One Answer to the Longevity Challenge: Make Flexible Working Smarter

Technology has changed the way professionals work, and today's employees want the freedom to do their jobs whenever, wherever and however they choose. In fact, flexibility is the top benefit sought by current job seekers.1

While flex working may sound like something geared toward young technophiles, it's possibly even more attractive to older, experienced workers. As companies work to address the longevity challenge driven by delayed retirements and longer lifespans, they'll need to fine-tune their flexible working policies to be age-ready. People will need to work longer to finance living longer so a new, flexible glide-path into phased retirement could be just the ticket.

Most large organizations are well aware of the growing demand for alternative work arrangements, and the business case for providing them is clear: Not only is flex working a draw for new recruits, it also makes existing employees happier, more engaged, more productive and less likely to leave.2 Plus, with fewer people in the office full-time, companies can reduce real estate and other facilities costs.

Knowing Is Not Enough

But just because an organization understands the value of flex working does not mean that it's executing it effectively among employees. Recent research from Mercer revealed that only 19% of companies had a formal, documented flex working policy in place. Without a well-defined framework for flex working, there may be inconsistencies through a business — with each department or location making up its own rules — leading to confusion, abuse and resentment. And if you look at what companies are doing on phased retirement, there is even less evidence available. In many cases, traditional pension design restricts flexibility to phase into retirement but this can, in some cases, be adjusted so that employees can reduce their working hours and supplement income with pension payments.  More organisations are now starting to look at the merits of a smart phased retirement programme.

The number of experienced workers staying in the workforce will continue to grow over the next decade, so companies with a favorable flex working policy will be among the more prepared. Many employees over age 50 seek flexible work arrangements to care for aging parents, deal with personal health issues or simply start transitioning away from full-time work. Employers who can't accommodate their needs will risk losing some of their most knowledgeable and talented personnel.

To get the most of what flex working and phased retirement can offer, companies need to create a thoroughly researched framework designed to meet employees' needs and drive business results at the same time.

Rethinking What's Most Important

A good place to start is reexamining the traditional employer-employee relationship. For decades, competitive compensation and benefits were at the top of employees' wish lists. But as societal norms have evolved, priorities have shifted. While people will always expect to be paid fairly, they're also placing increasing emphasis on a healthy work-life balance, opportunities to develop themselves both personally and professionally and the ability to be involved in their communities. These are all things that flexible working can provide.

With that in mind, some companies are taking a fresh look at the employer value proposition and restructuring their offerings to give more weight to flexible working programs. In fact, Mercer is currently collaborating with several progressive thinking companies to completely reimagine the employment model, offering workers a hybrid contractual status somewhere between a full-time employee and a gig worker. This is attracting attention from all age groups.

Flexibility in Five Dimensions

Most companies that do embrace flexible working only do so in two dimensions. That is, they offer alternatives in terms of when and where employees can work (such as working from home two days per week, or keeping different hours than the traditional 9-to-5 schedule). But Mercer's research in this area suggests that organizations should expand their view of flex work to five dimensions — touching on not only when and where, but what, how and who. Asking these questions will help you envision all five dimensions and find new opportunities for flex work:

  1. When: Considering deadlines and working hours, when must the work take place?
  2. Where: Can this position be fully remote, or are there in-office/on-location requirements?
  3. What: What are the responsibilities and content of the job role, and can the job content be ‘reconstructed’?
  4. How: How is the work delivered, and does it have varying intensity or seasonality?
  5. Who: Is the job best suited to a full-time, part-time or freelance employee, or even a robot?

By zeroing in on how specific jobs can be done at the right time, in the right place, in the right way and by the right type of worker, businesses can optimize their performance and reduce costs — all while increasing employee satisfaction. Aligning this framework with smarter, more flexible pension options will really give organisations the edge.

Creating Win-Win Scenarios

For some employees, the desire for flexible work and phased retirement arrangements may be less about freedom and fulfillment and more about necessity. For example, as Mercer's research shows, it's likely that automation technologies will replace traditional job roles held by many workers, young and old alike, with jobs held by older workers most at risk in some markets. However, rather than lay these employees off, some companies are using flex working solutions to reskill and transition their experienced workers to higher-value jobs. For instance, Mercer is helping one client address its longevity challenge by converting the fast declining role of personal assistant (PA) into a fast inclining flexible project management (PM) position — retaining the institutional knowledge and organizational skills of many long-time employees. There is a high skills overlap between PAs and PMs, so the learning journey is not as difficult as some might think.

Flex working can help employees overcome personal challenges as well. Major life events — such as having children, dealing with disability or going back to school — have often led people to leave work altogether. But with flex working, a job no longer has to be an all-or-nothing proposition for these employees, and companies can hold on to their best and brightest, albeit in a different capacity. Phased retirement programmes can also help employers and employees define the timing for a more elegant transition from work, rather than a hard stop cliff edge they face today.

Generally speaking, today's employees value their time even more than money, especially those in later career stages. The more that companies can help workers meet business needs on their own terms, the more successful everyone will be.

Yvonne Sonsino
by Yvonne Sonsino

Partner, Global Co-Leader Next Stage, Mercer