research by tech firm Lenovo indicates nearly two in three UK workers have bought new technology to help them do their jobs remotely, and a quarter have had to stump up their own cash to cover the cost in part or in total. According to the survey, the average British worker has spent £271 upgrading their home working technology.
For those who want to work from home, Nominet has also opened up its offices on a part-time basis, allowing those who prefer to be in an office to do so. “We’ve opened up the office to ensure people who can’t easily work at home through a number of different circumstances – kids in the household or potential domestic abuse – can come back into the office,” says Haworth. Around 20 of the company’s 250 employees have taken up that offer, signing up to go back into the socially distanced office.
The company is also sending employees masks to make them feel more at ease, and is promoting even more its offer of free flu jabs, anticipating the potential winter spike for Covid-19 and trying to prevent a double-whammy of flu as well. It’s likely that more employers who offer frivolous workplace perks like free food in the office or gym memberships will see requests change towards more sensible perks, such as private medical insurance, access to PPE, and the ability to work from home safely.
As yet, Haworth hasn’t considered covering energy bills. “We’ve not put anything in place at the moment to take into account energy bills, but there are things like office supplies – printer ink, for example – where people can expense it,” he says. However, it’s something he says the company could consider looking at. “If it’s going to be for a longer period of time, we understand people will be utilising some of those resources and we’ll cover those costs,” he explains. “Energy bills are less clear-cut, but where there are clear examples, clearly we’ll look at that.”
That’s something welcomed by the country’s trade unions. “No-one should be out of pocket as a result of working from home,” says Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, a major workers’ union. “Employers’ responsibilities don’t end there. Bosses also need to ensure the health and safety of home workers and take account of people’s different requirements.”
O’Grady believes that as well as equipment to allow people to work from home, companies should also be promoting flexible working for parents and ensuring disabled employees aren’t left behind by the changes.
But it’s not just through energy bills and extra screens that employers are potentially out of pocket if bosses don’t fork out. Every time you heat up your lunch in the microwave in your own kitchen or flush the toilet in your own bathroom, you’re incurring costs that would previously have been paid during the working day by your employer. “There are some tax reliefs available for home workers which might offset some of the extra costs of utilities and equipment,” says Mizzi. “Anyone who is working from home for any length of time should look into these to see if they can claim.”
There’s also the risk that as things return to normal, bosses may ask employees to start returning to work – with the potential knock-on effect that would have on the cost of commuting. Currently, the availability of flexible season tickets is limited on UK trains, with employees potentially paying for a full-time season ticket while only using it once or twice a week if they’re allowed to predominately work from home. Others may feel uncomfortable getting onto increasingly crowded trains, with public polling indicating six in ten are not yet comfortable using public transport.
Employers aren’t required to cover or subsidise transport costs – and often didn’t do before the crisis, says Mizzi, but some now are. “It’s not entirely clear whether the employer’s health and safety obligations extend to travelling on public transport, and what they are required to do to mitigate those risks,” she adds. Instead of paying for car or taxi travel, many employers are now providing staff with extra bike racks and shower facilities, participating in the Cycle to Work scheme, or providing face coverings for staff who have to travel on public transport.
The coronavirus conundrum has thrown up more questions than answers at present, but with the prime minister saying that employers can bring people back to workplaces from August 1, workers and their bosses are left in a strange stalemate: do they continue working from home, potentially shouldering the costs that would ordinarily be paid by their employer, or risk a journey into the office and end up with more in their pay packet at the end of the month? Like many things to do with the pandemic, it’s an unenviable choice.
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