Amid the coronavirus pandemic, millions of employees have been shut out of their offices and required to work from home. The massive change has many companies evaluating what they can do to make the transition smoother for their workers.
One growing answer: a home-office fund. Companies are paying for their remote employees' desks, chairs and computers and are instituting regular allowances for WiFi and phone costs.
E-commerce company Shopify announced in March that it would give its newly remote employees $1,000 to set up their new home office. Teleworkers at Twitter will get up to $1,000 for the same purpose.
Also in March, job marketplace Indeed said it would reimburse its employees up to $500 for standing desks, chairs or lighting in their home. Basecamp, a software company headquartered in Chicago, offers workers $1,000 to get their work station up and running at home, and online textbook company Chegg pays its remote workers' monthly internet bill and gives them $500 for home office furnishings.
"Companies are saying, 'We want to make sure you're both comfortable and productive," said Danielle Lackey, chief legal officer at Motus, a workforce management company.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Lackey said, many companies began offering to pay employees' phone and internet bills, but that's since expanded to computers, desks, chairs and other home-office fixtures.
"Now that this is looking to be a long-term thing, that third piece is becoming more much central," Lackey said.
Some companies had work-from-home allowances and stipends before the pandemic.
"It gets old fast to be working from your couch, and setting up a home office can be expensive," said Hailley Griffis, head of public relations at Buffer, a software application company.
The company, which became fully remote in 2015, pays its employees' internet bills. Each worker also gets a $200 annual stipend for technology costs, and a one-time payment of $500 to set up their home office.
Adrienne Altman, head of rewards consulting at Willis Towers Watson, said she expects the coronavirus pandemic to accelerate the trend of work-from-home allowances and stipends. Just 14% of employees in the U.S. worked from home five days a week before the public-health crisis, a share that has now swelled to more than 60%.
"Employers have had to grapple with this," Altman said.
In a recent Aon survey of around 1,400 U.S.-based companies, more than 1 in 5 say they are helping to pay for their employees' home-office equipment.
Meanwhile, nearly a third of companies say they are reimbursing their newly remote employees for their laptops, and more than 14% are paying for their ergonomic office furniture, according to a recent survey by Mercer. More than 10% are covering their workers' internet bills.
As remote work takes off, the issue of home-office reimbursements could become a legal one, said Josh Henderson, a labor lawyer and partner at Norton Rose Fulbright.
In some states, including California, Illinois and Massachusetts, employers are legally required to pay their workers' back for certain expenses they pick up on the job. Meanwhile, in every state, companies must reimburse minimum-wage workers for job-related expenses.
"The pandemic is bringing these issues to the fore," Henderson said, predicting remote employees will make new arguments around what expenses their employers should cover.
Just last month, a top court in Switzerland decided that companies must contribute to a portion of their employee's rent if they're working from home.
"That might be a bridge too far, but we'll see," Henderson said.