Over the past several days it has become very clear that COVID-19 will have a major impact on the global economy and the U.S. workforce, and we are starting to see a significant shift in the way organisations operate on a day-to-day basis. Events are being postponed, business travel has been dramatically reduced (and practically eliminated for international trips) and employees are being asked to work from home.

While to some (who may have never worked from home) this might initially seem like a great opportunity to spend all day in their PJs and work on their couch with the TV on, reality soon sets in, as some of the perceived benefits of an office environment disappear.

Even in a Slack and Zoom-driven hyperconnected world, working from home is rarely just a case of employees taking home their laptops and continuing as normal, and hoping that productivity levels remain the same. For example, many employees have one or more external screens, or an external keyboard and mouse as part of their office set up, which few have at home. Some early-career employees who share space with roommates may not even have a suitable desk area, let alone a separate space to work from.

There’s also the human element. There’s no chance to grab a coffee and snacks in the break room. Collaboration and bouncing ideas off colleagues becomes more challenging. These kinds of issues can have a major impact on both productivity and morale.

In order to help maintain as much of a consistent working experience as possible, and maximise productivity for these temporarily home-based workers, organisations can provide support in several ways, ranging from providing office equipment and supplies, to offering the perks that employees benefit from while in the office. One example of this is Shopify, which is offering a $1,000 stipend to all employees, which can be used to purchase office equipment and supplies. In addition, a leading financial services firm issued $1,000 Emburse cards to support employees in buying groceries, food and home supplies.

A challenge many organisations will encounter with this shift to remote work is how to implement it effectively and prevent policy abuse. Many employees won’t want or be able to incur expenses in advance to properly support an effective work from home environment, and then have to wait long periods of time to be reimbursed. Some office-based employees may not even be set up to submit expense claims. Organisations also may not want to simply provide everyone with the funds, in order to avoid their misuse in place of intended purposes.

One potential solution to this dilemma is to issue every employee a virtual corporate card, which can be done almost immediately through an online platform integrated with a corporate expense system, and allow purchases to be made both online and in physical stores, via ApplePay and Google Wallet. To avoid money being spent on unapproved items, organisations can set restrictions such as the type of merchant, or even specify individual merchants - for example Amazon, Staples and Office Depot. Employees then just need to capture an image of the purchase receipt, which is then matched with the card’s transaction data. This gives the employees the flexibility to buy the items that they want up to the predetermined limit, while maintaining strict control for the employer and also providing detailed information for accounting purposes.

Other temporary policy changes to support home-based employees may be less about the work environment and more about demonstrating goodwill and empathy - especially if the work-from-home period extends beyond a couple of weeks and morale begins to be impacted. For example, employers who provide in-office lunches and snacks can use the same virtual, policy-based cards to enable their team to pay for Grubhub or Uber Eats to deliver meals.

Setting spend limits and restrictions of merchant category as well as time/date can ensure this policy also doesn’t get abused, such as an employee choosing to eat Top Ramen for lunch every day, then ordering a Wagyu steak using their weekly lunch allowance.

Relaxing expense policies to pay for mobile phone and home internet costs is another example. While these are fixed costs paid by individuals regardless of whether someone is office or home-based, reimbursing them can show support for their circumstances. As these bills are often debited straight from bank accounts, employees may need to submit them for reimbursement, which again could be a logistical challenge for organisations with significant numbers of employees that don’t use the expense management system.

In these instances, solutions are available to set up one-time or temporary expense submission capabilities for employees. These solutions allow administrators to send enrollment emails to a large number of employees, prompting them to download a mobile app, and then set it up by entering little more than their work email address and bank account details for reimbursement. Finance teams and admins can establish policies for allowable expenses without requiring manual approval, such as internet and mobile phone bills up to a maximum of, say, $100 per month.

Employees can then simply upload a photo of their bill, which is then scanned by the app. Merchant and amount data is extracted and mapped into an expense item, and the expense is then categorised by the attributes on the bill. As long as the expenses are within policy, a notification can be sent to the organisation’s bank to issue a reimbursement via ACH - before the bill is even due. Once employees are back in the office on a regular basis, the accounts can easily be deactivated.

While these measures can’t completely make up for the normal office experience, employers that take these measures can humanise work during a time when much of the population is feeling anxious about their health and finances. Organisations can at least eliminate some of the burden borne by employees and help maintain as much of a connection as possible during trying times. Of course not all employers are able to offer remote work arrangements for all employees, so extra empathy should be shown to those individuals. Organisations can continue to support these employees with increased flexibility, greater empathy and reminders to keep each other safe by maintaining good hygiene in the office.


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