Almost everyone loves working from home. Pajama bottoms during Zoom calls, freedom to tend to housework and parenting as needed, no wasting time on chitchat by the water cooler.
Most companies love it too. Workers left to their own devices turned out, by and large, not to be shirking their duties. They rose to the occasion and did their jobs. In many cases, they were even more efficient. Oh, and companies are now saving gazillions of dollars — on commercial leases that once ate a huge chunk of revenue, on the utility bills they once paid monthly, and even on the daily coffee, toilet paper, and occasional lunches they once provided.
Employees now shoulder most of those costs in our work-from-home world. We are paying more to heat and cool our homes all day every day, to keep our lights and laptops on, to expand our internet capacity for those Zoom calls. We’re also firmly on the hook for softer expenses that used to come with traditional office work, like that daily coffee, the filtered water, the cans of soda, those occasional lunches, and, yes, even the toilet paper.
In most cases, those combined costs don’t amount to all that much on a monthly basis — companies could symbolically handle those with $20 or so in additional compensation per month and still enjoy their windfall. But the true costs of what employees now deal with go far beyond those line items.
We’re converting significant portions of our homes to office space, and usually not in the traditional locations. For months, my kitchen table was my desk — try telling your kids not to talk to you while they’re eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every single day for more than a year — while my wife worked in our “guest” room, which became unable to host guests of any sort. (Granted, the pandemic wasn’t really sleepover mania time.) Now my desk occupies a large corner of my living room, once a place where the kids played and I’d relax next to the bookshelf.
I’ve worked at least partially from home my entire career, but never with my family constantly at home as well, never with no other place to go to work. And our suburban home in sunny Santa Barbara represents a relatively lucky existence — those living in more cramped corners in less hospitable climes with even larger families can no longer separate their work space from their living space at all. I can’t imagine what that’s like, and the mental stress we’ve all endured will be emerging for months and years to come. You can’t put a price on that.
If the work-from-home trend were fleeting, these changes wouldn’t matter. We sucked it up for the global team; we beat the pandemic; we went back to normal. But working from home has been proved to work, and, despite these added costs, a vast majority of employees want it to stick, at least in some hybrid capacity, according to polls large and small. (Me too.) And companies are probably too motivated by cost savings to push hard for a return to full office capacity all the time.
Aside from a boost to cover everyday expenses, I’m not sure how companies can alleviate the larger toll of losing parts of your home to your job. That’s why it’s time for the government to step in on that front, in a way that should please tax-slashing conservatives and equity-minded liberals alike.
Right now, if you work a freelance job, you’re able to write off a certain square footage of your house on your taxes. The rules are unrealistic: The square footage has to be contiguous; the space can only ever be used for work. I’m not sure how IRS agents function, but clearly they’ve never worked from home, at least historically.
Those rules need to be relaxed, perhaps with a standardized square-footage allotment. But more importantly, those rules must be expanded to all workers, regardless of their freelance or salaried status. If we’re going to honestly work from home, the government should acknowledge as much and provide society-wide benefits to help us deal with this new normal.
I’m no tax expert, so I know that these proposed changes are more complicated than I make them seem. I’m also sure that companies will come up with various excuses as to why even symbolic monthly boosts don’t make sense.
But the work-from-home shine is wearing off. Without appropriate attention paid to the employees who make the world go ’round, prepare for yet another global reckoning, one that crosses most class, racial, and political lines. Work-from-homers, unite!