No doubt your CFO is delighted at the reduction in energy, telecom and office fit-out bills during lockdown. McKinsey cites real estate as ‘the largest cost category outside of compensation’ and estimates that its costs could be significantly reduced in a post-COVID world, with those moving to a fully virtual model nearly eradicating them entirely.

In reality, however, these costs are being borne by employees working from home, many of whom have had to furnish their workspace, upgrade wi-fi and fund increased utility bills which will soar in the forthcoming months, now that the clocks have gone back and winter approaches. A study by Energy Helpline estimates that the average household energy bill could rise by £107 this winter for those working from home five days a week, as Government guidelines encourage us to do; and collectively, this represents a hike of almost £2 billion.

The relationship between employer and employee has inevitably changed with the move to increased remote working. Peter Daly of law firm Slater and Gordon has advised that businesses could face legal claims if they leave home workers ‘adrift’, without an ‘ergonomically safe desk, a decent computer, fast broadband and even heating, cooling and lighting’ and Pilita Clark writes in the FT that ‘an employment contract might not specifically mention electricity bills or broadband, but case law implies an obligation to provide a suitable working environment for employees, which could extend to paying for these costs.’

The situation for many employees working from home, whether that’s at the level of juggling family and office life, dealing with isolation, or worrying about redundancy, is stressful enough as it is. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has said that the second wave of the pandemic is fuelling a mental health crisis; and it is especially true for the younger generations – for those aged 16 to 39, depressive symptoms have tripled.

In order to address the wellbeing issues of employees working from home, businesses are taking action. Publicis Group has set up ‘Publicis Plug-in’, a daily schedule of online activities such as mindfulness sessions and language tutorials, while PR and advertising agency Havas has launched Wellness Wednesdays with virtual fitness and yoga classes, and Maverick Coffee Company has launched the UK’s first coffee delivery service for home workers, allowing companies to reward employees with freshly roasted coffee delivered to their doorstep.

If you are considering moving to permanent virtual workplace, there may be further financial implications. At a base level the Government has announced that employees may claim tax relief of £6 per week if they have to work from home due to COVID-19. Some businesses have taken a more benevolent approach: back in March Facebook announced an $1000 home office allowance for full-time workers, a decision based on advice from health and government experts. Google announced in May that its employees would have their working from home costs covered, including $1000 for any equipment and furniture they may need before they can return to the office.

The bottom line is there are significant wellbeing and financial risks in shifting to a permanent work-from-home model. This reinforces the value of the hybrid model, giving employees the freedom to work both in the office and at home, which is ultimately empowering for them and reduces the risk of losing talent to more enlightened employers in the future.

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