Sunday 29 July 2012

Adapting the workplace to ageing workers

Many firms prompted to find ways to harness the knowledge of older staff
By Alicia Clegg, Published The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2012

EIGHT years ago, BMW's business planners came to an uncomfortable realisation - Germany's population was ageing, and so were its assembly-line workers.

BMW fretted that the stiffening joints of employees could eventually stymie its growth plans. Shedding older workers en masse would be operationally difficult and risk hurting industrial ties.

So instead, the managers asked older workers which tasks were troublesome, and redesigned the factories. This involved thinking ergonomically and installing special flooring and chairs, varying tasks and creating exercise areas.

'We developed strategies that would allow people to maintain or even improve their performance,' says BMW's employee communications manager Jochen Frey.

Statisticians estimate that by 2020, the proportion of German workers aged over 50 will climb from 25 per cent to 45 per cent.

Other European businesses face similar challenges, as do those in other countries, including Japan, Singapore and South Korea. In the United States, the Bureau of Labour Statistics says the proportion of over-55s in jobs has risen steadily, suggesting that as pension benefits are pared down, older workers are delaying their retirement.

The result is management dilemmas - from how to benefit from the skills of older workers without letting them take all the best jobs, to debates over workplace design and strategies to ensure that knowledge does not suddenly leave with retiring workers.

An irony of the job market is that while lack of jobs, especially among young people, is the biggest political concern today, analysts expect the exodus of baby boomers to leave employers facing huge skills gaps. The problem is not just the numbers retiring, but the dearth of people aged from 30 to 40 to replace them.

Dr Karie Willyerd, chief learning officer at SuccessFactors, a US-based human resources software business, says: 'If you took every single job that a baby boomer holds and bounced it down to Generation X, you would run out of replacements. So by default, a lot of people with less than 10 years' experience are going to fill jobs vacated by people with over 30 years' experience.'

Companies should plan ahead. Says Mr Alain Dehaze, who heads the French business of Adecco, a Swiss employment group: 'The first thing is to project what your age mix will be. But we find that customers don't know what their demographics look like today.'

Urging employees to wind down rather than stop abruptly might help better manage generational handovers. Marks and Spencer scrapped its default retirement age as early as 2001, and over-55s, many part-timers, can choose to draw on their pension or still contribute to the scheme.

The retailer's head of employee relations and reward Deborah Warman says that offering older workers choices has been a great help. 'We have store-based coaching, and generally it tends to be our most experienced staff who apply for these roles,' she says.

Reservist-style schemes that put retirees on standby are another variation. In busy periods, telecoms company BT has enlisted retired engineers to help operate its customer helplines and to assist with technology upgrades.

Ms Caroline Waters, the group's director of people and policy, says: 'People tell us they like the stimulation of being back at work, although they wouldn't want to come back longer term.'

But she notes that such arrangements rarely last more than a couple of years, as retirees settle into a routine outside of work that they are reluctant to interrupt.

BMW found that its ergonomic initiative challenged any assumption that older workers slow teams down. As part of its first factory redesign in Bavaria, it set up two assembly lines, one with an age mix matching the 2007 workforce; the other based on a 2017 demographic mix forecast.

'We found that after the ergonomic adjustments, the older team produced as much as the younger team and production quality rose,' says Mr Frey.

One worry, however, is that 'greying' businesses could find themselves out of touch with customers who have grown up with Facebook and Twitter. However, optimists say that if older workers are willing to listen to youthful colleagues, the problem recedes.

General Electric (GE) asks recent joiners to 'reverse-mentor' leaders. Says its executive development manager Janice Semper: 'A lot of the discussion tends to be around how the new generation uses technology, forms communities and shares information... as well as about how GE can develop and retain them.'

As working lives extend, some organisations are rethinking traditional career paths.

BT lets those nearing retirement move from high-pressure jobs to less senior roles, while also drawing on company pension if they wish. Younger colleagues then get a crack at a bigger job.

Mr Rick Blears, a 72-year-old director at RMS, a British public relations agency, relinquished executive responsibilities in his 60s to focus on copywriting. 'Any regrets are outweighed by the satisfaction of doing what I am good at,' he says.

Ms Waters believes rank is less of a preoccupation than it used to be, and that younger managers can learn how best to manage older colleagues.

But she points out that it is important not to make assumptions about employees' plans. For every 59-year-old looking forward to easing off, others may still wish to seek promotion at work.

Will the workforce look much different in 2020? Mr Neil Roden, human resources consulting partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, a professional services company, observes that there are fewer 70-year-old workers in Europe - which only recently banned age discrimination - than in the US, which did so in 1967.

However, with the convergence of equality laws, a greying workforce and a dwindling supply of talent, businesses may look more favourably upon older staff. 'If organisations can keep a worker with skills that the market can't replace, why wouldn't they?'

Modern offices, open-plan ones in particular, can make some adaptations for older workers. Professor Jeremy Myerson, director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, and Mr Mark Catchlove, director of the Herman Miller Insight Group, have these tips:
- Changing posture is especially important as you age, Prof Myerson says. Scandinavian employers routinely provide sit-stand desks that allow workers to alternate between sitting and standing. 
- A 20-year-old's eyes admit three times more light than a 65-year-old's. Desk-based lighting and directional control compensate for this. 
- Older ears may have difficulty filtering background noise. Quiet places for concentrated work and sound-masking technologies can help. 
Set aside areas for rest and recuperation: Even young software coders need to clear their heads and take the occasional break.

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