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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.
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"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.