Workplace Wisdom Needed in This Day and Age

Landscape. byi Rosmarie Voegtli
Landscape. Photo courtesy of Rosmarie Voegtli.

What are the biggest blind spots in communication between the generations? Probably the ones that are never discussed.  When I’m formatting charts and tables, I have a rule that the font size has to be at least 12-point.  As my information goes up the chain of command, higher-ranking people tend to be older.  Their eyes aren’t what they used to be, and they might not tell you. You have just to “know” they can’t read 10-point.  If only things were more transparent.

What does it take to create a team environment in which all generations are encouraged to bring their unique perspectives?

Developing Positive Attitudes About Older Workers

Older workers are a vulnerable population – particularly when they’re laid off. In an interesting article at the New York Times, Kerry Hannon reviews several businesses that are getting the most out of older workers.  Employing older workers is all about having the right attitude. At Silvercup Studios, which produced Sex and the City and Sopranos, more than half of the workforce is over 50. The company perceives that older workers are more settled, have a greater sense of loyalty, and can be retained at a lower cost than bringing in someone new.

Hannon references the Age Smart program delivered by Columbia University’s Mailman School.  The program strengthens the relationship between employers and older workers.  Age Smart’s fact sheets are packed with interesting and relevant information.  One of the fact sheets emphasizes that the visibility of older workers to older customers “enhance business relations and open opportunities with this market…” Often the most compelling case for diversity management is to match employee and customer demographics for comfort, understanding, and increased sales revenues.

The job tenure of older workers tends to be longer, increasing the return on investments in learning.  This is important because the stereotype is that older people don’t learn as quickly.  But they can still learn with more time, and older workers bring a lot of accumulated knowledge in the first place.  Your mixture of new vs. established knowledge can be improved with age diversity.

Sometimes, but not always, the old ideas turn out to be the right ones.  For example, my hippie stepfather taught me that if you are attending a political rally, the protester advocating violence is probably a cop.  He observed this phenomenon 50 years ago.  His advice kept me out of trouble.

Older-Worker Programs Require Good Practices Generally

The biggest benefit of having proactive programming for older workers is that it obliges the employer to create a more deliberate workplace.  High-functioning diversity programs begin with good human resources programs onto which a diversity lens is added.  Age-inclusive workplaces are no exception:

“Age-diversity training and education allows managers to build cohesive and functional organizational culture among employees of all ages. Proven tools and techniques to address age as a diversity issue also assist managers to set goals, track progress and remain accountable to organizational leadership for continued progress and improvement.” (Emphasis added)

As I mentioned when discussing women’s financial security, personal financial worries tend to distract employees from focusing on their best work. Programs to ease employees into a viable retirement involve features such as financial planning, phased retirement, and opportunities for post-retirement work engagements.  These hybrid supports “…decrease stress, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and improve employee loyalty…”

Knowledge Management Harnesses Older Workers’ Knowledge

Hannon interviewed staff at Huntington Ingalls Industries, a major shipbuilder, where “Nearly half of our employees could retire at any day…”  They have no age limit for their apprentice program.

“To keep its aging workforce engaged with their work, there are intergenerational mentoring programs. Younger workers mentor older ones, too. ‘…the younger workers are helping employees who have been here longer get really comfortable with using the technology.’”

I’m impressed by the sophisticated attitude about who knows best.  You learn a lot by teaching others because you have to become clear about what your expertise is and how to explain it.  Giving younger workers the opportunity to impart technological knowledge to older workers is a win for both parties, and the business too.

Age Smart makes a distinction between professional development programs that are age-neutral (i.e. offered equally regardless of age, like the program above) and age-sensitive programs that are aimed at middle-aged and older workers.  But both types are beneficial:

“Both types have been shown to improve job performanceincrease promotions and improve retention among older workers. They also develop and universally apply performance metrics across the organization to ensure optimal performance and job fit from employees of all ages.” (Emphasis added)

Effective workplace cultures are built around passing information freely between employees, not the monopolization of knowledge for power and job security.  As such, Age Smart employers are encouraged to engage in knowledge management.  They need to “identify and prioritize the types of knowledge and information that is critical for organizational stability… institutional knowledge, relationship knowledge, job knowledge, tacit knowledge and historical knowledge.”  This practice is generally a good idea but the aging workforce makes it an imperative.

Flexible Work Arrangements Have Diverse Benefits

Older workers also benefit greatly from flexible work arrangements.  Hannon spoke with leaders at the accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies, who noted that workers approaching retirement often arrange to relocate to offices nearer to home or work part time from home, often to be close to relatives needing care.

When employers organize flexible work arrangements they are encouraged to “Offer a variety of flex options, define expectations clearly and make them universally available to all those who meet criteria.”  This makes things fair and creates accountability, hallmarks of a good practice.

“Workplace flexibility is an increasingly utilized strategy to boost engagement and improve retention among employees of all ages. It is particularly important for managing older workers to stay effective at work while balancing changing life priorities.  …Establish a culture of flexibility where management is trained to manage flexible schedules and virtual offices, and employees are educated about flex options. Ensure these options are not perceived as damaging to career security or growth.” (Emphasis added)

As mentioned in my overview of work-from-home arrangements, those working from home can experience a reduced likelihood of promotion. That may not be a major sacrifice amongst those easing into retirement.  But in order to find out, you would need to ask them as individuals about their perspective.  (See how that works?)

Not everyone will tell you what they’re thinking.  Age Smart employers are encouraged to create documents in large fonts, because eye problems start to emerge after age 40.  If you asked me, I would say I can see everything just fine. I’m only 48.  I’m going to rock forever!

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