Rethinking Expenses as Remote Work Continues Through the Summer

By Katie Navarra May 29, 2020

​When they were in the office, employees had access to all the supplies and resources they needed to be productive. Now that they are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, that may not be the case.

Text-messaging company Zipwhip anticipated that staff would need items from the office to effectively—and ergonomically—work remotely, said Kirsten Spoljaric, Zipwhip's senior vice president of people. The Seattle-based company allowed employees to take their office chairs home.

"We wanted to do what we could as a company to make people more productive and comfortable while working from home," she said.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Some workers push the envelope when asking for reimbursement for expenses. A September 2019 blog post by software company AppZen revealed some of the craziest expenses employees have requested reimbursement for: gold cuff links, cigars, helicopter rides and more. Fortunately, most expense requests his clients have received during the pandemic have been reasonable, said Mark Stevenson of Smart HR, an Alexandria, Va.-based consulting firm.

"The largest ticket items I have heard requested thus far are standing desks or adjustable-height desks," he said. "Some organizations are really into health and wellness programs and may cover it, but most are trying to limit expenses."

Cost of Working from Home

At the office, employees have access to the Internet and telephone service. Some workers are asking for reimbursement for their personal subscriptions. Should an employer cover it?

Stevenson says it depends. Some of his clients are covering 50 percent of staff members' home Internet access and a portion of their cellphone services. Others are not reimbursing for those fees and are encouraging employees to see it as a tradeoff for saved commuting expenses.

Companies that provided employees cellphones before the coronavirus pandemic have been able to provide them Internet access at no extra cost. This has been the case for Rhonda May, CEO of Reliable Business Technology. Each of her staff members have a work phone, which doubles as an Internet hot spot.

"Thus far we have not had any additional expenses that we didn't have before," said May, president of the Central California SHRM chapter. "Determining what expenses are allowed or not allowed and communicating instructions to employees is important."

Necessities for Productivity

But other employers have seen big jumps in expenses. According to Accounting Today, office supply expenses increased 80 percent in March 2020 compared to March 2019. The most frequently expensed items have included desks, HDMI cables, laptops, monitors, keyboards, printers, ink cartridges and headphones as employees rushed to set up home offices.

Zipwhip transitioned to remote work early in the COVID-19 outbreak. Company leaders recognized the importance of controlling expenses while providing employees the equipment to work from home. Spoljaric worked closely with the information technology and facilities teams to box and ship cables, cords, printers and other technology to Zipwhip's 260 employees.

"We wanted to avoid people buying things and then submitting it as an expense," she said.

Updating Policies

While the country begins to reopen, for many companies, remote work will continue. They are going to need to update policies and handbooks to reflect how expenses will be handled. May recommended creating a structure clearly outlining the process employees must follow. For example, if one person is responsible for ordering basic office supplies, then staff should request supplies through that person rather than buying and expensing. Establishing an approval protocol for certain dollar amounts is helpful, too, she added.

Stevenson suggested starting small, which is the advice he offers to startup businesses. He has worked with a client that provided a car allowance when it had only five employees. As the company expanded to 60 workers, it retracted the benefit, and some employees were upset.

"When you give something, it is harder to take it back," Stevenson cautioned. "Start with smaller things, like phone or Internet service."

Shifting Expenses

Perks and benefits such as cost-shared gym memberships, onsite yoga classes or meditation classes were factored into annual budgets for some companies. Without employees in the office, are these benefits worth continuing?

Zipwhip's leadership team unanimously agreed they were, Spoljaric said. The company now runs an online yoga class, is rolling out a meditation program and is looking into how to shift unused health and wellness funds into ways to support employees at home.

"As we think about more people returning to the office, public transportation is a concern that employees have expressed concern over," she said. "Is there a way to repurpose commuting dollars to support people getting to the office in a safer way?" Zipwhip has not implemented this as an allowable expense but uses it as an example of how it is rethinking traditional expenses and benefits. It also continues to send flowers in recognition of Administrative Professionals Day and other "spirit" gifts.

[Members-only HR Q&A: Are there any tax issues we need to be aware of when we give employees a gift card or other small gift?]

"As companies, we have to think about what is taxable or what isn't, and work with our finance teams for accounting it and also communicating with employees, so they don't look at their pay stub and say, 'Oh, I was taxed on a gift,' " Spoljaric said. "One of the challenges of expenses is navigating those that are perks … with taxable benefits."

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer in New York state.



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