PROPERTY

How to avoid these risks when you work from home

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When COVID-19 hit us hard in March, most of us had to vacate our offices. We packed up our desks, collected our laptops - or, in some cases, desktops - and headed home.

We logged into work through hastily connected networks and took over a space in our homes -in the study, at the dining table or anywhere we could find a suitable spot.

Some of us have returned to our offices while others have been told working from home will be the "new normal" for many more months. So now is a good time to make sure our home set-ups are appropriate for longer-term use.

Hall & Wilcox law partner Alison Baker says while the workplace may have moved, the obligations still exist for employers to provide a healthy and safe environment.

"There are no concessions," she says. "You have to consider staff physical and mental health. From a physical point, you have to make sure the workstation is ergonomically safe with the right equipment and environment, including decent lighting, heating, cooling and other things," she says.

"We recommend our clients get their staff to do a self-assessment to identify if there are any occupational health and safety red flags.

"Many businesses - when their people had to mobilise quickly to the home environment - reimbursed them for the cost of buying equipment like monitors, keyboards, etc."

Angela Uther, founder of The Red Chair, a business and human resources consultancy, says the key to setting up an ergonomically correct office is making sure your eyes are looking directly at the middle of your screen, not down or up.

"Everything comes from there, because if your seat is too low or high, or your desk is too low or high, you're in trouble. The other part is having right angles for your arms to your keyboard and knees to the floor," says Uther.

"This is why you often see a desk that goes up or down or a footrest and a phone book under the monitor. You can do it yourself, with a footstool or a blanket wrapped around books at home.

"I wouldn't recommend sitting at the dining table because the height of the table is often too high and you need a proper desk chair. If you have a desk that's the right height, you can use a dining chair.

"You can also stand up at a kitchen bench and I would recommend that. If you're just reading through something, try to do that in a standing position or with an iPad or laptop on a higher shelf so you can do some stretches or walk a couple of steps from side to side.

"Don't be seated all day in the same spot because that makes any kind of ergonomic issues worse."

Uther says one of the greatest OH&S (also WHS) dangers of working from home is people working in socks. It's dangerous, it can be slippery and falling down the stairs is one of the most common injuries of working from home.

"I recommend grip socks or slippers, or comfortable shoes."

When you're professionally setting up people to work from home there is a mutual responsibility. As an employee you should complete a declaration to say you have checked measurements and so on to confirm your workstation is ergonomic. And if you need something to make it safe, you should be able to ask your employer to help you, says Uther.

"In this kind of environment a lot of employers are doing good things like providing a $50 a week budget or sending you whatever you need, but some employers won't have the resources to do that, so you need to keep receipts and make sure any costs you do incur can be claimed back at tax time," she says.

Craig Lawrenson, chief operating officer at Hub24, an investment and superannuation platform, says as the shutdown happened so quickly and everyone had to go home at short notice, the company realised people were in different situations at home so it provided two lots of payments to facilitate setting up home offices.

"We provided the money to help people to set up what they needed - chairs, desks, another screen for their computer, internet, a whole bunch of things," says Lawrenson.

"Feedback from staff was overwhelmingly positive. We're open-minded about making further payments because our employees are wearing costs they wouldn't normally wear."

Part of Hub24's approach to its staff of 250, who are now working from home, was to provide an OH&S checklist that sets out the key points and follow up through HR.

"Part of the money was to help support that," he says.

The success of new furniture maker Stagekings indicates that many people were unprepared for working from home when the orders came in March.

Managing director Jeremy Fleming, who switched his business from designing sets and stages to making home office equipment, found there was a great demand for desks in the first weeks of lockdown.

"In just the first three months, we made nearly 10,000 IsoKing products and sent them across Australia to thousands of new customers," says Fleming. From there the company expanded its offering to more than 40 items, including monitor stands, footstools, bookshelves and other equipment as demand built.

At tax time, there are three ways to claim your expenses:

  • Actual cost method: the work-related portion of your actual expenses.
  • Fixed-cost method: usually 52c per hour for heating, lighting and cooling, and decline in value of home office furniture plus the work-related portion of your other expenses.
  • Special Covid-19 rate: 80c per hour shortcut calculation (only available between March 1 and June 30, 2020), including phone and internet charges.

Adrian Raftery, from the accounting and tax service Mr Taxman, calculates that when using the 80c shortcut method most people will underestimate their claim by as much as $1500, as they cannot claim internet, mobile phone, home phone and office equipment such as webcams and office furniture, nor any stationery or computer consumables.

"Sit at your desk and scan the room for various items you may use, even partially, for work purposes," he says.

When it comes to larger purchases, Raftery says $299 is the sweet spot for any home office purchase, as anything that costs more will need to be depreciated over time.

The ATO has different depreciation schedules for different office equipment - for example, a chair may have a 10-year schedule and a laptop or monitor may have just three or four years. It can all be entered quite simply through your myGov account or a tax accountant.

Depreciation is also calculated on a pro-rata basis. So, for example, if you buy a laptop on June 30 then you will only be able to claim 1/365th of depreciation for the financial year. But next year you will be able claim more.

Raftery says ideally when claiming for a home office you would have a dedicated work space, but at this time the ATO has been more relaxed and you can just have a laptop on the couch.

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Julia Newbould is a financial writer and commentator with a background in journalism. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.
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