One of the biggest changes in work due to COVID-19 has been the rise of work from home. According to Stanford University, 42% of the US labor force is now working from home full time.
You’re probably reading this from your home office! This unprecedented shift towards a majority remote work model has created a boom in work from home expenses.
Office furniture retailer Herman Miller saw their home office category sales jump 300% since last year due to the work from home trend. But as someone trying to balance between budget and productivity, the real question is, can my employer help me cover some of these expenses?
The short answer, employers are willing to make investments in work from home expenses when it makes sense for the business. Furthermore, if you can do your homework up front, you might be pleasantly surprised at how much your employer is willing to cover!
As a manager and employer, I’ve fielded and approved multiple work requests from home expenses from my teams.
My decision ultimately comes down to a two-question test:
A) Does this qualify as a work from home expense?
B) Is this a good investment for the business?
How to Determine What Qualifies as a Work From Home Expense?
From the employer’s perspective, this one is generally pretty black and white. Anything you normally use in the office can likely be claimed as a work from home expense. However, I’ll cover three specific areas where I’ve seen people struggle or miss an opportunity.
1. Bigger Ticket Items
The things that come to mind immediately are office desks, chairs, printers, and monitors, but any multi-hundred (or thousand?) dollar piece of equipment could fall into this category. People often aren’t sure if it’s possible to ask for these because they’re expensive, and the use case may be partially mixed between personal and business.
In my opinion, the case for home office furniture can definitely be made from a qualified expense perspective. Ergonomics matters as much at home as it does in the office!
However, when I’m deciding to approve larger expenses, the more important question is actually my second question, is this a good investment for the business. While it doesn’t hurt to ask, you will need to have a good case built for the business investment question to maximize your chance of success! I’ll cover this in more depth later in the post.
2. Non-Traditional Office Items
Perhaps you sit on a yoga ball or have a particular brand of noise-canceling earphones in mind that you think would help you at home. This category includes potentially more unorthodox requests and items that may not fully pass the eyeball test when it comes to office expenses. Nevertheless, these could still be very important for your health and long term sustainability, which should not be undervalued!
In situations like these, you will need to make a clear business case to your employer why this expense should qualify and be ready to back it up with examples and data. Since your item could be viewed as a borderline case for qualified work from home expenses, your answer for the “is this a good investment for the business” question will need to clear a higher hurdle.
While these expenses may require more legwork, if you have good justification and are transparent about how it will be used, I am ultimately quite willing to approve non-traditional expenses. Your employer needs more documentation for non-traditional expenses because they can become an issue for both you and your employer if an audit determines they are not expenses!
3. Office Supplies
This category includes notebooks, stationery, envelopes, and other office consumables like stamps (no, I don’t mean coffee!). The issue with this category is that the expenses are individually quite small, and it can feel awkward to request an expense reimbursement of $4 for a notebook.
While these generally pass the qualification test, they may use up more goodwill than they’re worth. I also do the accounting for our company’s expenses, and I can tell you that each expense takes time. If you put in too many of these small items, your accounting team may not be super pleased with the extra work you’ve created!
My recommendation here is to either save your social capital for the expenses that matter or suggest a batching process if the usage is high enough to matter. For example, if your entire team needs envelopes and stamps regularly, you can offer to put in a larger order and then volunteer to distribute them accordingly to the team.
This not only improves your good business investment argument but also simplifies the burden on your team.
How to Discuss Work From Home Expenses With Your Employer?
I didn’t truly learn until I became an employer because the employer-employee relationship is not supposed to be adversarial. It’s not a battle between you and your employer to get expenses approved.
Employers and employees actually share a common goal—to help employees overcome work challenges from home and do the best job they can. This is the goal because highly productive employees are ultimately best for the business!
It’s important to focus on the business case when planning the expenses conversation with your employer. As an employer, I’m willing to pay for tools that directly improve employee productivity, and I’m especially excited to invest when the business value heavily outweighs the cost!
If you want to maximize your chances of success, you have to become the advocate for the value of your expenses. It’s up to you to make the case because you understand it the best, and your employer may only try so hard to see it on their own.
The easiest approvals go to employees who prepare a clear business case for their request. A good example would be a customer service associate requesting a second monitor with the rationale that it will increase their ticket completion speed by 20%. This will result in faster response times, happier customers, and better employee experience.
