Over the next several months, every company in America with workers who spend most of their time on a computer has a decision to make: Which of their employees — the vast majority of whom will have been successfully working from home since March — should return to the office? And when? The answers to those questions will almost certainly prove to be a huge boon for millions of older employees in the months and years to come.
The experience of First West Insurance, an agency in Bozeman, Montana, is a window into that future. On March 23, only a handful of its 38 employees — nearly half of whom are over 50 — were equipped to telecommute. On March 24, they were all sent home. As the pandemic settled in, telecommuting became, in the blink of an eye, the norm: Sixty-two percent of the U.S. working population was working remotely in the first half of April, according to Gallup data.
“In a span of about five days, we scrambled to get remote connections, additional computers and monitors, and tools in place,” says Julie Bennett, First West’s vice president of finance. “Some people didn’t have a home computer or laptop, or if they did, it was too old to handle the remote connection. But after a few days of folks figuring out how to manage the technology and work, our employees were functional and working.”
There’s no going back.
For one thing, workers will balk at the old normal: The demand from employees of all ages to work from home has surged. In an April Gallup poll, 3 in 5 U.S. workers who were doing their jobs from home during the pandemic said they want to continue to work remotely, even after public health restrictions are lifted.
“I love working remotely,” says one 64-year-old First West accountant manager. “I miss my coworkers’ smiling faces, which always brighten my day. But the extra time in the morning allows me to ease into the day. The quiet also makes me more productive.”
Employers recognize that the future will not look the same. “We now know it can work,” Bennett says, “especially for jobs that require reviewing insurance policies, processing them and corresponding with clients. And it will allow us to retain our experienced employees, who may reach retirement age and not want to retire, but just back off their workload. Their knowledge base is a real asset.”
Here are five reasons telecommuting will aid older workers:
It helps you be a healthier, more productive employee
Long commutes can be stressful for workers of all ages, so the more you can reduce that source of stress, the more productive you will be. “Flexible options for older workers allow them to work healthier and longer,” says Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and coauthor of Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It.
Of course, less commute time also means a more balanced — and healthier — life. Each year, FlexJobs.com asks people to choose the factors that make them want a job with a flexible work option. In 2019, work-life balance (75 percent), family (45 percent), time savings (42 percent) and commute stress (41 percent) were the top four factors. In fact, time savings and commute stress may be related: 72 percent said they have had round-trip commutes of more than an hour.
“The potential savings associated with a surge in telecommuting are staggering,” says Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. “I’m most excited about the windfall of commute-avoidance time we can reinvest in our health, employability and retirement planning. Whether it’s starting a new exercise regime or taking online classes, the gift of time saved affords us an opportunity to make positive changes in our lives.”
It’s a win-win situation, says Moen: “Employees we studied [who were offered teleworking and other work options] describe feeling less stressed, more energized and more satisfied with their jobs. The company benefits because employees are less likely to experience burnout and less likely to look for other jobs, quit or retire early.”
Keeping experienced workers is critical to company success
A shift toward telecommuting could not come at a better time. “The world will look much older in the decades to come, and employers must adapt to this demographic shift,” says Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.
And they should want to adapt, says Chris Farrell, author of Purpose and a Paycheck: Finding Meaning, Money, and Happiness in the Second Half of Life. “The popular image is that older workers aren’t suited for telework. But the data suggests they are good candidates since they have a well-developed work ethic. And there is no evidence that today’s 50-plus worker isn’t technologically adept. Case in point: Just about everyone is using Zoom now.”
Sharon Emek, founder of Work At Home Vintage Experts (WAHVE), a company that pairs age 50-plus work-at-home professionals with insurance firms, concurs. “Our clients tell us they are more comfortable allowing older workers to work remotely and have a flexible work arrangement because of their work ethic and experience,” she says. “Some of our clients are already recognizing that they can implement such arrangements even after things return to normal, and are renegotiating and downsizing their office space.”
Part-time remote work offers great flexibility for all
The classic “retirement” is a thing of the past. Two in 3 workers age 50-plus (66 percent) expect to work beyond 65 or do not plan to retire, according to Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies’ 20th annual Retirement Survey. But only 25 percent of the 50-plus workers surveyed pre-pandemic indicated their employer offered them the option to work remotely.
A cultural shift to telecommuting opens the door to retaining that work ethic, knowledge and loyalty, eventually at reduced hours and compensation.
“That’s going to enrich their lives and make them more financially secure,” says Richard Johnson, who directs the program on retirement policy at the Urban Institute. “Many are looking for flexibility, not a 9-to-5 job that requires them to commute every day. Teleworking makes part-time work at off-hours much easier. It can be especially important for those older workers who may have trouble traveling or be more susceptible to disease.”
The remote-friendly job market will likely explode
Large employers such as Dell, SAP and UnitedHealth Group are among the top 100 remote-friendly companies, recently culled from a database of 54,000 employers by FlexJobs. Even as unemployment skyrocketed during the pandemic and the outbreak threatened a mass recession, UnitedHealth, based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, was looking to fill over 200 remote positions in every part of the company: clinical, sales and marketing, technology, customer service and claims, consulting and more, says company spokesperson Tyler Mason. Hourly pay ranges from $18 to more than $65, depending on the level of the job and the worker’s experience.
“We’ve learned from the pandemic that many kinds of workers can work from home,” says the Urban Institute’s Johnson. “Both employees and employers are learning that new technologies make remote work easy and productive. Those lessons won’t be forgotten once the pandemic ends.”
Everyone — employees and employers — stands to save money
Older workers, more concerned than ever about the effect of the pandemic on their investments and the economy, can save big by telecommuting. “A single Washington, D.C., office worker who teleworks just one day each week can see annual average savings of $645 in transportation costs and $3,769 in time savings,” says Bert Sperling, founder of BestPlaces, a publisher of city rankings that partnered with Intel to look at which cities would benefit most from telecommuting.
“It was surprising to see the effects of even this modest use of telecommuting,” Sperling says. “If just half of Washington, D.C.’s office employees teleworked one day each week, local annual savings would be an estimated $407 million in personal transportation costs (including 60 million gallons of gasoline) and 36.4 million hours of time worth almost $2.4 billion. The combined savings for the 80 top U.S. metro areas would top $64 billion annually.”
FlexJobs estimates the average person could also save $500 to $1,500 on dry cleaning and laundering, and another $1,040 on lunches and coffee.
Employers, meanwhile, stand to save billions annually. “Based on conservative assumptions, we estimate a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year,” says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. “The primary savings are the result of increased productivity, lower real estate costs, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and better disaster preparedness.”
Kerry Hannon, AARP jobs expert, is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home, Great Jobs for Everyone 50 +: Finding Work that Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills, Getting the Job You Want After 50 for Dummies, Love Your Job and What’s Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.