When the lockdown initially began, we all thought working three weeks from home would be a breeze. But then, the pandemic blew up and before we knew it, those three weeks had turned into an exhausting new normal. Now, as we work on our dining tables and ratty couches for the fourth month in a row, it’s time we finally accept this as our new reality. This is going to stay for a while.
As we daydream about our offices, even if they were frustratingly dull and packed with disgruntled co-workers, the truth is even after the scare of the pandemic dies down, WFH might end up becoming a permanent arrangement for millions in the country. But while this has meant less traffucks to wade through and less money to blow up on Ubers, WFH is taking a toll on our bodies and budgets in ways we hadn’t anticipated. The absence of office furniture means many of us have either had to deal with aching backs as we worked out of couches, beds or dining tables, or had to shell out money to buy new desks, chairs, headphones and other infrastructure needed for remote working.
Additionally our 24/7 use of the internet and air-conditioners is now showing up on our bills. Not all of us would have laptops or processors that we need to work at home either. The cost hikes up in small little ways as well, like added monthly budgets on rations like coffee, snacks and toilet paper.
As we manoeuvre through these unanticipated settings, we tried to get an answer to who should be paying for your new office.
Should companies be reimbursing me for WFH related costs?
“A lot of my colleagues, especially older ones, had to order ergonomic chairs for their home offices online, because their health had started to suffer,” says Aditya Mishra, the CEO of CIEL HR Services, a human resource consultancy firm. “These chairs sometimes cost as much as Rs 25,000 ($334), and certainly not everyone would have the financial capacity to get these. Homes aren't meant for work and need several changes to accommodate it.” But when it comes to who should be paying for these changes, Mishra admits that there is no clear-cut answer to it. “Morally, as a good employer, they should reimburse for the infrastructure. But, the problem is whether they can fiscally do that at such an economically stressful time.”
But whose side is the law on regarding this?
In the U.S., several companies have been giving their employees allowances to set up home offices. Several companies that became fully remote before the pandemic give their employees a one-time stipend for their home offices, as well as pay their monthly electricity bills. In Switzerland, a top court decided in May that employers must pay a share of the rent of their employees working from home.
In India, however, no such legal obligations have been set yet. “There are no state or central laws that oblige the employers to provide an alternate set-up or compensate employees for their home offices,” says advocate Tania Ahlawat, co-managing partner of Ahlawat and Associates, a leading law firm in India with expertise in employment and labour law. “So far, the government has only issued certain advisories that direct companies to allow and enable their employees to work from home till the pandemic subsides or ceases to exist.”
So, while you can ask your employer for compensation, they are under no obligation to fulfill your requests unless the company’s policies have provisions where such compensations have been carved out in writing . “Till the employees work from home, the employers are not under any legal obligation to provide for the health and welfare of the employee, apart from any health benefits that an employee was entitled to prior to the lockdown,” says Ahlawat. “However, arbitrary assignment of work that could affect the health and well-being of an employee should be a consideration for an employer.”
In the future, however, as WFH becomes a permanent reality, companies might have to look into readjusting employee benefits, compensations, and even salaries.
How do I ask my bosses to reimburse me?
At the moment, permanent company-wide remote work is still a fairly new concept. Earlier, we were used to seeing just freelancers or a select few employees working from home. Their arrangements and expectations as a remote worker were set from the beginning itself, both on their end and their company's. The current WFH model, though, was something people rarely had considered in the past. But now, with everyone suddenly starting to work from home, the situation puts everyone on the same footing. And so, now that it has become such a sudden reality, most people are realising that its proper implementation hasn’t been thought of completely, by either the employees or the employers. “What employers can do for their employees are some of the new questions people are grappling with,” adds Mishra. “I don't think anyone has come up with any solution yet.”
If you want to explore possibilities of reimbursement, though, the first step is to discuss your situation with the employer, Mishra advises. “Present what you believe in by using the appropriate channels but also listen to why the employer can’t or doesn’t want to compensate you.” The pandemic and the economic crisis can mean that the employer, very realistically, can’t shoulder the extra bills. “Given that during a pandemic or force majeure event, it is not just the employees that are affected but also the employer, it would be difficult for the government to lay down legal obligations on the employers that penalise them in a situation that even the employer has no control over,” adds Ahlawat. This would be especially tough for start-ups and small businesses.
One way to approach this would be to discuss with your boss and/or human resources manager on what is working for you, what is not, and what could be better. It’s a weird time to be shaking up the status quo and no one wants to risk getting laid off, but this might actually set bosses thinking on the new way ahead, considering they are affected as much by the changes. Talking to them about your goals and processes along with what you need to succeed will make this a constructive discussion instead of coming across as demanding. Come up with a checklist of things you need and start by asking bosses on how they can make it work. Chances are, whereas some items absolutely needed to get the work done—like laptops and other hardware—might be taken into consideration, things like ergonomic chairs might be far down the list of priorities for most companies. Explore multiple options—if monthly payments of bills sounds impossible for the company, suggest a one-time stipend for you to meet expenses.
It’s important to remember here that disagreements with companies can potentially shake you up. “If your mental health suffers, you and your near ones would suffer but the hurt you inflict on the organisation would be negligible,” says Mishra. “So, put your mental health first.”
What should I do if I’m a boss?
“The first thing is to train your employees,” Mishra says. “First of all, sensitivity about working from home has to be brought in for all the employees, and companies should set rules and expectations about both, the employees and the employers. What is certain is that the health and safety policies of every organisation need to undergo certain changes now. And people need organisation-wide training sessions, for these are the new realities and these are the new norms.”
Since the WFH scenario is inevitable and would likely be the norm for all our companies for a major part of the foreseeable future, it certainly is beneficial to lay down rules and regulations just for this period. Ahlawat adds, “The simplest way to incorporate such guidelines would be to draft or amend the employment handbook or manual which would be accessible to all employees. This demarcation would increase productivity and restrict any abuse of power.”
And lastly, both Mishra and Ahlawat say what is the ultimate truth but also something that has oversaturated our lives: “This is a difficult time for all”. So while getting your employer to pay your internet bills and reimburse your office chair purchase might be a little tough right now—at least until WFH models become more permanent in the future—staying a little flexible in your expectations is all you can do. Ask and you might not receive, but don't let that stop you from asking anyway.
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