How age-friendly is your workforce?

This picture is from the McDonald’s recent Career Day where the company was seeking to hire 600 seniors for its restaurants.

How age-friendly is your workplace? Almost certainly, most HR managers will respond with answers about compliance with laws and regulations. But we believe there’s a broader issue that needs to be addressed and it relates to the way the workplace adapts to the physiological ageing of its workers.

One can argue about the balance of risks and opportunities that the ageing of the workforce presents, but the truth is that in the developed world the median age of workers will be increasing for the foreseeable future.

On the positive side, McDonald’s found that customer satisfaction levels were higher in outlets that employed kitchen staff and managers aged over 60, while B&Q (the UK’s biggest DIY chain) found that older store workers have better empathy with their customers.

As with most aspects of society, our workplaces are optimised for younger people. But as the retirement age edges up, we need to rethink this if we expect our older workers to remain productive and motivated.

While worker attitudes, labour law and culture will differ from country to country; physiological ageing is universal, predictable and relentless. So if we can modify our work environment to anticipate the changing needs of our older workers, we might foster a happier and more productive workforce.

Our company has defined ‘age-friendly’ as – “an environment that accommodates the unique physical needs of older people in a way that is natural and beneficial for all ages”. In other words, it is inclusive and relevant to younger workers.

Biologically, our bodies begin to age at around 27 year-old (depressing isn’t it?) but at around 50, things begin to accelerate. Usually, deteriorating eyesight and hearing are the first things we notice. Old sports injuries come back to haunt us. Dexterity of fingers and suppleness of the body might also begin to suffer. At the cognitive level, we sometimes find our ability to multi-task and to deal with complexity is not what it used to be. Of course, some people remain fit and sharp into their elder years but it can’t be denied that some of the 20+ effects of ageing we’ve identified, will impact on our lives and the ability to work as we once did.

We cannot plan our workplaces for only older workers who are physiologically fit. Thought also needs to be given to the less physically-capable thus making the environment productive for all.

In our presentation at the Age Friendly Workforce Asia 2011 Conference, we will explain the case study of a major company who realised the impact of physiological ageing. Through a real-life production line experiment, they effectively confirmed that going unchecked; ageing would indeed cause a problem to their productivity. However, by gaining a deeper understanding of the physiological issues and subsequently making relatively minor adjustments to the working environment, they were able to record significant improvements in productivity and motivation among the older team.

The imminent introduction of the Re-employment of Older Workers legislation in Singapore (in 2012) requires companies to rethink many aspects of their operations. We suggest that with this inevitability in mind, companies need also to re-assess the age-friendliness of their workplaces in order to maximise the safety, productivity and ultimately the happiness and effectiveness of the older workforce.

So back to my original question: How age-friendly is your workplace? Will it accommodate the needs of your older workers in a way that is natural and beneficial for all ages or is it in fact, optimised for younger workers? Most importantly, will it benefit your organisation by maximising the contribution from your older workforce?

We must stop reacting to the changing demographics by using a ‘silo mentality’ of launching one-off projects that tackle specific aspects of the workplace. Instead we must consider the entire journey your employees make from their home to the workplace, their preparation for work, carrying out their tasks and the interaction/knowledge transfer with your younger workers.

Unless all aspects of physiological ageing in the workplace are addressed, neither the individual or the organisation will achieve their full potential. We should all strive to make our workplace age-friendly.

– Kim Walker, CEO of Silver Group (a business consultancy in the 50+ market) (and speaker at the upcoming Age Friendly Workforce Asia 2011 Conference)


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