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Why your over 50s need flexible working – and how to deliver it

As people stay in the workplace for longer, supporting them to do so successfully is critical. Our recent project with the Centre for Ageing Better explored how employers can support older workers with flexible working.

The coming of the multi-generational workplace has long been anticipated – and, according to the numbers, it’s arrived. One in three of today’s workers are aged over 50, and that proportion is set to rise; many people plan to work longer, either because they want to or need to. And employers can benefit from the skills and experience that they bring to their roles.

But despite the growth in numbers, the individual implications of ageing, and how they play out in the workplace, are not always understood or explicitly recognised. And nor is how the ageing process affects what an individual needs or wants from their job role.

So how can we make sure that employees continue to be supported, and valued, as they grow in age? According to the over 50s themselves, here is one workplace practice above all others that would allow them to work successfully for longer: flexible working. And as we all grapple with the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, this issue is all the more relevant.

Over 50s are likely to be more vulnerable to the virus than their younger counterparts; many also have caring responsibilities which make the ‘return to normal’ more complex. So making sure that these older workers have flexible working options is now more important than ever.

Our project with the Centre for Ageing Better tackles this head on

It’s for this reason that we partnered with the Centre for Ageing Better, and a range of employers, to explore how best to support older workers with flexible working.

We carried out research to understand their reasons for wanting to work flexibly and identify the barriers that were standing in the way. We also ran pilots with two employers to explore new ways to overcome them; you can download the full report here.

“Their experience, acumen, networks, level of professionalism, technical knowledge and mature thinking – it’s too valuable to risk losing. We need to find ways that help older staff manage their personal and work commitments.” Line manager

Insights from our research: the same, but different

So, what did we learn? Although some aspects of the need and ability to work flexibly apply to all ages, our initial research phase highlighted a number of issues that affect older workers, including:

  • Specific reasons for needing to flex, such as physical changes which are increasingly incompatible with expected working arrangements, a changing perspective on how they want to spend their time and the prospect of a phased retirement.
  • Specific barriers to working flexibly, such as a lower sense of entitlement to flexible working than their younger colleagues, a heightened sense of professionalism and reliability and the impact of reduced hours on finances and pensions.

As a result, while the mechanisms of introducing flexible working to support the over 50s will in general be the same as for the rest of the working population, it is what happens around the edges, in terms of tackling their specific needs and circumstances, that will make a difference.

Learnings from our pilots: communication is key

The second phase of the project involved a pilot with teams at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and Legal & General, during which a cohort of over 50s trialled different flexible working patterns, supported by diagnostic work and training for them and their line managers

The changes were received positively; employees reported an enhanced work-life balance and managers reported that performance was the same or improved. As a result, the teams involved are looking to retain their new arrangements going forward.

One key learning from the pilots was the need to handle conversations with older workers about flexible working in a genuinely inclusive way, and avoid making incorrect assumptions. For example, just because over 50s don’t ask to work flexibly, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to; they may not feel comfortable about asking, or feel that their reasons aren’t sufficiently valid. It’s therefore important that these opportunities are proactively communicated as reason-neutral, and open to all.

Other insights included the need to be flexible about how and when these conversations take place, the importance of continuing to offer interesting and valued work, and the need to communicate carefully to avoid a perception of age bias.

Older workers, like all workers, will benefit from a flexible culture

What all this points to is that having a properly flexible culture is critical to supporting older workers to ask for, and thrive at, flexible working.

As we have explored, some of the issues around the edges are different, and some of the actions to overcome them need to be tailored accordingly. But underpinning that, employers need to ensure that flexible working is championed from the top, and available at all levels and to all employees, based on what’s possible in a role. That line managers are taught to explore what flexibility is possible across their team, and that HR can provide support. And that individuals and their line managers are at the heart of any flexible working conversations.

As our workforce continues to get older, and as Covid-19 continues to reshape the world of work, there’s never been a better time to do so.

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