More workplace flexibility could boost employee efficiency as America ages

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There are two quiet trends that might very well transform the structure of work in the near future.

First, a majority of today’s employees expect to work beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, with some projecting that they might never retire. In fact, workers aged 55 and older will make up about one-quarter of the US workforce by 2022, according to a US Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast.

Clearly, it is in employers’ self-interest to ensure that these employees are as productive and engaged as possible. Employers searching for ways to bolster employee engagement often find that flexible work options – whether in terms of schedules, reduced hours, remote working or some combination – contribute to their dedication and commitment.

Secondly, most employees aged 50 and older would prefer to have access to some type of alternative schedule, reduced hours arrangement or possibly project-based work that allows them to cycle in and out on a project or consulting basis. While there are many different definitions of workplace flexibility, it is generally understood to refer to policies that allow employees and their supervisors some choice about when, where and the number of hours an employee works.

Fearing unintended consequences

Of course, the conversation about workplace flexibility has been going on for a long time. Despite employees’ need for and their widespread interest in flexible work options, managers periodically express concerns that such arrangements might result in unintended negative consequences. Surveys of employers have found that some human resource managers continue to worry that their employees might abuse these policies. Sometimes, they anticipate repercussions if they approve one employee’s request to use a flexible work option but cannot approve this for another worker. Researchers have reported that some managers worry that it is “more work” to supervise employees working on a flexible arrangement, and others question whether service to customers and clients might be affected.

In the 1980s, when the number of women entering (and re-entering) the workforce dramatically increased, deliberations about flexible work options started to emerge at the workplace. At the time, this innovation seemed downright radical to some supervisors. While many human resources managers understood that the standard 9 to 5, Monday to Friday workday was a legacy of the industrial era, there was still a pervasive, taken-for-granted assumption that most employees (other than those on specific shifts that might require evening and night hours) would conform to this norm. Managers soon found, however, that inflexible work structures were often a mismatch for the “new” workforce.

Aging workforce highlights need for flexibility

The aging of the workforce has once again focused attention on the need for a fresh look at flexible work options. Study after study finds that today’s workers (younger workers as well as older workers) seek flexible work options and hope for a gradual transition to retirement rather than an abrupt labor force withdrawal. In 2014, Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that nearly two-thirds of workers aged 16 to 64 have a preference for a gradual transition to retirement. Only 22% expect they will stop working abruptly when they reach retirement age. Interestingly, these findings were similar for employees in all three generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials.

The business landscape that surrounds workplace flexibility has changed significantly since the 1980s, with two factors having exploded the relevance of rigid work structures: the global economy and technology. Even many small businesses have suppliers, customers or both in other time zones. And, of course, technology has made it possible for many people to work from remote locations (at least some of the time).

Policy makers in countries around the world also find themselves at a type of crossroads with regard to the extended labor force participation of older adults. Public pension schemes are starting to feel the strain of the retirement of the large segment of older adults. Extended labor force participation can help ease the pressure on social insurance since some people who continue to work for pay will postpone accessing their public pensions.

Some progress but a long way to go

As a consequence, public leaders, such as Ros Altmann, who is the business champion for older workers in the UK, have started to identify innovations like flexible work options that will expand opportunities for older workers to remain in the workforce longer.

To be sure, there has been some progress since the 1980s. A 2014 survey of US firms with 50 or more employees conducted by the Families and Work Institute in New York found that four of every five employers report that they allow at least some groups of employees to periodically change their starting and quitting times. But less than one-third give this option to most or all of their employees.

Unfortunately, fewer than one in every nine US employers reports that he or she has options that support gradual transitions into complete retirement characterized by labor force withdrawal.

Older workers’ interest in workplace flexibility seems like a small ask, but it could make a big difference.