The big debate: should employers foot the bill for office commutes?

Return-to-office mandates have many employees feeling put out at their newly incurred commuting costs. Should employers offer to cover the cost of coming into the office? Two experts share their thoughts

Four years ago nationwide lockdowns sparked a revolution in how and where we work. Millions of employees were forced into fully remote working for the first time and even as restrictions were lifted many employers maintained their ultra-flexible office-attendance policies.

Today, however, business leaders are becoming increasingly insistent that their staff show some face in the office. Employees have found many reasons to be unenthused about return-to-office mandates, but one commonly voiced complaint is that bosses are effectively handing their staff a new financial burden. Why should workers have to pay to commute to an office when they’re shown that they can do their job from home? This question is even more pressing as people continue to struggle with the high cost of living.

So, if business leaders are going to require their staff to come into an office, should they also offer to cover the cost of the commute?

Expectations must be made clear but there is no obligation to cover travel costs

Rob Sherwood 
Commercial and operations director, Repeat Digital 

Before Covid, if an employee found the time spent travelling to an office or the cost of the commute to be prohibitive they simply wouldn’t apply for that job. Salaries weren’t lowered when companies moved to remote and hybrid working during the pandemic, so why should they be increased now that businesses are looking to return to the office?

If pay is related to travel costs in this way, there’s perhaps conversely an argument that fully remote employees should have their pay decreased since they will no longer have to pay the cost of coming into the office.

The key is for employers to set expectations when hiring. We have always made it clear that we require the team to be in the office twice a week. Two years ago, we trialled three days a week in the office, but we decided to move back to two days and have found that it works well for us. 

Some form of incentive will likely be needed to avoid employee discontent, but that incentive doesn’t necessarily need to be financial

We know this narrows our hiring pool, but that’s something we accept because we believe in the benefits of in-office collaboration. That said, we are conscious of the increased financial pressure that many employees may be feeling and we strive to pay good market-rate salaries, which we hope makes us a competitive employer.

It is when a company decides to make a drastic change to its working pattern – going from fully remote to fully office based – that this really becomes an issue. In this case, some form of incentive will likely be needed to avoid employee discontent, but that incentive doesn’t necessarily need to be financial.

The real trick here is to make the in-office experience as appealing as possible so people actually enjoy coming into work. The hope is that this outweighs the cost of commuting. In our office, you’ll regularly find the team socialising over a game of table tennis or foosball, and we soon have plans to make the workspace look more aesthetically pleasing with a splash of colour and plants which will make it feel more homely.

We also have a flexible working policy, which means the team can work the hours that best suit them, so long as they’re available between the core hours of 10am and 4pm. This is another way we promote both employee wellbeing and travel flexibility.

Even if fully subsidised travel is not possible, employers have alternatives

Chris Eldridge 
Chief executive, Robert Walters UK&I

Covering employee commuting costs can be a very attractive benefit, but for many employers footing the travel bill for the entire workforces just isn’t financially viable. This is especially true now, as many companies are reassessing headcounts, tightening budgets and implementing other cost-saving tactics.

However, if employers are not able to cover commuting costs for their staff, the effective solution is to offer partially subsidised travel or season ticket loans to help employees better manage costs. For employers, this is a mindful approach, which provides meaningful support to employees and offers an incentive for coming into the office.

It starts with asking employees about their commutes as commute times will vary widely from employee to employee and employers must still aim for equality of benefits for everyone. The employees who will benefit most from subsidised travel are those who have to commute to different offices regularly or must travel long distances.

An effective solution is to offer partially subsidised travel or season ticket loans to help employees better manage costs

Business leaders can also create company-wide rules to quell any fears that workers will incur higher costs in the future. For instance, if a company requires staff to be in the office two days per week but wants to increase the requirement to four days, they can offer to pay for travel on the added days so that employees don’t feel out of pocket.

In the case of employees who might not need or want subsidised travel but expect an alternative perk, this must be navigated carefully. Employers don’t want to get stuck carrying the carrot and stick, regularly having to bargain with staff and offer them rewards just to get them into the office. Some employers may choose to offer alternatives in lieu of subsidised travel, such as a free breakfast or lunch, on the additional in-office days for a limited time. This can help to ease staff back into more office-based working.

Finally, employers can double down on flexibility by allowing workers to travel into the office during off-peak hours to avoid rush hour. This can be especially helpful for working parents, gym goers or professionals with early-morning business calls.