The maturity challenge: how to retain your older workers

Written by Mark Rowland Monday 06 June 2022
ONS research reveals how to support older employees to stay in the workplace for longer. Firstly, don’t fall for the ‘older workers don't understand tech’ line
An older man working at a desk

Steve Butler CMgr CCMI, author of Inclusive Culture, recounts a story about one of his employees. Andrew had been with the organisation for seven years and brought a track record in the corporate world with him. Steve relied on him as a source of experience and specialist knowledge, as did many others in the organisation. Steve saw him as the glue that held the business together, so it came as a shock when Andrew told him he was thinking about retiring.

“Andrew had just come back from holiday, but he still felt tired. It was obviously a sign that he needed to stop. There was complete terror on my part, because of his history and how important he was.”

Steve talked with Andrew about how to make work better for him. They decided that Andrew should take a sabbatical to give him time to recharge and reflect on his next steps. It also gave Steve the chance to see how the organisation got along without Andrew. “It was a real opportunity for other people in the business to learn in his absence.”

By the end of the sabbatical, Andrew was desperate to come back to work. Steve realised he needed to make Andrew’s work more interesting, so put him in charge of the company’s mental health programme and gave him a reverse mentor to help him keep up with organisational changes.

That was three years ago.

Today, Andrew is considering retiring again but is planning to continue in a redesigned job, with fewer management responsibilities and more focus on business development, which plays to his strengths.

According to recent ONS research, Andrew is one of many older workers who are staying in the labour market for longer thanks to flexible working options. The ONS also found that the proportion of older workers planning to work from home has only increased since before the pandemic.

Beyond the benefits for the individual, retaining older workers for longer is also beneficial for the economy, helping to address current talent shortages and keeping expertise in organisations.

So, with the number of older workers working remotely on the rise, is there anything managers should keep in mind to support them?

New tricks

In an increasingly digital workplace, a common question will be whether you need to make  additional provisions to ensure that older generations have the right technological skills.

The short answer is you probably won’t. With our working environments and technology changing rapidly, everyone will need to work hard to keep their skills relevant, no matter the generation.

Hedda Bird, the founder and CEO of 3C Performance Management Specialists and author of The Performance Management Playbook, strongly refutes any notion that older workers need more technology training. “In some areas of tech and compliance, even what you know three years ago isn't correct now. So, when managers go: ‘I've got to keep their skills up to date’, that's lazy thinking,” she says. “Your job is to keep everyone’s skills up to date and if some of your older people are falling back, I bet some of the younger people are too. That's a challenge for everybody.”

If you foster a culture of learning and collaboration, then your team will support each other to learn new skills, adds Steve. Different generations will support each other and share their knowledge and skills. To encourage more of this sharing, training should be delivered in an interactive format, not classroom style.

“Microsoft Teams has helped massively in facilitating that kind of mutual learning,” says Steve. “For example, I can invite younger team members onto a call with their cameras off to watch their more experienced colleagues in action.”

The secret?

Steve believes that it’s better to focus on the management needs of individuals, rather than demographics. Oona Collins, leadership coach and founder of Potential Plus International, agrees: “An individualised approach would be better, taking into account each team members’ specific wants and needs, as these can differ for many reasons beyond age.”

“People’s ability to work from home is not linked to age, it’s more about their home working environment, support network and quality of their manager,” says Steve. “All will impact the success and longevity of an employee’s ability to work from home.”

“The focus has to be on building a learning culture to recreate the office environment so that workers of all ages can transfer knowledge from one generation to another, in either direction. Managers need to proactively create learning situations in all their day-to-day interactions to avoid different generations getting left behind.”

Want to learn more? Check out our article 5 Ways to Stay Relevant in the Workplace

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.