WFH during lockdown – what you need to know

Adam Baldwin
Adam Baldwin 29 May 2020

Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, working from home has become the norm for the vast majority of the UK and it certainly doesn’t look like that’s going to change any time soon despite some lockdown measures starting to ease up. 

Whilst working from home for the odd day doesn’t pose any considerable challenges, doing so for a prolonged period of time can incur additional costs, raise health concerns and pose practical difficulties to employees’ daily life. 

We’ve all heard about keeping your workspace separate from your living space and staying active, but what tangible rights do you have as an employee to expense claims and support during this difficult time? 

Show me the money – rising bills during lockdown

There are plenty of financial considerations when it comes to working from home effectively. The obvious one is energy bills which are likely to be far higher as a result of you, and any others in the same living space, being at home rather than in the office. 

Similarly, chances are your phone bill will be impacted too, especially if you are in a customer-facing role.

Thankfully you can claim some money back to cover these costs from HM Revenue & Customs. You can either attempt to calculate precisely how much your bill has increased as a result of your home working, or make a claim for simplified home working expenses, which works out at around £6 per week and doesn’t require copies of your bills.

You can claim this money by filling out a P87 form, which you can get online. You then file it online or post it. Alternatively, if you file a self-assessment tax return each year, you can make your claim through that.

It’s important to note that these costs can only be claimed if you are required to work from home, rather than you working from home voluntarily. 

Home office equipment – what do you need and what can you claim

It’s not just down to employees to arrange their work setup at home. Claire Williams, Director of People and Services at software firm CIPHR, argues that staff should feel empowered to discuss what equipment they need in order to work efficiently and safely.

“As we face an extended period of working from home, being hunched over a laptop on a sofa or kitchen table is a recipe for musculoskeletal problems down the line. Your employer should ask you to complete a risk assessment, or you can complete one from the Health and Safety Executive’s website.”

If you need to purchase new equipment in order to work from home, then it’s important to speak to your employer about what expenses they are willing to cover.  

“Don’t be afraid to ask your HR team or line manager for necessary equipment, such as an external monitor” says Claire.

While many businesses already have an established expenses process, the current situation may mean this is changing, so it’s a good idea to discuss exactly where you stand before you make any purchases.

When you buy new equipment for working from home, your employer will be able to claim back the VAT on the purchase, so long as the expense is ‘reasonable’ and the item is only going to be used for carrying out business. However, you will need to hang onto your receipts to show that you did pay VAT in the first place.

If the item is going to be mixed-use ‒ for example you purchase printer paper, but some of that is going to be used by you in your everyday life outside of work ‒ then you are allowed to claim back expenses covering the proportion that will be used in your work.

On the plus side for your employer, any expenses to purchase home office equipment which are reimbursed won’t attract tax or National Insurance contribution liabilities. This temporary exemption is in place until the end of the 2020/21 tax year.

Stuck abroad 

If an employee is stuck abroad for a period beyond any pre-booked annual leave and is unable to return to the UK as per the Foreign Office’s instructions, the employer is not obligated to pay them if they are unable to work remotely. The only exception to this is if the contract of employment or company policy stipulates otherwise.

The most likely outcome in this situation is that the employer will discuss options with their employee such as using further paid holiday to cover the period of absence without harming the employer-employee relationship. 

If, however, the employee is abroad for work obligations and unable to return, the employee should look to cover all reasonable expenses although this is a non-legal obligation unless stated otherwise in the contract of employment. 

Staying agile – flexible working hours

Carlene Jackson, CEO of tech firm Cloud9 Insight, emphasises the need for open discussion around working hours as team leaders are tasked with finding a schedule that works well for their staff in terms of both productivity and each members’ at-home responsibilities – childcare being the obvious one. 

“Team members need time when they can work alone. Businesses need people to work collaboratively. Clients need face-time and we all need at least some support and interaction” Carlene explains. 

With schools only just starting to reopen, and incrementally at that, there’s an obvious concern for those employees who are still being required to juggle childcare with a full-time job whilst at home. 

Whilst some experts believe parents who have had to reduce their working hours in order to care for their children and cover schoolwork should be reimbursed by the Treasury, the minimum expectation is for employers to allow flexible hours for workers to accommodate these extra responsibilities.

If you’re struggling, talk

Claire Williams of CIPHR notes that many people won’t be able to set space aside as a dedicated home office, or may be struggling with combining work and childcare, but emphasises it’s important to discuss your worries with your line manager or the HR team.

She continues: “You certainly won’t be the only person in your company who’ll be struggling to adjust to remote working, and they should be able to provide a sympathetic ear and some helpful advice.”

Keeping up the personal side

Emma Storer, Group People Manager at Haines Watts, notes that it is all too easy for people to feel isolated at the moment, missing out on the usual opportunities to spend time with their colleagues discussing non-work matters.

She argues that it would be helpful for businesses to set up channels which allow people to share their experiences of life during lockdown.

“Ultimately, technology shouldn’t increase employees’ stress levels by preventing them from switching off, but instead should be embraced to create new opportunities for people to achieve a better work-life balance.”

At a time when company expense policies are being reviewed and adapted, it’s not uncommon to see the likes of online subscriptions for conference call software and other platforms that enable interaction both professionally and socially, being added to the list for employees.

Thankfully with the likes of prepaid expense cards and apps for tracking employee spending, all of this can be integrated seamlessly for employers.