Getting all of the ongoing benefits above for a one-time cost of $300, that’s a home run for any employer. Employees that frame their requests through the business lens are much more likely to get expenses approved because they’re helping their managers justify the investment.
Coming back to the big-ticket and non-traditional office items. One of your manager’s biggest concerns is going to be accountability. Will this expense really deliver all of the value promised in your business case? I’m looking for concrete things to hang my hat on when someone inevitability asks me why I approved your expense.
In these situations, quantifiable and trackable results can greatly augment your case. If you’re proposing a 20% increase in ticket completion rate, that’s a metric we can track before and after to prove you right! However, you have to be careful that this door swings both ways. If you make a promise and don’t deliver on it, that could harm you in the future.
In the same vein, your recent performance is another factor that may indirectly influence the conversation. If you’ve delivered great results and hit your goals while remote the past few months, this is a powerful platform to begin an expense conversation because your track record establishes your personal accountability to the business.
The larger or more non-traditional your request is, the more you need to anticipate and address your employer’s concerns up front to get the approval!
Special Case—Taking Items From the Office Could Be a Win-Win for Everyone
Taking items from the office is an underappreciated middle ground when it comes to working from home expenses. When businesses are watching expenses closely, the budget you get approved for may be too small to get exactly what you want, or you may not get your expenses approved at all! This is where it pays to get a little creative. If you’re looking to replace things you had in the office, asking to re-purposing existing assets is potentially a win-win for you and your employer.
Do you have a very nice chair at the office that you weren’t able to get the approval to replace? Will you be working from home for the foreseeable future?
If the answer to the previous two questions is yes, then you might be in a good position to ask your employer to take the chair home and bring it back when you return to the office. This is great for the employer because everything in the office is just sitting there collecting dust right now.
It also shows your employer that you are thinking about the business bottom line and can be thrifty when it helps the company stretch dollars in a less certain period. As an example from my experience, my company has 8 flatscreen monitors gathering dust in the office, and this is even after asking my employees to take monitors home with them!
Like the big-ticket and non-traditional item concern, the key question an employer will want to answer before agreeing to this type of proposal is how accountable you will be with company property. While you do get to use office furniture at home, everything still belongs to the company. So your employer will want to know that you can be responsible for company property and return it in good condition.
You probably don’t have a long track record of borrowing company property, so your employer will most likely fall back on your most recent performance as a proxy. If you’ve had an outstanding performance in the last cycle, this can go a long way in helping alleviate any concerns your boss may have!
Within this special case of taking items from the office, there may be a final nuanced situation that comes up. What if your employer offers you the opportunity to buy the company equipment you want? This is an interesting proposal because it’s probably more common today under Covid conditions than ever before. Many companies (mine included) are looking into downsizing or, at the very least, rethinking their office footprint.
From the employer’s side, I’m offering you the chance to buy our equipment because the more I can sell to employees, the less I have to sell, store, or dispose of. While my primary motivation to sell internally is time savings, I also want to feel like I am sold for a fair price.
From the employee perspective, despite the seller being your employer, I think you can still negotiate! In this type of negotiation, data is your friend. If you can show me comprehensive research on comparable listings, I’m very willing to come to a middle ground where you get a great deal, and I save time. Like me, your employer is probably looking at the resale market and would appreciate any work you do in price research.
Lastly, you will likely want to be more flexible in this negotiation because it’s probably not worth souring your work relationship for a hundred bucks!
The US is still adjusting to pandemic life, and it doesn’t seem to be going away soon. Some businesses are starting to bring employees back into the office with added workplace precautions, but many are instead preparing for a remote working winter.
Oliver Wyman estimates that the COVID-19 crisis could take more than three years to recover from fully. This makes getting good work from home setup is even more important for both you and your employer.
On the flip side, just as much as the general population is hurting, so are many businesses. As a result, the hurdle for new expenses is higher today than it has ever been before, and you will want to be extra conscious of incorporating contextual clues into your expense request.
At the end of the day, don’t forget that we’re all in this together. Your success is a key steppingstone for your employer’s success, and a few expenses are easily justified if it unlocks bigger gains for everyone!