Who Pays for a Telecommuter's Equipment?

I've worked from a home office for most of my career. Primarily, those years were spent as an independent computer consultant, freelance writer, or other role motivated by, "If I don't write, I don't eat." However, for eight of the last ten years I was an employee who worked full-time from a home office, so I've become particularly sensitive to the plight of others in the same position. I've written quite a bit on the topic, from telecommuting basics to coping with its annoyances to how to convince the boss to let you work at home. (Okay, so I write a lot about convincing the boss to do a lot of things you want to do.)

One topic I haven't particularly addressed, however, is who pays for a remote staff member's expenses. I don't mean the laptop the company gives you to work on; I think your basic computer hardware is a given. I'm thinking about the other bits and pieces that an employer supplies in an office environment, such as long distance expenses, telephones, Internet access, and office chairs.

This was brought home to me (so to speak) sometime in the past few years. My chair broke one day. It just toppled over. The right arm fell off and the screw came out the bottom. Faced with yet another trip to the office supply store, I contemplated just how much time it takes to wear out a chair (mine seem to last two or three years) and noted — with some attitude, I confess — that most of that time was in the service of my employer. So I asked my Human Resources person if the company would pay for a new office chair. After all, I reasoned, if the chair broke in the office they most certainly would give me a new one. After some negotiating, she gave me an "allowance" of $400 for a new chair. That felt fair; if I wanted to spend $1,000 on a chair, then the company would have done its part.

But when I got in a conversation with a telecommuting coworker about the subject, she was astonished that I had even


. (You aren't. By this time you know that no one ever described me as shy.) Her chair had broken too (a $49 typing chair — sheesh, folks, don't you believe in quality?! —but that's a rant for another day) and she was going to ask if the same policy could be applied to her. I don't know if she did so; I've wondered.

As it turned out, the chair was fixable, so I fixed it. I might have invested in the better chair, except around then I also decided it was time to start looking for another job. I hadn't discussed with the HR person if, when I left the company (in a month, a year, or five years), they'd expect me to send back the chair they'd paid for. If I left within the next few months, I was pretty sure her answer would be Yes (who'd blame her?), and I didn't want to contemplate the mess it'd be to box a chair to send cross-country. And what if I did buy a more expensive model? Plus I wouldn't have anything to sit on. So I just let it slide.

But all of this demonstrates how ill-prepared any of us are for working-at-home while we're employed by someone else. A programmer might feel justified in asking for a large monitor or at least an extra mouse. Another boss gave me a company BlackBerry to use for all my interviewing so I didn't have to worry about expense reports for my long-distance bill. But when I asked one employer to cover my Internet cost, he said No because I'd pay for Internet access from home anyway.

Obviously, there's little consensus about what employers do or should cover. Many businesses are reluctant to let people work from home except under duress, a fact that continues to irk me.

But some of it may be an issue of education, even with telecommuting on the rise. According to a recent Cisco study of 502 U.S. based IT decision makers, 53 percent reported that less half their employees were currently set up to work remotely. Most businesses (especially their HR departments) are conservative about change, and letting people telecommute (much less encouraging it) is definitely a big change — with little useful business guidance. It's been a couple of years since I really pored over any of the books about telecommuting, but when I last did so, most were pretty lame. They were mostly oriented towards someone who needed a pep talk to understand the experience (such as warning you to train kids to understand you aren't to be disturbed, and many people do need that lesson). Several are aimed towards the self-employed for whom "work at home" is a synonym for "become an entrepreneur." The newest crop of telecommuting books appears to recognize that telecommuters require slightly-different management, so perhaps they're better now. I hope so.

So perhaps we can enlighten each other with the poll I put together. If you telecommute for an employer (other than yourself), or you did so in a recent situation, please answer it so we can all see what employers will commonly cover. (Note that polldaddy's multiple-choice option shows odd percentages. If you check two items, it "counts" each as 50%" rather than reporting that, say, 100% of employers pay for laptops. But it'll still show us what's most and least common.) Also add to the comments sharing your experiences in asking the boss to cover telecommuting expenses. What worked, and what didn't?

You probably should follow me on Twitter. Because, y'know, you just should.

This story, "Who Pays for a Telecommuter's Equipment?" was originally published by JavaWorld.


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