Business schools regularly talk about lifelong learning, but to enable employers to manage intergenerational teams effectively and realise the true value of older workers, a deeper understanding of the very different needs, expectations and aspirations of this age group is crucial, says Sarah Hardcastle.
Schools have the opportunity to lead by example within their own organisations and through their own workforce, planning and management. In their teaching and through business consultancy, they are in a position to facilitate open conversations, improving understanding and reducing bias against this increasingly important segment of the workforce.
Sharing their experience from research, leadership roles and in practice are:
- Professor Fiona Devine, Head of Alliance Manchester Business School (Alliance Manchester)
- Professor Wendy Loretto, Dean of Edinburgh University Business School (Edinburgh)
- Steve Butler Chief Executive of Punter Southall Aspire, a Visiting Industrial Fellow at Oxford Brookes Business School and completing his DBA on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the different generations in the workplace.
It has been estimated in a working paper from the International Labour Organisation, that as a direct consequence of population ageing, the number of older workers aged between 55 to 64 years is set to equal one quarter of the global labour force by 2030. In 2017, the UK Local Government Association anticipated that by 2024 there will be a shortage of over four million people to meet the demand for high-skilled jobs. Demographic and economic challenges therefore are driving the more serious conversations around retaining older people in the workforce.
“We are all aware of the statistics and talking about the great resignation – I don’t think we’ve seen the full impact of Covid yet and how that has made people evaluate their life and their life circumstances.” Professor Wendy Loretto
To fill vacant roles, employers face the challenge of needing to recruit, retrain and retain older, experienced employees, keeping and developing their skills and knowledge, whilst also continuing to promote younger talent and contain costs.
Classified as an older worker from the age of 50 onwards, this is not one homogenous group. People in their 50s, particularly those with second families, have quite different needs and expectations from their workplace and their role within it, compared to people approaching 65 or even 75. In any decision impacting workers, it is important therefore to consider life stage, life circumstances and personal circumstances.
Edinburgh University Business School are working on a project called SHAW: Supporting Healthy Ageing at Work. It is important for employers not to ignore, but work with the reality that past 50, there are a number of age-related health issues, both temporary, and some more permanent, that may characterise people’s working lives. Employers need to understand how to support people, enabling them to have time to re-energise, to be able to extend their working life and to open up new opportunities.
“We’re halfway through this project and we’re hoping to actually devise very practical interventions. It’s co-designed and very much in the hands of the older workers we are working with, and it looks like we’re going to be possibly doing something around sleep, which is connected with so many other health issues: helping people to manage their sleep better is really important, in order that they can then work more effectively and more enjoyably…. it’s very interesting to see the conversations that we would never have had pre-Covid, where they tell us that actually, a short nap in the afternoon helps them be more productive. It is really interesting that we might be getting those conversations onto the table.” Professor Wendy Loretto
Flexible working is often focused on the needs of young families. However, employers should consider introducing fully flexible working, nuanced for the whole workforce to accommodate different circumstances, which are changeable and often unpredictable.
Older employees may need to:
- scale down their role or hours or increase flexibility for health reasons, including menopause, caring responsibilities or to achieve a better work/life balance
- receive career guidance and retraining to change roles and responsibilities
After the pandemic demonstrated that many workers were able to operate remotely and to encourage a healthy work/life balance going forward, all employees at Punter Southall Aspire are offered flexibility on a reason-neutral basis. This is designed into job specifications, and importantly, managers have been trained to run remote and dispersed teams to facilitate this.
To maintain involvement when providing greater flexibility for employees, Edinburgh take a pro rata approach to the original role, in this case keeping a balance between research, teaching and leadership.
At Alliance Manchester, workforce planning increasingly places a focus on stage of career, and improving support through three broad groups, with ongoing formal mentoring to ensure academics’ careers continue on an upward trajectory.
