How Companies Misfire on Flexible Schedules for Older Workers

Employers recognize that they need to develop flexible work schedules to retain valued older workers. So why can't they get it right? A new report identifies four troublesome trends.

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The recession may have slowed the pace at which older employees are leaving the workforce. But the brain drain remains a real threat. Increasingly, companies offer flexible work schedules to entice experienced workers to stick around a little longer.

The most common flexible work options for retirement-aged workers are part-time jobs, temporary jobs, and customized hours. At least one in three companies offer one or more of these options, according to a recent report from the Sloan Center on Aging and Work. But putting such programs in place isn’t as simple as you might think. The report identifies four troubling trends:

  • Programs tend to be informal Flexible options vary widely and often are not clearly spelled out. Many companies have one-size-fits-all programs, meant for parents with small children as well as 55-plus employees that simply want a lighter load. Clear and specific programs for older workers would be more effective in retaining this group.
  • Goals are too broad Individual companies can’t seem to settle on what they want to accomplish. Do they want to keep older employees in place? Retrain them? Bolster their productivity? Keep them from getting bored? Tap into their institutional knowledge? Keep them from jumping to another firm? Flextime should be designed in a way that is consistent with specific needs.
  • Old isn’t necessarily old Perceptions of age color many flextime programs that miss their mark. Age can be defined in many ways. There is, of course, chronological age. But equally important in designing flextime programs is an employee’s age relative to colleagues, their physical ability, how others see them, how they see themselves, life events like having grandkids, and professional achievement. The most innovative programs address all these views of aging.
  • Manager mayhem Flextime workers have to report to someone. Too often managers are not brought in during the design phase of flexible work options and end up with issues around trust, control, accountability, coaching and scheduling. This isn’t good for anyone.
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These issues are products of our aging population. According to Census data, the median age in the U.S. is 37.2, up from 32.6 in 1990, and for the first time people over 45 are a majority (53%) of the voting-age population. Meanwhile, labor force growth is slowing, leaving older workers more in demand. So it’s not a bad thing that, as the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found, workers of all ages are planning to retire later and most (74%) expect to work for pay after retirement.

Companies that want to attract this crowd will have to compete with smart flextime options. AARP found that 60% of companies have initiatives in place to attract older workers. The question remains: Are they the right initiatives?