7 Principles to Attract and Retain Older Frontline Workers (Harvard Business Review)

Screen Shot 2022-12-19 at 10.29.45 AM

HBR (MixMedia/Getty Images)

Facing high inflation, jittery markets, and retirement accounts at risk, many older adults want and need to work longer. Employers, confronting skills deficits and workforce shortages, are desperate to hire, especially for frontline roles.

In this changing and challenging business environment — where employers must address staff absenteeism, presenteeism, and costly turnover compounded by pent-up consumer frustrations — hiring older and more experienced workers can be a huge help. In these workers, employers often gain not only employees with loyalty and reliability, but also sound judgement in addressing critical customer needs.

An emerging body of research also confirms that older employees bring a collaborative spirit to the workplace and enable organizations to benefit from the diversity of intergenerational teams — blending the energy of youth and the experience of age. More broadly, these workers can help address a long-term labor shortage that the United States and many other developed nations, including Germany, Australia, and Japan, are facing.

To explore how companies can best tap this labor pool, we conducted a study that includes both interviews and survey data of 35,000 older, experienced employees in the United States. Our employee survey tool was the Great Place to Work Trust Index, which is the basis of the Fortune 100 “Best Companies to Work For” rankings. While our study focused on older workers in the eldercare sector, the lessons of the study are broadly applicable. Most essential roles in the eldercare sector — food servers, cooks, nurse aides, drivers, janitors, and front desk workers — are found in a range of other industries, such as hospitality, retail, health care, food service, and transportation.

Overall, our research demonstrated that employers seeking to tap the older worker labor pool need to move from transactional relationships with employees to relationships of empathy and understanding. Our findings point to seven principles for engaging older employees in essential roles. The seven also amount to universal design principles — they are applicable generally and can help employers of many types recruit and retain essential workers, not just those who are older, but workers of all ages.

The seven principles are:

Design respectful and purposeful roles.

According to our study, 76% of survey respondents who would recommend their company to others say, “My work has special meaning: this is not ‘just a job.’” This supports a popular study  published nearly a decade ago, which estimated that nearly six in 10 adults over age 50 are looking for roles with social purpose.

The leadership challenge of reframing essential jobs from tasks perceived as menial to positions full of meaning can be overcome by designing roles with greater purpose. Daily interactions and relationships with customers amount to an opportunity to highlight the highest calling of the organization.

One company in our study, for example, touts a mission of serving others and explicitly recruits older people seeking meaningful “encore” careers. A front desk employee in Florida started working at age 67, attracted to this mission. Now age 84, he keeps working because of a deep desire to serve. “I feel blessed to be here. Because I can do something for older people,” he says. “That sounds a little corny. But that’s the reason I’ve stayed for 17 years.”

Organizations in every industry can elevate purpose and design more meaningful roles. Companies that do this are more likely to attract and retain older workers and workers overall.

Arrange and enable flexible schedules.

Two-thirds of the older employees in our study want their workplace and managers to show “a sincere interest in me as a person, not just an employee.” For frontline roles, flexible scheduling to accommodate family, health, and travel can demonstrate caring leadership. This is especially true given that many frontline workers across the economy have little discretion over their work schedules. The older workers in our study cite latitude around shifts and leaves of absence as an essential element in a great workplace culture. One commented, “They are very kind and understanding when personal issues arise, for example, death of a child, personal injuries, illness.”

Business needs must also be balanced against flexibility for employees. An executive we interviewed was confident that more creative solutions are possible: “It’s taking a clean-slate approach. Think of your organization’s value proposition for older workers. You may be able to consider an army of part-time employees. It may be creating unpaid or partially compensated sabbaticals, making it possible to take three months off if an older worker wants it. It will be different based on industry.”

Pay for the job, not for tenure.

Among the 60 factors we studied in our research, compensation is conspicuously missing from the top 10 correlates to the retention and recruitment of older employees. Key to attracting and retaining seasoned workers is to focus on the value of their work — not necessarily their years in the workforce. Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic have argued that companies seeking older workers should “look at pay equity by job and level, not tenure” — again, a principle that can apply to workers at all levels and ages. Moreover, even when an older worker is worth a higher pay rate, it may be possible to offer part-time hours to contain total compensation.

Our research suggests two additional compensation considerations for older and essential workers: frequent pay periods and a responsive pay philosophy that accounts for inflation. Several respondents in our survey mentioned that they preferred being paid weekly. Others appreciated pay adjustments that are not rigidly tied to annual cycles, with one individual saying, “They recognize the need to increase pay as the economy’s inflation increases.” Both considerations apply to workers of all ages as well.

