Today there are about 44 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S., about the same number of people who watched the final Game of Thrones season. But over the next two decades that number is expected to skyrocket as elderly Baby Boomers need more assistance. This is sometimes referred to as the “2030 problem”: the year by which all Baby Boomers will have reached the Medicare-qualifying age range of 66 to 84.
Eldercare isn’t the only impending crisis staring American workers in the face. The rising costs of both housing and childcare are already pushing people in New York and San Francisco to less expensive areas. Then there’s the increasing difficulty, under the Trump administration, of acquiring H-1B visas for highly skilled workers. “I’ve been worried about the increased friction of mobility for workers,” says Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. “Whether because of aging families or visa restrictions, there are problems with moving people around.”
In a new Harvard Business School working paper, Choudhury and two other researchers examined what might be the easiest solution. You’ve heard of WFH, or working from home, right? Well, what about WFA, or working from anywhere—any city, any state, and in some cases any country (as long as it has reliable internet). The concept is relatively new but it’s already been adopted by companies and organizations ranging from GitHub to NASA.
To analyze the effects of WFA, Choudhury and his team looked at the U.S. Patent Office, which in 2012 started allowing its patent examiners to leave its Virginia headquarters and move anywhere they wanted in the U.S. The patent office already let them work from home, which meant that Choudhury could measure the benefits of this new “geographic flexibility” against the more common one of “temporal flexibility,” associated with working from home.
The benefits of working from home are already well established; according to a 2015 study, employees are 13% more productive when they work from home. It turns out that working from anywhere leads to even greater productivity. Under WFA, patent examiners processed 4.4% more applications than those who merely worked from home. Choudhury then looked at what percentage of patent applications were granted, did some “back-of-the-envelope calculations,” and estimated that the work from anywhere program added about $1.3 billion to the U.S. economy.
There were other benefits, too. The patent office estimates that it saved $38.2 million in real estate costs since remote workers freed up office space. Examiners didn’t have to commute anymore, saving an estimated 84 million miles worth of vehicle emissions. Many of them moved to areas with lower costs of living, which mean the purchasing power of their paychecks went up.
Interestingly, patent examiners moved to one of two places. A surprising number of early- and mid-career employees relocated to eastern Texas. The region is home to a large volume of patent litigation lawsuits and, therefore, a lot of patent attorneys. Patent examiners often go on to become patent attorneys. Employees were making strategic career decisions by moving to Texas.
Older employees, on the other hand, moved to coastal Florida. But despite relocating to the unofficial retirement capital of the U.S., they kept working for the patent office. “Florida was interesting to us because it might be a partial solution to the aging problem,” Choudhury says. “If you let them move to Florida, they may stay in the workforce longer.”
WFA policies could also help narrow the gender pay gap. Sixty percent of caregivers in the U.S. are women. Women still do a disproportionate amount of childcare and housework than men and are more likely to drop to part-time after they have kids. Because of this, women in their mid-40s make about 55 percent of what men do at that age. WFA policies can’t fix everything, but they might provide enough flexibility so women’s careers progress more like men’s.
Choudhury is quick to point out that WFA, while beneficial, isn’t for everyone. Manual laborers, service workers, and anyone whose job involves extensive collaboration probably won’t be able to work remotely. Still though, there are millions of employees who could do their jobs from anywhere if only companies would let them.
Source: Bloomberg Businessweek