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Ask Help Desk: What should I do when my job gives me lousy tech?

Workers have ways to improve their situation as more employers turn to hybrid and remote environments.

iStock/Washington Post illustration (iStock/Washington Post illustration)
7 min

We’ve all been there or at least know someone who has: You land that coveted job only to get handed disappointing — and maybe even outdated — technology tools that pale in comparison to your own personal devices. Now what?

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated the matter further. Many workers are now operating in hybrid office environments, in which they’re spending some days working remotely, while others have gone fully remote. So the temptation is for employees to just rely on their undisputedly better personal devices or, in some cases, split the work between devices.

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But is any of this a good idea? Are there strategies workers can use to leverage better technology out of their employers? And what should employees and employers keep in mind when determining what tools they use?

We spoke to four business experts to understand not only what employees should think about when in this situation but also the legal ramifications.

Tell us what's happening at your workplace.

Q: Is it a good idea for workers to use a better personal device they have at home or can they can push for better work tech?

The answer is a little complex as it depends on the particular situation of the employee and the employer. But in general, business experts say employers should take this period of change to invest in the best tools for their employees. Meanwhile, workers may be able to build a case to convince their employers to invest in better technology or, alternatively, for using their own superior devices. In some cases, workers may be legally entitled to reimbursement for certain technology to do their jobs from their employer.

The simplest resolution to the issue is for an employer to choose to invest in better technology for its employees. Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School associate professor focused on the future of work, said this is a win-win for both the employer and the employee. Better technology often means that the employer will have the ability to enable the latest and greatest data security software and features, securing company’s sensitive data. At the same time, the tools could reduce potential friction with their work and increase productivity, which benefits both the employer and the employee.

“I see this as a slam dunk argument for why the company should be supporting the best tech at home,” Choudhury said, or wherever employees are working. “It’s always in the best interest for the company to embrace the best tech for workers.”

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Choudhury said companies with fully remote or hybrid workers are likely saving some real estate costs. Some have eliminated their office spaces, while others will be able to grow without having to add more square footage since not all employees come in at the same time. Where should some of those savings go? To the technology that employees need, he said.

Workers can make this case to their managers or, if they’re less comfortable, to colleagues who can then bring it to managers as a group. But for some employees, the ask may not be that simple. Some companies have struggled through the pandemic and have resorted to very strategic investments when it comes to business expenditures.

Cristina Gibson, a professor of management at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, said one way workers can build their case for either improving company-issued technology or for reimbursement for their own personal products is by documenting their work. When are workers using tools provided by the company and when do they have to turn to their own personal devices or service subscriptions to get the work done?

Assuming that they’re not breaking any company security policies, workers should use the best tech for the job at hand, whether that’s from the company or not, Gibson said. Then when a project is completed and delivered, they can use their documentation as ammunition for why they need better tech or should receive reimbursement.

“It signals a gap in what the company is providing,” she said. If it’s “not fed back to the company” then workers “may never have company-supported tech given to them.”

Whit Andrews, an analyst at market research firm Gartner, said employees would be wise to point out the three types of workers: those who use company-issued tools, workers who use company approved technology they personally own, and workers who use tools the company knows nothing about.

The most productive workers may not always be in the first category. Rather, workers in the second and third categories are more likely to say they feel productive, Andrews said. “You want to say, out of those three kinds of workers, which of those do you really want me to be?” he added.

As it turns out, 55 percent of employees use their personal devices for at least some of their work, according to data from Gartner, and 25 percent of workers use their personal devices for at least half their work. So employees are making the decision on their own to use the best technology, which oftentimes is their own.

But word to the wise: There could be security implications of using your own device. Workers need to make sure that using their own devices or digital subscriptions don’t break company data security or policies, which could result in their firings.

They also need to consider what software they might need to install on their personal devices should they decide to use them. In some cases, that could include surveillance software that could put their personal data at risk. You can read more about that in a story my colleague Drew Harwell and I wrote on the topic.

Most importantly, workers could be legally entitled to reimbursement for tech tools for their jobs. Some states, including California, New York and Illinois, have labor laws that require employers to cover the cost of supplies that workers need to do their jobs, said Michael Brewer, the chair of global employment and compensation at law firm Baker McKenzie. The specifics of each law vary from state to state.

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In California, the law is broad and covers any necessary expenditure an employee makes to benefit their employer, Brewer said. So if a job moved from the office to getting done at home, the employee could have a case for having their Internet or phone service costs covered. The same is true if a company moves to a hybrid policy in which employees are expected to work remote some days. Despite where an employer is based, if employees work in California, they are entitled to having their expenses covered or reimbursed.

Workers unaware that their employers are required by law to cover certain expenses may have recourse for expense reimbursement dating back months or even years, Brewer said. Depending on how a case is filed, a California employee may be able to recover expenses for potentially up to four years back.

Employees should bring this issue to the attention of their employers first. If the issue is unable to be resolved internally, employees can file claims with their labor commissioner or file lawsuits against their employers, Brewer said.

Meanwhile, to avoid any of this mess, employers should familiarize themselves with the laws under which their employees work, said Brewer, who typically represents employers. “Makes sure you have enough for adequate expense reimbursement,” he said. “Also, I’m a fan of the monthly stipend.”

Bottom line: As a worker, you have options to improving the technology you use at work. But it’s up to you to determine the best course of action to make change.

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