Expenses – what can I claim when I’m working from home?

The recent row over who paid for the redecoration of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s flat has brought the issue of expenses into sharp focus. While politicians debate the ins and outs of the situation, for many it has again raised the issue of what employees can claim for, whether they are returning to the office or are continuing to work from home.

Since March 2020, remote working has become the norm for millions of people. Virtually overnight, employees packed up their laptops and folders – some even took their office chairs – and set up office at home. Kitchen tables were cleared to make way for computers, printers and files; spare bedrooms were hastily tidied to make room for a desk.

Retailers such as IKEA experienced a surge in demand for home office furniture as workplaces across the UK closed their doors indefinitely.

And while the reasons why we needed to work from home are abundantly clear, what may be less obvious is what employees can claim for while working remotely – and, as we begin to return to the office, whether it’s possible to make a retrospective claim.

Tax relief

People who are working from home as a result of the pandemic can claim £6 per week towards the cost of electricity, lighting, heating and so on. Some businesses have added this to employees’ wages while others have advised staff to claim it back themselves.

This can be done through a relatively easy to use portal on the gov.uk website that will help you establish whether or not you are entitled to claim. You don’t need to keep receipts or prove any information you provide.

It’s important to note that the allowance applies to those required to self-isolate or whose workplaces have closed because of coronavirus. It does not apply to those who have chosen to work from home for other reasons.

Office essentials

It’s commonly accepted that working for long periods on a laptop computer can lead to discomfort and back problems.

While some people may already have set up an office space in their home, for use on occasional days off or by children doing their homework, others simply relocated to their kitchen tables. Many needed additional equipment, such as monitors, keyboards or office chairs to enable them to create a functional office space at home.

The swift escalation of the national lockdown meant businesses had little time to consider their existing expenses policy and how employees would be reimbursed for items such as desks, printer ink and paper.

It’s reasonable to expect your employer to reimburse out of pocket expenses for essential items purchased as a result of enforced remote working.

This includes things like desks, chairs and notebooks that are required to do your job properly. It may also cover paper, printers and ink but these must be necessary for you to carry out your role – not just for occasional use when the kids aren’t using it to print off their homework!

As we begin to return to work, it’s widely accepted that some people will request flexible working that includes time working from home. For those who are returning to the workplace full-time, consideration may need to be given on whether equipment paid for by employers should be returned to the office.

What is unlikely to be covered is payment for broadband internet or telephones that are subject to significant personal use as well as being used for work. Most people have access to the internet regardless of how they use it, so it will not count as an additional expense.

Be clear on your policy

Issues such as what can be claimed on expenses underline the importance of open communication. So whether you had a clear policy on claiming expenses before the pandemic, now is a good time to review and, where necessary, update this policy.

It’s wise to make your policy clean to all employees – including your firm’s stance on retrospective claims. It may be that under normal circumstances, the purchase of items such as desks and laptops would need to be cleared in writing in advance; however, the pandemic has been anything but normal and a degree of flexibility may be required to ensure employees are not left unfairly out of pocket.

Some businesses that have decided to stay with remote working on a permanent basis have already changed their policies. One, for instance, has given employees an annual limit on what they can claim – and everything that does go through the expenses system must do so with an attached VAT receipt.

Wherever possible, lay out your expectations in advance – and if not, be open to negotiation. If you’re unsure, it is always worth enlisting the help of an external HR expert.