Lucy Kellaway: Doing expenses is truly loathsome

While most admin tasks are getting less painful, expenses are getting more so

Doing expenses: “I started the job at 3.30pm and by 5pm was close to tears.” File photograph: Getty Images

Doing expenses: “I started the job at 3.30pm and by 5pm was close to tears.” File photograph: Getty Images

 

Coming back to work after two weeks away I felt so out of the swing of it and so overburdened with undone things, I did what I almost never do and made a list.

It went like this: Write column. Do corrections to feature. Revise radio script. Read board papers. Write agony aunt column. Do emails. Record podcast. Say no to various people who have been trying to get me to do things. Start tax return. Tell employer my new home address. Do expenses.

By midweek, I was feeling complacent. Almost everything had been done; most of the tasks, when I got down to them, turned out to be easy. Work is astonishingly straightforward and pleasant in August when there is no one getting in the way, so much so that it always makes you wonder why we make such a meal of it the rest of the year.

As for email, that is fine too. I have developed a post-holiday system in which I mark all messages for deletion, and then before committing them to a mass grave glance through them and rescue the few that look interesting. Two weeks’ email backlog takes an hour and a half to shift.

Saying no is also simple now that I have learnt how to do it. And even the tax return is not too bad. Electronic banking and share registers mean it no longer matters if you have lost vital scraps of paper as it is all there online.

But then I embarked on the task that ought to have been the most innocuous. My employer owes me £92.29. I have the receipt to prove it and all that is needed is a little admin to get back what is rightfully mine.

Painful

There is something about doing expenses that has always been loathsome, even in the old days when all you had to do was fill in a few columns on a sheet of A4. There is the dispiriting matter of emptying pockets and handbags in search of missing receipts – as well as the existential uncertainty about what it is OK to claim for.

I remember seeing a survey saying that many office workers would rather scrub the company’s lavatories than do their expenses. I’d go further still. Not only would I rather scrub loos, I’d rather have a root canal.

While most admin tasks are getting less painful, expenses are getting more so. The FT, like most other companies, has recently moved to a web system – Oracle’s iExpenses.

Last week, I reacquainted myself with how horrible it is: I could not make it work in Chrome; it kept telling me to disable my pop-up blocker, but as I do not know what that is, I could not oblige. Then every time I tried to fill in its baffling boxes, it replied “invalid value”.

There are four pages to be completed; whenever I tried to move to the next page, it informed me I had not done the last one correctly.

When you finally submit the form, you still aren’t done. You have to print out the report, photocopy all receipts, then work out how to scan them all together and email them to some poor person who is paid to process them.

Special dispensation

The system is so painful, one can only conclude it was deliberately designed that way. Now that all software is user friendly, it must have taken very special coding from the clever people at Oracle to make something quite so unfriendly. It is not hard to see why companies are so happy with the result: the more difficult it is to claim, the lower the expenses bill.

Yet that ignores the opportunity cost – the hours we all waste faffing around as I did last week. It also ignores the stress caused. Just think of the money that has to be spent on those “wellness” programmes that help employees de-stress. Surely it would be better not to wind people up in the first place.

So what is the answer? I know someone who works in a big organisation who got so fed up with helping out a team mate with his expenses that she slapped a 10 per cent commission on him.

Not only did he not object, but word spread throughout the company, and soon everyone was asking her for the same deal.

This is a brilliant idea for any entrepreneurial person with inhuman levels of patience and low blood pressure. Do your colleagues’ expenses for them, and charge 10 – or even 20 – per cent. You would make a fortune. And you would secure for yourself a place in heaven. – ( The Financial Times)

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