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.