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There must be a pandemic or something – I have had dozens of press releases telling me how to make the best of WFH (work from home) ranging from therapeutic/ergonomic devices like chairs to stand up desks and health advice like lighting and rest times.

Frankly, WFH – working from home is just like working from work, only you don’t have to get as dressed and walk or catch a train, bus, bike or car.

My most pertinent advice to readers is that WFH is not a two-week thing.

Most bosses do not have a crystal ball to know when the situation will return to normal. And, as the experiment continues, it may well be that WFH becomes a little more normal than a morning commute.

So, with reports of Harvey Norman and Office Works being pillaged for monitors, laptops, keyboards, mice and desks here are a few tips that may help you WFH.

The Law on WFH

I am not a lawyer, so I asked one about the legality of forcing workers to a) WFH and b) to provide their own equipment.

An employer can close an office based on Workplace Health and Safety laws. If you caught COVID-19 at work or during a commute, you could possibly sue it for negligence!

An employer can ask you to WFH due to force majeure. Presently its public liability insurance only covers its primary place of work (premises). Lobbying is underway to extend that to ‘places of work’, but in the interim, you should have your own householder’s public liability. It is usually part of home and contents insurance, but the policy may preclude a home ‘business’ so make sure you advise your insurer – a quick email is all it takes.

An employer can ask you to take paid leave or unpaid leave (if you don’t have any left). An employer can ask you to work fewer hours, and you may agree to that. That way, you preserve all entitlements (sick leave, maternity leave, etc.) and the right to resume work at the office when it is safe to do so.

On the question of termination, an employer has the right to terminate employment if it believes it cannot meet its future obligations. It then must meet award or contract provisions to pay you out. You have no residual rights and are unemployed. You can then seek other work and apply for government allowances like Newstart, Dole, rent assistance etc.

But the interesting thing about WFH is that the employer, not you, is ‘generally’ obliged to provide the tools of the trade required to allow you to do so. Tools may include the internet, a computer (desktop/laptop), software, printer and even an office class desk, chair and lighting.

Now before you go overboard to fit out a home office at someone elses expense, consider that we are all in the same boat. Keeping your employer afloat and your job active is better than the alternative.

So, work with your boss in the spirit of goodwill to all.

Things to do to lessen the financial blow

Rather than try to recreate your work environment at your cost, ask your boss if you can borrow your kit from work. This is a win-win if you collect it and return it in similar condition. If it is an extensive or valuable kit, you may need to adjust your insurance and take photographs of everything you borrow.

If you are skint and your productivity is failing due to a stream-driven PC/Mac/small screen/crappy keyboard/internet, then do not feel guilty putting the hard word on them.

Why? A typical small to medium business will get an instant tax write-off for assets whereas you can’t. That write-off means the company does not have to pay 30% company tax on the profit it would have used to buy the equipment.

But it then owns the equipment so if you can afford it, why not salary sacrifice the remaining 70%. This means the equipment is purchased from your pre-tax earnings effectively costing you less than half of its retail cost.

And here is even better news – if you have already run out and bought stuff you can (with the boss’s agreement) sell it to them (if you have receipts), and they can claim depreciation, and you can salary sacrifice! Perfect win-win!

Our best advice is if you must buy things don’t be a brand or specification snob.

And remember that the Aussie dollar has tanked and freight has increased so current stock will never be cheaper – buy now off the shop floor and don’t trust online as they may take your money but be unable to supply.

Can you ask your boss to pay a contribution towards the internet, wear and tear of equipment, utilities, home office space etc.?

Absolutely. The boss can pay a mutually agreed amount, but this goes on your group certificate as income, and you need to claim depreciation and expenses off your PAYE tax. So it is complicated and ultimately could impact capital gains tax on your primary residence – talk to your accountant first. I guess the issue here is how long you will work from home and if it becomes the norm, in which case tax laws need to change.

But you can claim legitimate out of pocket expenses with the right documentation.

Note we will use the term PC to cover Windows, macOS, iOS and Android desktops/laptops/tablets.

Regimen

I have worked from home and the office for over a decade so I know what it means. You need a regimen (routine) and to set limits like start time, break times, finish time etc. Whereas when I go to the office, I get up a lot earlier to cover preparation and transit, I can legitimately ‘sleep in’ and still work a 9-5 day at home. Dress – it is good to change from PJs to casual gear, especially if you telecommute!

Whereas at work, you will often get up to walk to the printer, see colleagues and interact you will not have that at home. It is vital to get up regularly and stretch.

Your boss may like to implement collaboration software like Microsoft Teams (part of Office 365) that has unified communication and collaboration that combines persistent workplace chat, video meetings, file storage, and application integration. In other words, your PC becomes a window to the workplace and its culture.

Workplace culture – people contact – is what you will miss most!

Environment

Isolation

The chances are that your work environment is close to perfect. Good chair, well-lit private/quiet desk, single or dual-screen monitors, PC with all required software and a keyboard/mouse that you are productive and happy with.

Chances are that your flat, apartment or house is not the ideal work environment. A desk in the open plan lounge/kitchen replete with TV, partner, children or pet interruptions is not the best.

You can isolate with noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones – almost any over the ear ANC headphones will do. There are some ANC earphones as well.

The advantage of this is that you can Bluetooth connect to your PC and play music or hear teleconferences clearly without disrupting others.

If you don’t want to spend $500-600, then there are some excellent BT/ANC cans like the JBL 650 ($199), Poly BackBeat Go 810 (from $180), Ausdom ANC7S ($139) and many more. What you lose is some bass, lower levels of total noise attenuation and perhaps some lasting quality.

