11 Oct 2021 • Work
What to consider when designing the intergenerational workspace
For better or worse, the post-pandemic economy has created the conditions for workers to extend their careers further into old age. How can companies create the best environment for them to flourish past retirement age?
Greater flexibility is enabling older people to stay in work longer, continuing a trend for later retirement. In the wake of the pandemic, the Institute of Fiscal Studies found those who can work from home more likely to retire later, while others are finding they need to stay in work longer to fund their later years. Young employees who’ve missed out on mentoring during the pandemic could benefit from sharing workspace with older workers. Intergenerational housing is taking off, but there’s yet to be a comprehensive rethink of workplaces to include older people and capitalize on the mixed-age benefit. Is now the time? Three experts give us their views.
Michel Hueter, Curator and Director of Design Prize Switzerland, which awards innovations for the ageing society
We are both living longer and better. [The ageing generation] is a wealthy group, at least in Western countries. They have bigger retirement funds than we probably will, so there’s a market there. With money, and being active, also comes a voice. When we speak about ageing, we are addressing the society at large. Our question isn’t about what products the elderly need, but how a universal design approach can cover a lot of needs. If you make a bathroom barrier-free but so that it doesn’t look like a hospital bathroom, then it appeals to and attracts a mix of different generations.
In Switzerland we’re seeing that people want to work longer. Even though financially it’s not necessary. We also see companies wanting to employ experienced people whether it’s pro-bono, or full-time, or advising a start-up, for example. Here there is a recruitment agency just for retired people, and we’re seeing networks of people asking for expert business advice. Quite often, when offices move into empty retail spaces, they become open to passers-by and a wider age range of citizens. They attract people walking in just out of curiosity. I think that’s an interesting concept for organizations. Because a big shop window is a way to communicate.
Matt Flynn, Director of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce, University of Hull; and Isaiah Durosaiye, Research Associate at The School of Architecture, University of Sheffield
ID: The most compelling concern for older workers is flexibility: both job flexibility, in terms of work patterns and organization; and workspace flexibility, in terms of the physical design of the workspace. Workspace flexibility becomes problematic with space-based and/or sedentary jobs. How adaptable is the workspace for older workers? And when does the work environment become a disabling factor, as people age on the job? For physically demanding and space-dependent job roles, ergonomics will continue to play a significant role.
MF: Workplace design that can help all workers will probably also help older ones, with better ergonomics, space for social interactions and quiet space for solitary work. Probably in the future you’ll see workstation designs that are more mindful of age-related health and wellbeing including musculoskeletal and eyesight issues, and the impact of sedentary working on wellbeing.
ID: I think the pandemic has probably let the genie out regarding home working for older workers. While lockdown restrictions might have raised challenges for older workers, they might also have inadvertently created opportunities for both employees and employers. Some of the pre-pandemic challenges older workers faced were either exacerbated (such as loneliness) or partially resolved (such as the need for job flexibility and/or workspace flexibility). Regarding the latter, the question of how the home working environment is made conducive remains unclear. This, among others, requires further research.
Tom Kamber, founder of Older Adults Technology Services and Senior Planet (six US hubs that help seniors learn new skills)
It’s important to understand how dramatically work has changed in recent years for older individuals. Technology, globalization and the gig economy have created important opportunities for many older workers to remain productive, but they have also exacerbated inequality between segments of the older workforce. In roles where technical knowledge, experience with legacy systems and strong industry networks are at a premium, older adults can have a competitive advantage. On the lower end of the wage scale, older workers are filling many roles in the retail and service industry that were previously filled predominantly by young people. For many older adults, these jobs are critical for survival and independence, but new social patterns are evolving as they form mixed-age teams in the workplace.
The flexibility of remote and on-demand work is enabling large numbers of older people to work from home or on reduced schedules. Even the anonymity of digital production can enable many older workers to overcome age bias, as the internet plays the role of the great equalizer and appearances matter less than work quality. At the same time, ageism is a continuing scourge, one of the last socially ‘acceptable’ forms of bias. Older people who struggle to learn emerging technologies are criticized by younger colleagues who were born into a digital world.
Workplaces need to adopt age-friendly practices to ‘walk the walk’ of supporting older workers. Retraining and professional development opportunities are essential. Intentional management of cross-generational project teams to leverage the unique contributions of older workers can ensure continued opportunities for older employees. Offering flexible workplace and scheduling options, along with quality health and wellness packages, allows older workers to remain productive and still maintain commitments to self and family. Corporate leaders need to signal with their language and behaviour that they value their older employees and are committed to a diverse workforce.