Providing Flex Options to Older Workers Yields Strategic Benefits

New research describes best practices for using the talent and experience of older workers

By Kathy Gurchiek April 6, 2012

A report by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College points to wide-ranging flexible workplace options that can retain older workers, tap into the experience of retired workers and help employers fill skills and knowledge gaps. Success is dependent, though, on matching flexibility initiatives with the needs of employers and their older employees.

The report, Flex Strategies to Attract, Engage & Retain Older Workers, released in March 2012, contains case studies of Central Baptist Hospital (CBH), MITRE Corp. and Marriott International that look at how those employers use flexibility initiatives strategically. The report cited U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that project that from 2008 to 2018 labor force participation by workers age 55 and older is expected to increase by 43 percent while participation by those ages 16 to 24 is expected to decrease.

“Now is a critical time for us to understand the issues affecting older workers and their employers,” said Sloan Employer Engagement Specialist Samantha Greenfield. “The leading edge of the Baby Boom generation has already reached traditional retirement age. At the same time, our country’s economic challenges have forced many of these older works to extend their work-retirement horizon.”

The report found that the employers in its case studies used a variety of flexibility initiatives. Offering part-time positions, hiring retirees as consultants and temporary workers and offering flexible work arrangements are among the most commonly used strategies with older or retired workers.

Below are examples of best practices cited in the report's case studies.


Headquartered in Bethesda, Md., Marriott employs 100,400 people in the U.S.; 84 percent are hourly workers. Its older employees are remaining on the job into their 60s, 70s and 80s; 43 percent are 45 and older; 18 percent are 55 and older.

The company’s focus on workplace flexibility includes a multiphase study on the aging workforce to aid it in creating a business case and a long-term strategic plan and to put in place short-term solutions.

In its focus groups, managers talked about their interest in finding ways for older workers to do a better job handling tasks such as bending, stretching, lifting, pushing and pulling. Among its initiatives:

  • Redesigning the work process by pairing a younger employee with an older one; teaming up for specific tasks; and categorizing tasks according to the physicality involved, such as reaching and bending to clean under beds.
  • Cross-training workers so they can pick up shifts in other areas. This helps older workers develop new skills without a major job change.
  • Providing job rotations so that a person working in laundry might cross-train as a lobby attendant and work there two days a week.
  • Making downtime without pay available to workers in reservations centers when things are slow. They may take longer breaks, work shorter shifts, leave early or take extra days off. This is offered informally to hotel staff during slow periods, too, according to the report.

Sloan points out in its report that flexibility initiatives must be the right fit for each employee. That requires:

  • Addressing issues that impact the fit of various flex options, such as supervisor support, work team support and usability of available workplace flex options.
  • Conducting internal research to understand the organization’s demographics and retirement patterns.
  • Creating a multidisciplinary task force that includes older workers to look at the flex needs of the organization’s aging workforce.
  • Using surveys, focus groups and employee and manager interviews to assess older workers’ flex and career needs.
  • Evaluating how the organization might use flexibility to recruit older workers, tap into retirees as mentors, fill part-time and seasonal needs and provide specialized expertise.
  • Developing and communicating a broad range of options for hourly and salaried workers.
  • Offering skill development to help managers and HR professionals create a more flexible workplace culture and lead older workers effectively.

Central Baptist Hospital

Among the report's most intriguing findings was at Lexington, Ky.-based CBH, which employs 2,600 non-physicians. It expanded the focus of its succession planning to include "re-careering" of midcareer and late-career staffers and used mentoring, training and tuition reimbursement to keep them in its workforce longer. Examples of re-careering at CBH included transitioning to different nursing roles or schedules, or continuing one’s education so as to move into other health care practice areas.

CBH looks at career stage as well as age when defining its older workers. The hospital had hired a 51-year-old registered nurse who was a new nursing school graduate. Looking only at age to define an "older worker" would have categorized an inexperienced nurse mistakenly among its experienced nurses.

Additionally, CBH administrators discovered that its experienced registered nurses who were ages 29 and 65 identified themselves as midcareer; this prompted administrators to consider career phases in the retention solutions they were developing.

The hospital has looked to retired workers to fill seasonal gaps, such as a retired nurse who spends summers in Kentucky. The nurse has performed pre-surgical physicals during those months, filling in for a vacationing employee. Another retiree filled in for an employee deployed to Iraq.

CBH's greatest challenge in implementing flexibility initiatives “was moving beyond HR polices that were designed to ensure equitable and consistent practices,” the report found. “These are well-intentioned but they hinder flexible responses to older workers’ needs for different schedules, new roles and innovative career paths.”

Another challenge was the lack of skills of managers and HR to address older workers’ issues and to provide them with effective career coaching, according to the report. The solution: a career coaching program that helps nurses, HR staff and managers to understand the steps needed to be strategic in articulating the case for flexibility and re-careering and to develop a plan.


MITRE, a nonprofit organization based in Bedford, Mass., provides engineering and technical services for federal government agencies such as the Department of Defense and IRS. In 2001, it initiated “Reserves at the Ready,” a part-time on-call (PTOC) program that allows older workers to remain active in the workplace and puts their institutional knowledge to work. Participants “provide short-term project support for complex and highly specialized projects” and can mentor young employees and share their technical expertise and knowledge, according to the report.

Initially PTOC was a corporate resource that HR managed using an online searchable database of participants’ resumes. Once HR realized that participants were being used primarily by their former departments, the program was decentralized. Each department maintains a pool of retirees.

PTOC has been opened to young employees who prefer part-time work. In 2011, 71 of the participants were younger than 55, 145 were 55 and older and 94 were retirees.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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