How to Navigate Returning to the Office in the COVID-19 Era
Askamanager.org's Alison Green joins our Your Money's Worth podcast to discuss the challenges workers face when returning to the office as local economies start to re-open.
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Sandy Block: Still in the attic in my home office, which we are going to talk about, right?
Ryan Ermey: Yes. We're going to get to that in one second. It is the topic of our first segment, but I always appreciate reader input and we got some good input about our last episode. Some of you may recall that we talked about the rules for giving to charity that have recently changed and that have become more prescient in these times. And a reader, Andy from South Jersey, one of my people, Sandy . . .
Sandy Block: Your peeps!
Ryan Ermey: . . . wrote us in to tell us that across the country, more than 800 local community foundations are philanthropic intermediaries that have deep relationships with the local nonprofit charitable organizations as grantees and capacity builders. And you know, these are a really good way to find good local charities in your area. So he says, for example, "In South Jersey, the Community Foundation of South Jersey highlights impactful organizations we trust through our proven and promising initiative." So if any donor across the country or Canada, I hope that we have some Canadian listeners sandy, do you think we have?
Sandy Block: You're welcome, Canadians. Yes.
Ryan Ermey: Yeah. Or at least our former colleague Miriam, for sure. She might be the only one.
Sandy Block: She's not in Canada, though. She's just Canadian.
Ryan Ermey: That's true. But she may be wanting to give to Canadian charities in her hometown in Toronto.
Sandy Block: This is true. That's true. Yeah. Good point.
Ryan Ermey: He says, "It's a tremendous local resource, the local Community Foundation to understand what nonprofits are making an impact and exercising leadership across a diverse array of charitable causes. You can find a community foundation locator at cof.org and in Canada at communityfoundations.ca. And we will be putting links to those in the show notes. So if you're looking for charities that can make an impact in your locality, then give that a look and thank you to Andy.
Sandy Block: Yes. Thanks, Andy.
Ryan Ermey: On to the topic of our first segment. Now, Sandy, you and I both have . . . I mean, I have what I would call a home office. It happens to-
Sandy Block: I think your home office is your dining room table, right?
Ryan Ermey: It happens to be my dining room table. My podcast set up has lived here until this past weekend when my roommate wanted to have some brunch get-together and couldn't have the unsightly microphone sitting on the table. We had to get the runner and the bagels and the schlemiel. I mean, it was a whole set up. So it had to go up to my room. But we're back at the table, me and the cheetahs. So the question is Sandy, can I deduct this from my taxes? I'm doing all my work from this home office.
Sandy Block: Well, no, you can't. And there was a time, although in your case, and we'll get to this, I'm a little skeptical. Just a couple of years ago, if your employer required you to work from home, you could deduct at least a portion of the cost of your home office, which in effect is the percentage of your home that's dedicated to your home office. And that would apply now because we didn't say, "Hey." Our office is closed. I mean, it's not like we are working at home for our own convenience. We're working at home because we have nowhere else to go, right? But, unfortunately, and people are just becoming aware of this, now the big tax overhaul that was enacted at the end of 2017, got rid of a deduction for unreimbursed business expenses for employees, and that included the home office deduction. So if you work for someone else and you're working from home, even if you spent some money and I suspect a lot of people did to get a more comfortable office chair, monitor or something-
Ryan Ermey: Oh, yes.
Sandy Block: None of that is deductible if you're working for someone else. This deduction is gone. So, that's the bad news. The good news is if you work for yourself -- and that includes independent contractors who may have worked in an office before but are effectively self-employed or even have a side gig -- then this deduction is available to you. You should definitely take it, because if you're working for yourself, you want to deduct all the expenses that you can. So in that case, you should be keeping track of these costs. Now the reason I'm a little skeptical of your set up, Ryan, is in order to qualify for a home office deduction, let's pretend you work for yourself, not for Kiplinger's, you have to have a space in your home that is exclusively dedicated to your work. I'm not sure if the IRS is listening. I think they would be skeptical because you just gave up that the space that you use to work is also used for brunch. That may disqualify you from this deduction.
