University

Who’s paying the bill for working from home?

440 euros in coffee, electricity & toilet paper

A university survey from this summer has shown that 40 percent of UG employees don’t have a proper home office. This needs to change. But who’s footing the bill?


René Hoogschagen

Door René Hoogschagen

8 September om 15:44 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 14 September 2020
om 17:06 uur.
René Hoogschagen

By René Hoogschagen

September 8 at 15:44 PM.
Last modified on September 14, 2020
at 17:06 PM.
René Hoogschagen

René Hoogschagen

Freelancejournalist
Volledig bio
Freelance journalist
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Bob de Jonge will be working from home for the foreseeable future. ‘I expect to be here until at least November’, says the associate professor of linguistics at the European languages and cultures department. Fortunately, he already had a home office set up, with a nice desk and a good chair. ‘I did buy an extra screen and a laptop stand to make sure my webcam is at the right height. I also got an extra keyboard.’

He probably won’t get any money back for the laptop stand, but he’ll be reimbursed 100 euros for the screen and 25 for the keyboard through the laptop scheme which was recently expanded to include other equipment. Headsets and computer mice are also covered in the scheme. Reimbursement for a new laptop has been upped to 500 euros; it used to be 350. 

I spent around 2,000 euros on a new computer and an external hard drive

That is, for anyone with a contract for at least 0.3 FTE who’s been working at the UG for more than a year. Otherwise, they get nothing. Student assistants and scholarship PhDs like molecular geneticist Patricia Arias are out of luck.

‘I spent around 2,000 euros on a new computer, an external hard drive, and adapters’, says Arias. ‘I’d been saving up, but the pandemic meant I had to buy it sooner than I’d planned.’ She also bought a new computer screen. The only things she’s missing are a proper chair and a desk. ‘What I have now isn’t very comfortable.’

Slow computers

Costs per day, as calculated by the Nibud

  • Electricity 0.04 euros
  • Water 0.02 euro
  • Gas 1.20 euro
  • Coffee/tea 0.70 euros
  • Toilet paper 0.025 euro
  • Write-off costs desk and chair 0.01 euros

The Graduate School of Science and Engineering PhD council conducted a survey among PhD students and received a host of complaints about working from home, says council chair Renate Jansen. ‘People mainly complained about slow computers and laptops, but also about back issues.’

She talked to the Graduate School to arrange for people to take their work chairs, desks, and computers home with them. ‘Taking a desk and chair home was fine’, says Jansen, ‘but that didn’t solve the issue people were having with slow connections. In the meantime, a lot of our PhD students were working on campus part-time, but also at home.’

UG spokesperson Jorien Bakker has a practical solution: ‘Why not just grab a chair from a colleague who’s working from home?’ ‘That’s what I did today. There’s no one here.’ She also took her desk chair home but decided to go into the office after all. ‘If you can’t use someone else’s chair, there’s always some other way to work things out.’

The main thing is to talk to your manager, Bakker emphasises. ‘We don’t want people to have back or neck issues, or other preventable issues.’

Printing costs

Anja Schüppert, Bob de Jonge’s colleague at the European languages department, didn’t need a chair, but she did take her office screen and keyboard home with her. She didn’t buy much, but she did print essays and other text at her nearest print shop. ‘Now that everything we do is on the computer, I thought it’d be a good idea to regularly work with pen and paper as well’, she says.

But she won’t be reimbursed for the printing costs. Nor for the coffee she drinks, or her heating bill, which is higher now that she’s working from home.

Should she be getting reimbursed for that? Yes, says trade union federation FNV. Last week, they announced that they want to discuss the issue with employers. The FNV points to the working from home costs calculated by the National Institute for Budget Information: 70 cents a day for coffee, 4 cents for electricity, and 2 cents for toilet paper. That may not sound like a lot, but at 2 euros a day and five days a week, that amounts to 440 euros a year.

Whether education union AOb will reimburse people for costs incurred working from home depends on the universities’ future plans, says sector manager Donald Pechler, who is responsible for higher education. ‘I need to talk to the local manager first, and he only just returned from his holiday.’

Internet connection

Then there are other costs, like the internet. ‘Apparently the university just expects me to have an internet connection at home’, says associate professor of econometrics Nicky van Foreest, ‘and they think it’s reasonable to expect me to pay for it. The same with my phone.’ The fact that the UG is still giving people a travel allowance doesn’t help him. ‘I live in the city.’

No one wants to whine if it could lead to a bad performance review

Most people have a good internet connection, says Bakker. ‘That means the UG shouldn’t have to provide that. But if you do have a really poor internet connection, talk to your supervisor. Perhaps something can be arranged.’

Van Foreest doesn’t think people will easily do that. ‘No one wants to be that whiny person if it could lead to a bad performance review, if people start seeing you as someone whose heart isn’t in it.’ He’s talking about the principle, he emphasises, and not about the relationship he has with his own supervisor. ‘It creates a type of dependent relationship that’s just wrong.’

Peace

Schüppert doesn’t really care about the costs of working from home. She cares more about peace and quiet, or rather, the lack thereof. ‘I was literally working at the kitchen table. That means I get interrupted in the afternoon when the kids get home from school, people talking, making coffee or dinner, etc.’ 

It’s extremely disruptive, says Schüppert. ‘When I’m teaching online, during meetings, when I’m writing research applications and articles. I work at the office as much as possible, even though that’s against the current policy.’

This particular issue is also apparent in the preliminary results from the employee survey the UG conducted among nearly 2,500 staff members in July.

Nearly 75 percent of employees share their home; a third of employees have children under 16. It’s no surprise then, that nearly 60 percent of staff said that their work/life balance had deteriorated. 

Grading at night

Children make noise, need attention, disrupt your online teaching, or distract you in other ways. What she really misses is a home office.

I work at the office as much as possible, even though it’s against policy

‘Everyone with kids is going through the same thing’, Van Foreest says, having heard stories from colleagues. ‘They end up recording classes and grading exams at night.’ He doesn’t, though: ‘My kids are a little older.’

The survey also showed that half of the respondents felt their work stress had increased to even higher levels. 40 percent of respondents said their mental health has suffered as well.

Daydreamers

The survey report said that education staff wasn’t too pleased with the board of director’s announcement that the UG wanted to be the best online university in Europe. Van Foreest is among those people.

‘I think they’re a bunch of daydreamers who have no concept of what teaching from home looks like’, he grumbles. ‘The board says they’re so proud of everything employees are doing. That’s nice, but it would be better if they did a little more work instead of making everyone else do it so they can keep their hands free for all their weird dreams.’

After the survey results, the UG has taken other actions than expanding the laptop scheme and allowing staff to take home furniture. They’ve published a list of tips for ergonomics and they’ve hired a vitality coach.  Another action they’ve pointed out is the 5.5 million they’re investing in online education. However, the Educational Action Plan makes no mention of working from home.

The laptop scheme

Who can use it?

  • People with a contract of at least 0.3 FTE
  • Contract lasts for at least another year
  • Not currently using a UG laptop (or have been using one for less than three years)
  • Hasn’t claimed expenses for a tablet or laptop in the past three years
  • Anyone below scale 9 needs written permission from a manager

What can you buy?

  • Only new products
  • Laptop up to 500 euros (Windows, Chrome, Mac, or Linux) or tablet up to 260 euros (only Android or iOS).
  • FullHD screen up to 100 euros
  • Keyboard and/or mouse up to 25 euros
  • Headset up to 45 euros

If you only want to get accessories, you have to discuss it with your demand manager first.

If you bought something since March 13, you can still claim it. Normally, you have to claim expenses two months after buying something.

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