The meaning of true inclusion expands daily. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, employer DE&I initiatives have gained strength and prominence. As other forces and trends have shaken the workplace – from the migration of women out of the workforce to the mass adoption of remote work as standard and the explosion of the gig workforce – the meaning of diversity has broadened from who is working to how we are willing to work.
ROD provides the research, diagnostic and strategic tools that enable our clients to understand what their current and prospective workforces need and the changes that they must make to remain competitive in the intense search for talent in the years ahead. For three decades we have recognized that we are exiting the industrial era with its largely office-bound, full time white male workforce and must reap the full potential of transformed ways of working. We relish partnering with fearless clients who are prepared to drop the exclusive, discriminatory and rigid habits of old and treat their employees with the respect and full inclusion they expect and deserve.
For at least two decades an expanding movement has pressed employers to diversify their workforces, suppliers and customers with an emphasis on ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Literally hundreds of consultancies and thousands of internal change agents have advanced a largely consistent agenda. While supporting these efforts, ROD’s focus has been different.
During those same decades we have advocated for the inclusion of the diverse ways we want and need to work – the HOW of our workplaces — alongside the WHO of our workforces. Under the rubric of Flexible Work Arrangements, we have collaborated with far-sighted employers committed to broader diversity goals. We have helped more than 100 major employers successfully implement a menu of flexible options that included flextime, part-time, telework/remote work, compressed schedules, job sharing and phased retirement. These options met the diverse workstyles of existing and potential workers.
We continue to offer comprehensive services in this area, but in light of our aging workforce, we are targeting phased retirement as a priority for pioneering firms – and focusing on what we call the “age old blindspot of the diversity field:” the failure to include aging workers as a massive cohort experiencing deep bias and needing to be included under the standard diversity umbrella.
Well-designed and executed programs can make any workplace more inclusive of this cohort of valuable, mature employees – and can enable more successful efforts at building true intersectional relations between younger and older employees. But research and practical experience make it abundantly clear that age bias and discrimination are the primary factors hindering the broader adoption of this approach. In today’s climate of labor market turbulence, we cannot afford to tolerate this destructive tradition of exclusion – and it falls to the practitioners of DE&I to step up and tackle this bias.
The broader change agenda Employers who are considering modifying their practices to promote true inclusion for their aging workforce can consider adopting the “Longevity Agenda” of our sister organization, Respectful Exits – a national nonprofit advocacy organization. We work with employers to facilitate the systematic implementation of these key practices:
- End the 65 “sell-by” date as a mandatory or informal “retirement age”
- Practice career-long development and training of all staff
- Encourage robust flexible scheduling, including phased retirement
- Strengthen all forms of pensions and Social Security
- Provide ongoing, on-demand financial wellness counseling
End the 65 “sell-by” date While companies vary in their maintenance or elimination of a formal retirement age, it is a common practice for employees to begin receiving messages encouraging their early departure as they reach the age of 55 or so. This practice is often strengthened by the regular use of early retirement packages as a common means of dealing with downsizings. A sense of inclusion is built by aligning formal policies re: retirement age with informal practice.
Career-long development and training of all staff As we emerge from the industrial model of work, one of the legacies of that era is to view labor as “human capital”. Just as one buys a major piece of capital goods and may or may not properly maintain it before replacing it with a new version, employers typically invest training time and money (“maintenance”) in new hires and younger workers, neglecting workers as they age. In today’s era of rapid technological change, this habit proves costly and leads to the perception or reality that older workers lack vital skillsets.
Encourage robust flexible scheduling The diversity of today’s workforce makes it increasingly unlikely that the typical employee will work long unbroken stretches without the need for breaks to accommodate caregiving, education, training or other activities. These demand various forms of flexibility, and the pressure to provide them increases as employees age. If flexible work is not perceived as a normal and acceptable way of performing throughout a career, then the desire to work from home or pursue part-time schedules becomes far less acceptable for workers as they age.
Strengthen all forms of pensions and Social Security Most workers, regardless of age, are concerned about their eventual ability to retire. From the post-World War II period through the early 2000’s, employers typically provided pensions. These post-employment defined benefit payments, supplemented by Social Security, supported a comfortable retirement. Aside from public sector positions, the private sector has essentially eliminated pensions, substituting defined contribution 401k plans marked by shared employer and employee contributions. Employers who wish to fully support their aging workforce can provide generous matches and support efforts to strengthen, rather than weaken Social Security.
Provide ongoing, on-demand financial wellness counseling The shift from pensions to 401ks saved companies billions of dollars and transferred the responsibility for managing retirement accounts from the employer to the employee. Unfortunately most employees are ill-equipped to manage those funds over time. Many employers offer so-called financial wellness programs, and credible surveys are done annually of employee satisfaction with these efforts. Every year employees say the most valuable thing employers could provide is annual, quality counseling vetted by the company. But few companies offer this benefit. An employer seeking to strongly support an aging workforce would consider offering this affordable service.
ENHANCING FLEXIBLE WORK
For several decades we have pioneered the business-beneficial implementation of flexible staffing and scheduling. Building on the early practice of employee requests to managers-as-decision makers, we pioneered what became the near-universal process of business based requests and one-off decisions. For many years and in most situations, the default decision was the standard schedule or arrangement with flexibility as the exception.
In 2020 COVID-19 transformed those terms. In a matter of weeks, and with little preparation, training or systems development, millions of white collar workers were turned into full-time remote workers – an option previously reserved as a rare exception for superior performers. To the great surprise of traditional senior leaders – and confirmed by a broad range of post-mortems – the switch to a default “yes” worked well.
As the pandemic eases, employers are wrestling with how to manage flexibility going forward. The first round of conflict between employee desire for greater control over where, when and how they work and many leaders’ desire to return to the offices of old has emerged as the declaration of the “hybrid office” and its evolving definition. Far-sighted employers will step back from this rearguard approach and look to the demonstrated potential of mining the range of flexible options to enhance employee commitment, contribution and satisfaction and the resultant success of organizations.
How might pioneering companies exploit the common forms of flexibility – and how might we assist them in pursuing that potential?