When it first started, a laptop at the kitchen table was fine. Many people in office jobs had spent a few days here and there working from home before. But as remote work morphs from an emergency measure into a semi-permanent way of life, many people are finding that they have to spend money to remain effective.
Employees are upgrading from endless hours on the couch to ergonomically designed office chairs. Some are purchasing desktop monitors to supplement tiny laptop screens crowded with open windows. Others are boosting Internet speeds so they can video conference while their kids stream Elmo.
As these costs add up, a question has emerged: Who should pay?
The explosion in remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to transfer the costs of maintaining a productive workspace from the employer to the employee. And some observers say the crisis requires a fundamental change in how we think about remote work.
“For a long time, it was, ‘Oh, you get this benefit of working from home. That’s awesome for you if you want to do that,’” said Amy Spurling, chief executive of Compt, a Boston startup that helps companies manage perks and track their use. “Now, in an environment where you may not be able to safely work in an office, I think that responsibility shifts,” Spurling said.
Some employers have begun to pay for a portion of employees’ out-of-pocket costs for home offices. Brightcove, the Boston online video-hosting company, has made two rounds of $100 payouts available to its 625 employees who are working remotely at least until September.
Lauren McHugh, senior product marketing manager at Brightcove, used some of the money to buy a new display for her desktop computer. She’s also looking at getting a better camera for video calls.
McHugh didn’t have a problem spending her own money on a new desk or chair for her home office. She had been meaning to fix it up, anyway, before the pandemic. The electronics, however, are things she may not have purchased if she still worked out of a corporate office.
“I think I spent the first two weeks at the dining room table, and then I really got inspired to get my stuff together and make a place where I can work and set my computer up like I had at the office,” she said.
Jeff Ray, chief executive of Brightcove, said the need to help employees with home office costs was immediately clear. Soon after he shut down the company’s global offices, in mid-March, he got on a call with an international employee who had no other option but to work from bed because he did not have an appropriate space in his crowded home.
He said the company isn’t saving big on office space for now; it’s still bound by leases at locations it’s not using. But Ray and his team are reviewing real estate commitments. If remote work becomes a more permanent part of Brightcove’s structure, he said, the company may look at other ways to defray employees’ at-home expenses.
“It does us no good to try to save five or 10 cents on the dollar, and have our employees not be able to support customers, or each other, or do innovation,” he said.
Ray said he recognizes that some employees may not have the space in their homes to work there permanently — especially those who live with family or in crowded, expensive cities around the world.
But there are many indications that office life as we know it will not go back to normal, even after an effective vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 becomes available.
A report released this month by the Society for Human Resources Management said that more than a third of businesses say they are now more likely to have employees working remotely on a full-time basis. And a recent World Economic Forum Survey found that 98 percent of people who participated would like the option of working from home for the rest of their careers.
Unlike people who work for themselves at home, workers who do not have an ownership stake in their employers generally can’t deduct spending on home office costs on their taxes, according to Derek Silveira, a tax partner at the accounting firm LGA in Woburn.
Nicholas A. Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University who has studied issues related to remote work, said such a change could create what he calls the “Ikea-ization” of office costs — a reference to the way the Swedish superstores helped shift the responsibility for assembly from the seller to the customer.
But he believes the effect on many employees may be a wash. Because commuting costs ― including transit passes, gasoline, and vehicle upkeep — have declined so much, many workers are probably saving more than they’re spending on their home offices.
That could be stressful in the short run, Bloom said. For people who are strapped for cash amid a recession, the outlays for new gear could be one more blow. But over time, he said, money saved by not commuting “will probably pay for a laptop and a chair.”
The need to supply and maintain an individual workspace isn’t new for people in the gig economy. Drivers maintain their own vehicles, freelance photographers keep their own cameras in working order, and people doing piece work from a desk often buy their own office equipment.
For Pamela St. Aimee of Mattapan, who works as a ride-hail driver and does freelance work in Internet marketing, the lockdown of many offices has reinforced the value she places on working from home. A former educator, St. Aimee also has the responsibility of caring for a parent.
St. Aimee was at OfficeMax in Dorchester on a recent afternoon, shopping for a receipt scanner to track expenses. She said she doesn’t have an issue with maintaining her own workspace. She said other types of office workers who are having success working from home for the first time will probably embrace the transition.
“I don’t know if they’re going to go back [to the office] smiling. I think they’re going to go back kicking and screaming,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that we had to have a virus do this, but it’s a great social shift that has happened. It’s an upside to all of this.”
Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.