Adapt and accommodate physical challenges.

In our study, employees were much more likely to recommend their workplace to friends when they feel “our facilities contribute to a good working environment.” For essential workers, this principle may take the shape of more seating to avoid being on one’s feet for hours or assistive devices that decrease the need for repetitive motions. More broadly, solutions that elevate comfort and decrease repetitive physical activities benefit workers of all ages and decrease costly workplace injuries.

Accommodating physical challenges may also include rethinking how productivity is measured. For instance, one manager we interviewed described how older food servers move more slowly than younger ones. But the older workers are more efficient. “Older employees have learned tricks,” the manager said. “They know how to cut down their steps.” For example, she explained, if they are going to retrieve an item like a bottle of ketchup, they will assess whether they can retrieve six items at once — improving customer service.

Communicate  clearly and candidly.

In our study, four of five individuals want to stay longer and refer friends when they feel management communicates expectations clearly. Effective communication, though, poses a challenge for many organizations with older workers in frontline roles. Managers of essential workers are often younger and less experienced. They may require training in communicating with older colleagues and in leading intergenerational teams. When leaders communicate clearly and candidly, however, they create a positive environment that takes full advantage of the experience of older workers.

We also found that managers are particularly effective when they combine candor with two-way communication that builds trust. A 68-year-old employee we interviewed had worked at the same location for more than two decades. The employee appreciated leadership seeking out her views. “Whenever there’s a significant decision, my manager will come to me. He trusts my opinion, which means a lot.”

Build community and camaraderie.

More than two-thirds of employees in the study prioritize “a fun place to work.” Many essential roles across industries can be monotonous and difficult. A fun-loving workplace where employees enjoy each other’s company can mean a lot to the frontline experience. What is more, customer satisfaction and employee happiness are correlated. A light-hearted workplace is more likely to translate into elevated productivity, performance, and customer satisfaction.

The 84-year-old front desk employee we mentioned earlier, Larry, provided an illustrative story. He recently teamed up with a co-worker and entered a staff-and-resident talent show at the senior living community where he works. Larry delighted everyone by taking first place with his singing duet. According to the director of his workplace, “Larry greets us all every day in the friendliest, most welcoming way. That positivity rubs off on everybody and we get customer comments about it all the time.”

By making space for employees to bring their playfulness to work and arranging for fun events such as talent shows, organizations can nurture a culture of community and camaraderie. That, in turn, helps retain older employees, attract talent of all ages, and elevate customer service.

Tackle ageism.

The organizations we studied tended to avoid one of the most significant barriers to employing older workers: ageism. But ageism is alive and well in companies across the United States and the world. In fact, negative age bias in policies and practices can result in multiple negative effects on health, well-being, and productivity. A 63-year-old cook working in Connecticut observed, “I was afforded the opportunity to contribute my years of experience in the job that I currently hold after being, in my opinion, discriminated against as being too old when applying at other companies.”

To tackle ageism, employers must use targeted messaging to elevate the value of experience and age as part of a diversity and inclusion strategy. Such a strategy must also address implicit ageism in hiring managers and current employees. This can be done through leadership training on age bias and the benefits of age-inclusive workplaces, as well as company-wide events that highlight the contributions of older team members.

Further, initiatives can also mitigate one of the largest barriers to attracting older workers: the “internalized ageism” of older individuals who could be potential recruits. Internalized ageism refers to the tendency of many older workers to adopt society’s view that their abilities and value are diminished by age and that they have little to offer to today’s workforce. Effective strategies to counter this include featuring actual older employees on company career pages, as well as internal messaging that celebrates the achievements of older employees.

. . .

Far from “over the hill” or “past their prime,” many of the employees in our study are taking on challenging frontline essential work — and thriving. With nearly 100 million Americans in the Baby Boomer and Silent Generations, and similarly large aging populations in countries around the world, older workers represent an abundant, even eager, resource. They stand at the ready, and if called on and cared for, they can power organizational opportunity and effectiveness.

It is time for enlightened employers to focus on the under-recognized workforce of experienced employees. As one older worker we interviewed describes, “I feel well. I have the intellect. And I haven’t had any elimination of my faculties.” As a result, he says, “I plan to stay as long as they would like me to stay.”

Build an effective and efficient training program to improve care outcomes.