Sandy Block: It doesn't mean it has to be a separate room. I mean, I actually have a room that I work in in the attic, but if you're an apartment dweller, you could qualify for this deduction even if you just have a portion of your bedroom with a desk and a chair and your computer.
Ryan Ermey: Cordon it off.
Sandy Block: Yeah, cordon. As long as it's exclusively used for business. What the IRS doesn't want people doing is saying, "I work all over the house. I work in the living room. I work in the kitchen," and then deduct the whole cost of the house saying that it's all your home office. So it has to be fairly regular, but once you cross that barrier, and again, this only applies to people who are self-employed, the rest of us are out of luck, then you can deduct . . . say your office space is 10% of your home. You can deduct 10% of your mortgage, 10% of your utilities, 10% of your homeowners insurance.
Ryan Ermey: That's big.
Sandy Block: Yeah, it is. It can really add up. And the IRS also offers a short version where you just measure the square footage and multiply it by five, up to a maximum of $1,500. So that's the shortcut, but if you're really serious about cutting costs, I would do the actual cost and do the math and figure out how much of your expenses are dedicated to your home office. And if you're, again, if you're working for yourself, independent contractor, even side gig, it's not just your home office. All the things that you've purchased to make your home office more livable are deductible expenses. So yes, self-employed. You and I do not get this deduction. We just, even though maybe we spent a little bit of money, I don't know, making our offices more office-like, we're out of luck with that.
Ryan Ermey: Well, so I haven't spent too much but my roommate, to bring him back into the conversation, he bought . . . I mean, he has a dedicated space in his room that has a desk he bought, let's say a ring light so he can look good in video conference, laptop stand, all of those kinds of things. So does the deduction only apply to that percentage portion of whatever taxes you're paying on your home or do these things that he bought, can he write the entire cost of that desk off or the entire cost of that laptop stand off?
Sandy Block: Assuming he works for himself.
Ryan Ermey: No, he's got a side gig now that . . .
Sandy Block: Okay. For a side gig, yeah. And as I said, if you're working for yourself, you just need to come up with some kind of bookkeeping software or something and write all that stuff down. If it's something that he purchased to enable his business and it is his own business, yes, it is deductible and he needs just to keep track of all those things. So, yeah, definitely. If he bought things so he can do videos for his business, for sure that's deductible. So if you're self-employed, you have to be a record keeping machine because you're eligible for so many deductions, your mileage, postage, whatever. That's smart because a lot of self-employed people don't make a lot of money and the less you pay in taxes, the more you keep. So, yeah, for the self-employed, all those things are deductible. As I said, for the rest of us, if we bought chairs or big monitors and things, the best you can do is ask your employer to reimburse you for some of them. Good luck with that.
Ryan Ermey: Good luck. All right. Well, we surely have some content about this on Kiplinger.com that we'll put up in the show notes, and I'll be sure to let my roommate know he can save some money. Maybe he'll even let me keep my stuff out on the brunch buffet.
Sandy Block: Seems only fair.
Ryan Ermey: If you or someone in your household is immuno-compromised, can your boss make you come into work? Alison Green answers back to work questions after the break.
Ryan Ermey: We are back. And we're here with Alison Green, who I'm excited to have on or have back on, I should say. She's been on the show before and was wonderful on that appearance and her blog Ask a Manager is one of my absolute go-tos for workplace questions and advice. So, Alison, thank you so much for coming back on with us.
Alison Green: Thanks for having me.
Ryan Ermey: So lots of folks have been working from home and discovering that they can do their job just fine remotely. And as offices open up, people may be feeling uncomfortable returning, either because maybe they live with an immunocompromised person or they can't arrange childcare or for whatever reason. Can people refuse to go back to the office -- and, if not, what should people do if they're uncomfortable returning and their workplace is opening back up?
Alison Green: So many people are struggling with this right now. My inbox is just chock full of letters about this. And the answer is, it really depends on the specifics of your situation. So if you yourself are high-risk, the law will give you some protection. The Americans With Disabilities Act says that you should be able to ask to continue to work from home as a medical accommodation. Now your employer isn't necessarily required to agree to that. But what the law says is that they have to have a dialogue with you about what accommodations would work. They can suggest other things instead. They could suggest putting you in a more isolated space or setting up plexiglass barrier, but they do have to work with you on a solution. Now if you are not high risk, but you live with someone who is, the law does not give you the same protections. But even so, you can still talk with your employer and explain the situation and try to work something out.
