Americans’ new-found ability to work remotely may help explain why inflation-adjusted wage growth has been so disappointing in the past year, according to new research from a group of economists. The findings are cold comfort for workers struggling to keep up with consumer prices, but they may be good news for inflation — at least for now.
As the thinking goes, remote work has an “amenity value,” much like a company car or an office gym. Remote and hybrid workers spend less time commuting and grooming themselves to go into the office, and they may benefit from the ability to finish tasks after their kids go to bed.
Unfortunately, those benefits aren’t free, it turns out, and part of the 3% decline in real average hourly earnings in the past year may reflect the hidden cost of flexibility. Using novel survey data from companies, economists led by Jose Maria Barrero and Nicholas Bloom estimated the amenity value of remote work moderated wage growth by about 2 percentage points over two years.
In the world of monetary policy, that would be welcome news for Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, who is trying to keep a lid on the worst inflation in 40 years. While wage growth is usually good, policymakers navigating the surge in consumer prices have grown wary of a situation in which workers demand much higher pay to offset more expensive goods.
Such a scenario can trigger a toxic “wage-price” spiral, prompting companies to then, in turn, raise the cost of goods even more to meet higher labor costs. Frustrating as it is for workers to accept lower wages at the margin, it behooves everyone for Powell to navigate this economy back to a semblance of stable prices for the sake of a sustainable job market.
To be sure, one interpretation of the slump in real wages — the one that’s most concerning to Powell — is that wages are adjusted with a lag and that another significant bump may be just around the corner. Olivier Blanchard, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist, outlined this concern in an essay earlier this year:
“For given labor market conditions, workers want a given (expected) real wage, independent of what may have happened to real wages by accident in the past. If, after an episode when actual inflation turned out to exceed expected inflation, real wages as a result ended too low, they want to catch up.”
The latest research paper suggests there might be less room for catching up ahead than might be expected and, therefore, less inflationary pressure on the horizon.
In their survey, Barrero and Bloom asked business executives whether their company had in the past 12 months “expanded the opportunities to work from home (or other remote locations) as a way to keep employees happy and to moderate wage-growth pressures?” If the answer was yes, the survey asked the executives for their “best estimate” of how much that had moderated wage-growth pressures. Another pair of questions asks effectively the same question but for the coming 12 months.
Clearly, some lower-income workers have experienced stronger earnings gains than those near top, but that makes some sense under the Barrero-Bloom framework because many of those jobs remained in-person even as many white-collar jobs shifted to remote during the pandemic. The resulting closing of the wage gap should have an asterisk next to it because many of those whose earnings jumped the most did so at the expense of braving a then-unknown virus.
None of this means Powell can take his eye off the ball, of course. The relationships in the new paper only hold as long as jobs stay remote, and the shift to remote work is likely to play out as a one-time effect. For now, that may mean that the risk of a “catch up” jump in wages looks muted, but the risk of a spiral will persist as long as inflation continues to run near a four-decade high.
The ability to skip the commute and work at home in sweatpants won’t offset disappointing wages forever.
Jonathan Levin has worked as a Bloomberg journalist in Latin America and the U.S., covering finance, markets and M&A.