If you don’t need to ask the price, then the competitors are Sony WH-1000xM3 ($399), Sennheiser Momentum 3 ($599 but hell why not?), Sennheiser’s PXC 550 II  ($499), Bose 700 ($489),  AKG N700 ($300), Jabra Elite 85h ($379) and to lesser extent Bose QC 35 II ($366). 

Lighting is the most overlooked factor

 Office lights are typically 400-500 nits of evenly distributed, diffused light. Home light is generally 200-300 nits designed for night use to illuminate or spot specific areas.

One of the most important things is to get good, low blue-light, task lighting for your desk.

At the top end is a Dyson Lightcycle that I cannot live without, but any LED height/angle adjustable lamp is better than shadows over your desk.

When I say I cannot live without the Dyson, I am hooked on it matching the outdoor light and looking after my circadian rhythms so I can get a better night’s sleep.

Heating/cooling

Most workplaces are air-conditioned at a constant 23°. Air conditioning at home is at your cost and can be expensive – remember if you claim that cost it comes up as wages that you pay tax on.

As we are now in Autumn a fan/heater may suffice and if you have more cash a combo air purifier is better. And yes you can salary sacrifice that too!

Internet

My wife and I are frequent remote workers and have NBN 100/40Mbps. It is not that we need the top speed, but when the internet is congested (as it increasingly is at present), our speeds are still reasonable.

Remote workers need upload speed more than download, especially if they are working on a remote server or using Microsoft Teams or similar. At a minimum upgrade to 50/20Mbps.

Why? You are more likely to use video conferencing, a secure VPN and need more remote speed.

If you suffer from ADSL or poor internet speeds, there are 4G alternatives like the D-Link 4G LTE router that may give you better speeds but TRY IT FIRST as poor 4G signals mean even poorer speed.

Monitors

A 24-27″ 1920×1080 (FHD) monitor is fine for office use. Most PC/Mac/Laptops will have HDMI port or dongle to support that.

If desk space is an issue the Samsung Space 27 or 32″ fold flat monitor is ideal but don’t forget that you can also buy monitor arms that do the same.

WFH

If you need dual monitors, look for small side bezels and use two of the same (or you will go crazy with different fonts and colours). You will generally need a dock, and these will run two FHD easily – only a Thunderbolt 3 dock and computer will run dual 4K. Docks connect via USB-A 3.0 (blue insert), USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps), USB-C 3.1/2 Gen 2 (10Gbps) and Thunderbolt 3 (20 to 40Gbps). Obviously, the faster you go, the more expensive it gets.

Or if dual monitors are not possible you can get a 38, 42 or larger curved 1080p monitor that only needs one HDMI port.

You do not need a 4K monitor (with 100% Adobe RCG) unless you are a designer, videographer, CAD engineer or photo editor. Then you need a Thunderbolt 3 PC and dock to drive them.

Also, look at your desk space and make sure you have at least 60cm distance between your monitor and eyes.

PC

Again, it is best to get what your office uses. But before you get locked into one or the other ecosystem (PC or Mac) look at the software that you use first.

If you only use Microsoft Office 365, and a browser, then the cheapest PC does all that. So, an Intel Core i3, 4/128GB, Windows 10 device will do that with aplomb. These start from about $400.

If you need

  • A resource-heavy app that you may consider an Intel Core i5 or i7 (or AMD Ryzen 3, 5, or 7) and more memory or storage. Remember that you can always plug in an inexpensive external flash drive/HDD/SSD to add more capacity.
  • Software that only runs on a Mac then go Mac starting from $1699

Me, the essential things are an external monitor (or two), mechanical keyboard and a good mouse so spend there instead of the PC.

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My desk is 1.24m wide and 650mm deep! And yes, a clean desk is the sign of a sick mind!

Software

Office 365 (includes Outlook 365 mail client) is available for an annual subscription of $98 (personal) and $114 (Home for up to six users). While not strictly legal, those six users can also be your colleagues!

But the chances are that your employer has a corporate licence and can let you use that instead. Business licenses contain MS Teams.

All other software including Antivirus/VPN (to protect corporate networks) should be provided by the employer who usually can temporarily transfer the licence to your PC.

Printer/Scanner

Inkjets are cheap to buy and expensive to run. But you have no idea how handy it is to have an MFP (multi-function printer) scanner/fax/copy. We have reviews of printers here.

The fax can use the NBN phone port, and it is best for the secure transmission of credit card details etc.

The scanner will enable you to print out documents for signing, scribble your ‘John Hancock’, scan and email or fax it back.

So, the printer is really the least important part – it’s the on/off-ramp for the internet, not the page cost to print (unless you print a lot) that is important.

Cloud and collaboration

One of the most overlooked aspects of working from home is collaboration. Rudimentary collaboration via things like OneDrive, DropBox etc. to store everything so that your boss can read it. It is also a terrific backup. Ask the boss to ensure you get corporate cloud access.

GadgetGuy has started using a collaboration software called Microsoft Teams, and it comes with business versions of Office 365. There are several alternatives, but at least you can have a video conference with co-workers, share screens and documents and keep the company culture up.

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Teams works on most devices

GadgetGuy’s take – WFH does not have to be WTF

WFH or COVID-19 Convicts as we refer to it is not a punishment. In many cases, it can be a new way to prove to your boss that workplace flexibility is what work/life balance is all about. But you must keep your end of the bargain up and not reduce productivity – if anything the opposite.

Don’t panic buy and work with your boss to reduce any costs to you – after all, you are prepared to board petri-dish public transport and go to work?!

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