Alison Green: And in a lot of cases, employers might be willing to work with you. You just have to know to ask. Now if you have to stay home because you have young kids and schools and camps and daycare centers are still closed, there are some legal protections. They're not great ones. If your company has fewer than 500 employees, there is a new law that gives you up to 12 weeks of expanded family and medical leave. It's at two-thirds of your regular rate of pay if you can't work because of childcare issues right now. Or you can collect unemployment if you're unable to work because of childcare needs, but obviously most people are hoping to avoid that and stay employed if they can. So if none of those options work for you, and there are people who don't fall in any of those categories, you can try pushing back in your company.
Alison Green: You might have more luck if you do it with a group of coworkers, because a group of people pushing for change can be harder to ignore than one person, but a lot of people are in this boat and there's not great answers for everyone. People are feeling like they have to choose between keeping their job in the middle of a very bad job market or protecting themselves in their families. It's a really hard situation.
Sandy Block: So Alison, to follow up on that, in general what should people do if maybe they are ready to go back to work, but they feel like their workplace is unsafe either because the office is telling people not to wear masks or they don't have any social distancing guidelines or they're allowing as many people as possible to pile into the elevator? Do you have any suggestions for people in that situation?
Alison Green: Yes. Speak up. And, again, if you can get a group of coworkers to all speak up together, you're going to have more power. You're also going to have some protection if you speak up with some other coworkers. If you're worried that speaking up will put a target on you or get you marked as difficult or not a team player, which are all things people worry about, if you speak up with a group of coworkers, federal law prohibits employers from taking action against you for doing that. It's actually the same protections that protect union organizing do apply even if there's not a union in the mix.
Alison Green: Now that doesn't mean that employers don't violate that law all the time. They do, and so you do have to be careful. But do know that there's some protection and really speaking up and pushing back with your coworkers and saying, "We're ready to come back, but these are the conditions that we think we need to see in place before we're comfortable doing it." Sometimes that can have an impact. Not every time. Again, it's just a terrible situation for a lot of people. But some people are finding that they can get change made that way.
Ryan Ermey: So some offices like ours -- Sandy and I are going to be in the dining room and the attic recording for a little while here -- plan to be closed for a little while longer. And even after things open back up, I think a lot of workplaces anticipate allowing more of their workers to work from home a fair amount more. Now everyone should go check out your blog and I'm certainly a regular reader, but what are some common issues that you've seen arising as people are acclimating more to a working from home world? And how have you been going about telling people to deal with these things?
Alison Green: Oh gosh, I have had so many new themes crop up since all of this started. It's just changed everything about work. One that I'm seeing a lot is employers who never really liked the idea of letting people work from home but had to allow it when the pandemic started, but they still aren't really comfortable with it. And on some level it seems like they believe that people working from home aren't working or aren't as productive as they would be in the office. And you see that come out in all sorts of ways. You see managers who want people on video calls all day long to make sure that they're really working. I've had multiple letters about that. People have managers who suddenly start micromanaging people who were previously trusted to be competent professionals who didn't need that. It's really odd. A lot of employers are using this as an opportunity to see how working from home can work for them longer term. But some employers are losing it, because they feel like they have less control over their employees now.
Ryan Ermey: One dilemma that I saw come up on the blog is that some people's workplaces have tried to monitor their internet use or track their computer. Is that legal? Is that allowed?
Alison Green: It is legal and allowed. In most states they have to tell you that they're doing it. But the assumption that this all rests on legally is they're paying for your time, you might be using their equipment, they can monitor what you're doing. So, yeah, there are employers who are insisting that now that their workforce is remote, they have to have keyboard loggers or others spyware on their computer.
Ryan Ermey: Wow.
Alison Green: They're not calling it spyware, but it is spyware. It all goes back to managers not knowing how to manage people when they're remote. And so they grab at control, instead. But monitoring people is not the same thing as managing people. I mean, we've long had a crisis of management where people get promoted into management jobs and have no idea how to do it. You're just really seeing it now that they can't see people in person.
