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Who pays for remote work?

Last updated on 
February 15, 2021

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The remote work model is lauded as a more cost-effective option to offices. Companies don’t need to rent office space, pay for utilities, or provide food and equipment – and employees don’t need to pay for expensive commutes. But arguably, in many cases remote work just transfers the cost of working to individual employees. To be sustainable long-term, the remote work model requires complete transparency and corporate accountability. So what can companies do to ensure their remote work offering doesn’t contribute to the perceived trend towards an “individualization of risk”?

The individualization of risk

Part of sociologist Ulrich Beck’s concept of the “individualization of risk” is tied to a perceived shift of work risk and costs away from institutions onto individuals. It argues that responsibility for things like employee health, job security and career development is increasingly falling to individual employees to work out for themselves, instead of being enshrined in policy by corporations.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have instigated a slight reversal in this trend, as companies scramble to meet expectations to prioritize the mental, physical and financial wellbeing of employees. Yet there can be little doubt that the mass shift to remote work has been matched by investment in robust, transparent corporate policy to acknowledge and deal with the economic realities of working from home. While remote workers may not have to fork out for costly commutes or overpriced lunches, there are still plenty of costs associated with the work model that need to be covered – including internet, energy and phone bills, work and office equipment, and coworking space access.

The hidden costs of remote work

According to a recent State of Remote Work survey by Buffer, 75% of remote workers report that their company doesn’t pay for their home internet. After almost a year of remote work, many companies have moved permanently towards home-based working – but a long-term shift brings with it new costs. While working at the kitchen counter may be fine as a short-term solution, it can’t act as a permanent office space. Employees will need to set up dedicated at-home work stations, with an ergonomic chair, decent lighting and fast internet. They’ll also need to foot the bill for increased utility bills. So who pays for all that?

Most companies don’t reimburse their employees for remote work costs – and a big problem with this is that many don’t feel any pressure to. Even though it’s been a necessity over the past year, remote work is still viewed by many as a perk – something that’ll be taken away once “normal life” resumes. People don’t feel they can ask to be paid for a perk, but the truth is that it’s employers who benefit most from remote work. Pre-Covid, companies saved around $10,000 a year for each remote employee. When it’s the employer making the savings, not the employee, it’s clear that the (often hidden) costs of remote work must be acknowledged. So what are the best ways of doing this?

How companies can help employees

To examine how companies can help their employees out, we need to take a closer look at the costs of remote work.

⚡️ Utilities

When you work from home full-time, you’ll soon see the difference in your utility bills. You’ll be using more electricity to power your devices all day and light your work space, as well as heating or air conditioning. You may also need to fork out for high-speed internet or extenders to strengthen your connection for video calls – especially if you’re sharing internet with other workers and students at home. Given the hefty savings from not having to commute or buy expensive lunches, this difference should be negligible – but it’s debatable whether you should still have to foot the bill.

🪑 Office equipment

The obvious cost is setting up a home office. If you’re lucky enough to have a spare room, you’ll still need a desk and an ergonomic chair as a bare minimum. If you don’t have the space or privacy to work efficiently – or you need to use expensive office equipment you don’t have – you can rent a coworking space. But who should pay for it? According to Buffer’s State of Remote Work survey, 71% of respondents said their work doesn’t cover the cost of coworking membership. Since the average cost of a coworking space in the US varies from $195 – $387 per month, this is a sizable – and unfair – cost to expect remote workers to foot.

💻 Remote work tools

For successful remote work, you need access to cloud-based software, all of which should be provided by your employer. As the boundaries between our personal and professional spaces continue to blur, more of us than ever are using our private mobile phones for work. This is a cost that most employers do currently cover; around 89% of companies pay towards phone expenses. “Bring your own device” policies are also popular, with many people using personal laptops for work – but if your personal device packs in, who pays to service or replace it?

Trying to factor in the complexities of transferring costs can make remote work seem less attractive for employers – switching one office heating bill for percentages of multiple employee heating bills seems counter-intuitive and potentially more expensive. Within this context, pushing the whole cost debate raises another quietening risk for employees: that if a job can be done from home, equally it can be done offshore at a much cheaper rate. So what’s the solution?

Rather than forking out for new devices, or paying a percentage of bills, the simplest, fairest solution is for employers to offer remote work stipends. As remote work continues to become the norm, remote workers will expect their employers to deliver a better working experience. We already know that 2020 has fundamentally reshaped corporate social responsibility and the incoming values-conscious workforce is increasingly discerning. If a company doesn’t provide a great remote work experience and full transparency, the best talent will simply go elsewhere.

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