“You think about the profile of your teams, recognising what people bring to the table depending on the stage of their career and their strengths and weaknesses and this leads to greater clarity for recruiting, through understanding: ‘What do we need?’” Professor Fiona Devine
Research at Edinburgh has found that:
- the requirements for different types of flexibility may not yet be fully understood, such as more dynamic employment support for those providing care to others
- employees over the age of 50 are often
- not aware of the flexibility their employers offer
- assume that there is nothing for them at their age and circumstance
- do not feel empowered to ask for flexibility
- there is a gender bias with a higher number of women juggling these various priorities.
Where possible employers should aim to offer all groups of employees within their organisations equal and flexible retirement options. With longer careers, the more widespread use of sabbaticals as typically found in academic circles to both break routine and reinvigorate, may be a useful option in workforce planning. Sabbaticals enable employees to move to a specific project or an executive programme or focus on something they have always wanted to do for a set period of time, stepping away from their organisation to bring back something fresh.
“I persuaded an employee on the brink of retiring, to take a sabbatical for three months to try it out. And they came back re-energised and knowing that they were not ready to retire yet – it was almost like I had a new employee.” Steve Butler
Broadening the availability of sabbaticals across all employee groups, including professional services in a university would also potentially enable a more fluid workforce.
Flexibility should not be used to deal with non-performance: it is important that ‘difficult’ conversations are not avoided using the excuse of flexible working to keep an employee quiet and out of the way.
Creating age-diverse teams can be the perfect way to future-proof an organisation, tapping into the experiences, views, knowledge, and creativity of a complete cross-section of society. Research has shown that when teams mix older and younger workers, productivity goes up, and complex problems find more novel solutions because the strengths and weaknesses of both groups are balanced.
However, it still seems unclear whether people really understand the benefits of intergenerational teams and the necessary reshaping of management thinking to accommodate different expectations in the workforce.
“I think we now need a push to move beyond the conversations and recognise on an intellectual level that there are benefits from intergenerational working and actually realise the practical benefits. I still think that our society, and HE is probably no exception, still values youth more than age and experience” Professor Wendy Loretto
Higher Education has an opportunity to lead by example, particularly as many academics already work regularly in intergenerational teams and these relationships were strengthened during COVID-19 when younger colleagues helped with online teaching and technology. This reverse mentoring also rejuvenated some of the more seasoned academics, opening their eyes to different areas for their research. Real benefits to teaching have also been identified by combining earlier career and later career academics through buddying them in the classroom.
“We have introduced this for some academics who have gone to flexible retirement with the new academic who will take over their course, but we also have a positive view of team teaching more generally, that the academics and the students really benefit from it.” Professor Wendy Loretto.
Punter Southall Aspire introduced a reverse mentoring scheme that pairs senior managers with more junior employees, meeting virtually every 4-6 weeks to gain insight from someone outside their typical circle. Participants come together annually to review and set the objectives for future programmes. Reflecting on the experience:
- senior managers learned what their customers and employees might be experiencing, feeling, believing or liking and this significantly influenced their approach to management.
- younger mentors spoke of gaining greater visibility into the issues the senior managers faced, providing them with valuable knowledge to help progress their own careers.
Furthermore, the company has replaced its senior executive committee with seven operational committees including representatives from across the business. This has led to more diverse, multigenerational teams contributing to the leadership and strategic thinking with younger employees’ voices being heard and valued more, increasing their confidence and broadening their horizons.
Lessons learnt from the experience during COVID-19 should not be lost: younger workers embraced the opportunity to support older colleagues in the wholesale adoption of online collaboration tools across the workforce. Equally, older workers drew on their experience to help their younger colleagues with the emotional challenges of isolation.
The intergenerational team at Punter Southall Aspire became closer during the pandemic through collectively hearing the unedited personal lived experiences of a broad cross-section of colleagues, initially through a week of online one-hour sessions focused on different elements of diversity and inclusion. Post-pandemic, this storytelling has continued through interviews and panel discussions at their monthly company meetings, establishing a culture of inclusion and empathy, with staff much more willing to celebrate differences and challenge historical ways of working.
Part Two of this article, which will be published in the next Global Focus Magazine, will include the importance of open and candid conversations in a trusting environment, perhaps in the form of a Midlife Review, to help both employer and employee gain the most out of longer working lives.