Sandy Block: Well, that's a good lead up to the next question, because as a result of the pandemic a lot of people maybe realize that they don't like being spied on their managers or they've been furloughed or laid off and they are looking for another job. How have the rules changed when it comes to looking for a job? And I guess, follow up to that, if you want to continue working from home on a more permanent basis, is that negotiable?
Alison Green: So I wish I had a more optimistic outlook to share about the job market. Things are not great right now. So many people are out of work and it's not a great time to be looking for a job. And employers know that, and some of them seem to be taking advantage of it. Not all of them, of course. I mean, some employers have been great. But some have been treating people in ways that they wouldn't have done earlier, because they feel like the balance of power has shifted and people are less likely to quit over it or if they do. They can be more easily replaced now. So it's not a great time for workers.
Alison Green: It's not a great time to be job searching, but that doesn't mean people aren't getting hired right now. They are. And I would never want someone to feel like they have to stay in a bad situation because they're afraid to leave, but it's definitely a time to proceed with caution. It won't stay like this forever, but right now there's so much uncertainty at companies and so much instability, it's just a really tough time to be looking.
Ryan Ermey: Do you think that there's a possibility that workplaces that were formerly insistent that people come into the office -- now that so many businesses have gone to remote work -- do you think that coming out of the pandemic there will be more opportunities where companies are going to say, "We did this whole remote thing. It worked. Why not hire more people on a telework basis?"
Alison Green: I do. I think a lot of people had been assuming that would be the case across the board with every company, that manager's eyes would be open and they would see how great this was and there are cost-
Sandy Block: Work wherever you want, right?
Alison Green: Right. And there are cost savings for employers to not have to rent office space-
Sandy Block: Sure.
Alison Green: . . . and to be able to hire people anywhere and not be limited just to your local labor market. But a lot of companies are pretty excited to start bringing people back to work. And in some cases it's legitimate. They're right that they've lost something in terms of the ability to collaborate or stay in touch. With other jobs, not so much. I mean, a lot of people will tell you they've been doing their job just fine, if not better, since they've been at home. And it's . . . I don't know. I think there's something of a disconnect between a lot of the workforce and a lot of employers. But I do think that, yes, definitely some employers are seeing, "Oh, this is workable in a way that we didn't quite embrace before but we can now, and there are cost savings here for us." And I do you think you're going to see and are seeing companies embrace remote work in a way that they hadn't quite gotten to before this happened.
Ryan Ermey: Well, all fabulous advice, Alison, as always. And before you go, remind the people where they can find all of the stuff that you're working on.
Alison Green: I answer reader questions every day at my website, which is askamanager.org. And my book is "Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work."
Ryan Ermey: Those pesky lunch-stealing bosses.
Sandy Block: I hate it when that happens.
Ryan Ermey: All right. Well, thank you so much for coming on. Everyone go check out the website. Check out the book and, yeah, we'd love to have you on again soon. Thanks so much, Alison.
Alison Green: Thank you.
Ryan Ermey: If we're talking about a new Michael Jackson biography, you know it's time for Wild Pitches. Don't go anywhere.
Ryan Ermey: We are back and before we go, it's our favorite all time segment, Wild Pitches, tales of our wackiest PR pitches. Sandy, what do you got?
Sandy Block: I've got one, just in time for Father's Day and we did talk about some Father's Day gifts last year, "60 Minutes of Utter Silence for Dad." Now when I was a teenager, that's what you'd call dinner, right? This falls into the category of pitches I've talked about that are a little bit tone deaf because at a time when a lot of people are feeling very isolated because they can't spend time with the people they love and they can't go out. To me, the last thing somebody wants is to spend 60 minutes in a float. And what this involves is a float pod where guests float atop 180 gallons of water and 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt.
Sandy Block: "The specialized salt solution provides a zero gravity environment that allows the body to float effortless in water set to skin temperature." It gives a lot of other stuff about the benefits. First of all, I don't know about you, but I can't imagine in a million years my dad would want to spend 60 minutes floating in a pot all by himself.
Ryan Ermey: No, probably not.
Sandy Block: But I actually heard of people who embrace this. They find it very relaxing, but seriously-
Ryan Ermey: You think you could take a vodka tonic in there?
