No-one would disagree when we say that the coronavirus crisis has sped up the digitization process for many companies. The fact that working from home is more feasible than many employees and employers originally thought is also undisputed. However, there are some very real questions to be answered regarding some practical aspects of working from home, such as when working hours begin, business trips and reimbursement of travel expenses.
Initial situation: Place of dwelling and place of work are separate
An agreement usually exists between employer and employee that the company's domicile, i.e. the office, is the place of work. This is also usually the case for field staff. Even if an employee occasionally carries out certain duties from home, nothing changes with regard to this underlying rule.
If the employer's office is the place of work, the journey from home to the office does not constitute a business trip, nor does the travel time count as working time. Working time generally only begins when the employee commences duties at the place of work. However, the travel costs for this distance are tax deductible for the employee. If the employee drives a company car, they must pay tax on this distance as an employee benefit.
If the employee does not travel to the office from home, but instead travels directly to a customer for example, the journey must be split with regard to travel costs and working time. The distance and travel time that the employee would normally have spent on the journey from home to work does not count as a business trip or working time. The part of the journey that goes beyond this must be counted as business trip and working time.
Mandated working from home due to the coronavirus crisis
If an employer mandates working from home due to the coronavirus crisis, the situation changes. Irrespective of the question as to whether a home office with IT and possibly also furniture provided by the employer can be regarded as the »primary place of work« under income tax law, there is no longer any travel time and travel costs for the distance from home to the place of work. If the employee uses a company car, the employer is no longer allowed to include the mileage for the distance from home to the place of work in the wage calculation. Working time begins when the employee commences duties in their home office.
If the employee now makes a business trip from their home (to a customer or to court) or if the employee must travel from their home office to the office (employer's place of business) for business purposes, then such trips count as business trips and thus count entirely as working time. The employee can have the travel costs for this business trip fully reimbursed by the employer.
That said, some work-from-home agreements between employer and employee exclude the reimbursement of travel expenses for the distance from the home office to the employer's business premises. In this case, the employee can claim the costs for these journeys against tax as professional expenses.
However, even if the employee works from home, employer and employee can agree that the office at the employer's business premises continues to be regarded as the primary place of work. But this presupposes that the employee works from the employer's office at least occasionally, such as during monthly face-to-face meetings or appointments with customers. In this case, the initial situation again applies. The travel time to the office does not count as working time and the employee can claim the travel costs against tax as a distance allowance (professional expenses).
What will apply after coronavirus?
Many companies predict that this agile and flexible way of working will be largely maintained after the coronavirus crisis is over. For example, there will be much more working from home than was previously possible. For reasons of tax and working time calculation, the parties should agree on a first place of work when drawing up a contract. From a tax point of view, it is difficult to keep changing the primary place of work at short intervals depending on whether the employee is working from home or the office. Agreeing a (fixed) primary place of work does not prevent working from home or office from being handled flexibly.