Sandy Block: I think a lot of men would be saying, not men, just women saying, "Is there a game on? Can I listen to a podcast here?" But I think that the larger issue is, as I said, a lot of people, particularly parents, have been spending a lot of time alone. They haven't been able to get out and they haven't been able to spend time. So to give them a gift where they would spend 60 minutes not talking to anyone really doesn't seem like an appropriate gift at this time. I think the real gift that people can give to their fathers is the gift of themselves. And I understand that for a lot of people, that's not possible because maybe they don't want to put them at risk of getting coronavirus.
Sandy Block: Maybe a lot of people have parents in retirement communities or nursing homes that are closed to visitors. But you can certainly call. You can do a Zoom. You can write a letter. I think that experiential gifts are great gifts for older parents, because most of them have too much. But I think putting them in a pod for 60 minutes . . . there may be some dads out there that think that's a great idea, but I really can't think of any. So, that's my wild pitch. What do you got, Ryan?
Ryan Ermey: Well, so mine says, "More than a decade has passed since the world lost Michael Jackson, the King of Pop whose life continues to be so relevant today it's being celebrated in a new Broadway show to open March 2021. Author and music producer Gary Revel reveals never-before-told facts about Michael in his updated edition of "Don't Stop Dancing: Stranger Than Fiction" that takes an investigative approach toward uncovering what Revel calls, quote, 'secrets of the life, music and career of a man considered to be one of the greatest entertainers in music history.'" Now, this sounds like, first of all, regardless of what you believe about Michael Jackson and I've seen the HBO documentary so I have certain-
Sandy Block: Opinions.
Ryan Ermey: . . . leanings on that front. He's not a man whose secrets you really want to know. The more secrets you find out about Michael Jackson-
Sandy Block: The worse it gets. That's right.
Ryan Ermey: . . . the more troubling it gets. And I get a lot of pitches like this because when I was still an intern at Kiplinger's, I interviewed Gene Simmons about-
Sandy Block: Gene Simmons of Kiss. For those-
Ryan Ermey: From Kiss, if people don't remember. Yes.
Ryan Ermey: Who was at the long tongue and the whole thing. I interviewed him about a book of his called Me, Inc. And to spare you the . . . I mean, I guess I'll put it in the show notes if people want to read it, but I wasn't very nice to the book. But regardless, that story got me on a list of celebrity book pitches, whether they're financial or not. And I wouldn't recommend anyone read this. I mean, look, if you're really into Michael Jackson and want to read the book, go check it out. But if not, we have some finance-related books that we've recommended in the magazine in case you're short on summer reading. We have The Big Short, which people may remember.
Sandy Block: Yeah. Also a very good movie. If you don't want to read the book, I thought the movie was very well done as well.
Ryan Ermey: But, yeah, in case you haven't heard of it or seen the movie dive into the financial crash of 2008 and the world of bonds and real estate derivatives. Exciting.
Sandy Block: It was exciting.
Ryan Ermey: It is exciting, though. Yeah. It's just funny that that's what we added in the magazine. Bonds and real estate derivatives. I mean, Michael Lewis is fabulous, who wrote this book. Any one of his books about finances is worth reading. "Lewis tells the story through a quirky crew of investors who predicted the crisis and breaks down complex topics for the lay person." Our colleague Eileen Ambrose contributed How to Retire Happy by Stan Hinden. "A former Washington Post financial writer turned his retirement into a column, and then this book. He gives it to you straight, what he wished he knew before retiring and how to navigate 12 key decisions as you reach retirement." Sandy, this was a little while ago that we put this list together, but one of these is your recommendation -- "Capital," a novel.
Sandy Block: Yeah. It's Capital by John Lanchester, who I think writes for the New Yorker. And I loved this book because it was a very much of the time. It was in the spring of 2008 in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in London. I think it has a lot of relevance to our times with all the conversations we're having about income inequality, which is really the theme of this book. People started getting these disturbing notes in their mailboxes. It's very well written and it just captures how people were really living very large until they weren't. So it was just very readable and it was a lot of fun to read and I think it would have, now that we're in another downturn, I think it would be relevant and interesting. And it's just a good read. I mean, get it on your Kindle from the library or something.
Ryan Ermey: Another one of our recommendations which I haven't read, but reading the description sounds more relevant now than ever, is called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. "A journalist goes undercover to live among the working poor chronicling poignant, eye-opening stints as a waitress, maid, nursing home aid and Walmart sales clerk." Something that's so worth reading right now, given how the pandemic has really taken an enormous toll and how society has had such high expectations for the working poor who have had to work throughout the pandemic. So absolutely, I'm going to see if I can pick up a copy of that myself.
Sandy Block: This book is fairly old and I actually interviewed her years ago, but it's every bit as relevant now as it was then, because what she gets at is that if you are among the working poor, just life is so expensive. You get into this cycle of poverty that's very, very hard to break out of. She had to live in really crummy hotels, but she couldn't afford to cook for herself on the salary that she was making. So she had to go to fast food places. It just shows how difficult and as you said, at a time when we're paying attention to essential workers and these people are actually putting their health at risk to work, I think this book -- it'd be interesting to see if she's put a new forward on it because it's every bit as relevant as it was 20 years ago.
Ryan Ermey: And before we go, Sandy, you are the chairperson of the Kiplinger's book club.
Sandy Block: Yes, I am.
Ryan Ermey: The founder, I should say, that we've started during the work from home period here. What are you reading these days?
Sandy Block: Actually, we're reading, this is for people who love magazines. Well, what I'm reading or what the book club's reading?
Ryan Ermey: Oh, both. I love that you're multitasking.
Sandy Block: Oh, I'm a book ninja. I mean, I read tons of things. But the book club is reading, this is very relevant to our business, it's called Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl, who was the editor of Gourmet until it was abruptly shut down. And it's just got all kinds of good juicy stuff about, again, Conde Nast. The amount of money they spent before the internet ate their lunch is just astonishing. I mean, it's just juicy and fun to read. So, that's what our book club is reading. I'm making my way through the second in the LBJ Robert Caro series. I've been reading that off and on. Yeah.
Ryan Ermey: Oh baby. Master of the Senate or whatever that was.
Sandy Block: Yeah. The second one is the one I'm through. And just last night I stayed up reading a book I liked a lot called Writers and Lovers, which is also very good. So don't get me started.
Ryan Ermey: It's thousands of pages, that Lyndon Johnson thing, and he's still only up to 1959 or something, right?
Sandy Block: Oh, I know. I mean, he hasn't even . . . yeah. He just got elected to the Senate.
Ryan Ermey: Holy moly.
Sandy Block: I mean, there's a whole chapter on his kidney stones, but it's a really fascinating chapter. I learned a hell of a lot about kidney stones.
Ryan Ermey: Well quickly, I just finished up Trick Mirror, the book of essays by Jia Tolentino.
Sandy Block: Oh, I liked that. That was good. Yeah.
Ryan Ermey: Absolutely fabulous. And really, I think, insightful writing and interesting thinking about my generation. She's, I think maybe a year older than me.
Sandy Block: Yeah. I would say so. Yeah.
Ryan Ermey: Really fascinating stuff. And I'm just starting The Vanishing Half.
Sandy Block: Oh, I put that on hold. Want that.
Ryan Ermey: . . . which I'm very pleased to have gotten through book of the month.
Sandy Block: Oh, really?
Ryan Ermey: Yes, indeedy. And for people who might be interested, it's about a pair of twin sisters who are black, but one of them chooses throughout her life to pass for white. And it goes through . . . I mean, I just started it.
Sandy Block: That book's getting a ton of buzz. I can't wait to read it.
Ryan Ermey: Really, really excited to read it. So I'll have to check back in once I finish it and let you know how it was. But there you have it, folks. If you're in need of summer reading, financial or otherwise, we've got you covered. So stay healthy and stay literate.
Ryan Ermey: And that'll wrap it up for this episode of Your Money's Worth. For show notes and more great Kiplinger content on the topics we discussed on today's show, visit kiplinger.com/links/podcasts. You can stay connected with us on Twitter, Facebook or by e-mailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you liked the show, please remember to rate, review and subscribe to Your Money's Worth wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.