Rethinking office space for an aging workforce

 —  Article by Emily Perryman
Senior businessman and young architect working in office, aging
Image credit: Shuttstock

Businesses around the world are coming under increasing pressure to ensure their offices meet the needs of an aging population.

From HR policies to office furniture, the workplace faces the challenge of adapting to support employees in their 60s and beyond as well as its Millennial workers, despite the different expectations and priorities of different generations.

Technology, for example, is a given in the modern workplace – and although it is generally an enabler, it can also be a barrier. “I’ve seen technology-enabled buildings which have very poor acoustics so it sounds like a jumble of voices,” says John Symes, Director of Workplace Strategy at JLL. It can be difficult to pick out the key points, especially for people who are ageing.”

Employees are increasingly using Skype to communicate with one another remotely, but if the bandwidth isn’t good enough the quality of speech can be poor. “Offices also need to have good access to technology – employees need to be able to go into every room and communicate, and this has to be enabled by the design of the building,” says Symes.

Rethinking office space use

Space planning is another key consideration. Although health and safety regulations cover the basic needs of older workers, employers need to go beyond this.

“Access is well covered in the UK by building regulations, but there needs to be more thinking around space planning,” Symes explains. “There is a trend for having standing desks and it’s good to have that choice, but they’re not for everyone. Flexibility is important to support all employees especially in a tightly-packed office.”

Equally, workplace initiatives encouraging workers to be healthier are often targeted at the younger demographic. “Offices can provide gyms, but are older workers really comfortable going into a gym playing hip-hop music? They’re often directed at the younger workforce,” Symes says.

Workplace modifications

There is already pressure on employers to ensure they’re meeting the needs of older workers. Back in 2011, the UK Parliament issued a public policy briefing stating that employers will be expected to make work more attractive and feasible for older workers, enabling them to work up to and beyond State Pension Age if they are capable.

The UK Government is keen for workplace modifications to compensate for the many changes and impairments associated with age. “For example, ergonomic computer equipment and desks with adjustable heights to allow periods of work standing up can reduce musculoskeletal pain. Locally-controllable lighting enables more comfortable reading, aiding concentration,” the briefing states.

The EU Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that as people’s abilities change, work has to be altered to compensate – for example with good lighting, noise control and ergonomic design of equipment.

Planning ahead

The need to cater for older workers isn’t something that companies can add to a future to-do list. In the European Union, consistently low birth rates and higher life expectancy have resulted in a 2.3 percent increase in the proportion of over-65s over the last decade. People over 65 are expected to account for 28.7 percent of the EU’s population by 2080, compared with 18.9 percent in 2015, according to Eurostat.

Meanwhile the United Nations estimates that all major areas of the world except Africa will have nearly a quarter or more of their populations aged 60 or over by 2050.

This is already having an impact on the make-up of the workforce. In the UK, the employment rate for people over 65 has doubled in the last 30 years, while in the U.S. it has risen by 75 percent in the past decade.

Retaining talent

Making workplace adaptations to cater for an older generation of workers is increasingly being viewed as an important way of retaining and attracting talent.

“We hear from companies all the time that they want to retain and attract talent. This doesn’t necessarily mean only youngsters – older workers can be extremely beneficial because they have the experience,” says Symes.

Indeed, the wider economy depends heavily on the skills and experience of older workers. In the UK, 12.5 million jobs will open up as people leave the workforce between 2012 and 2022 and an additional two million new jobs will be created. However, only seven million new young people will enter the workforce over the same period, creating a significant skills gap across the UK labour market, according to the Work Foundation.

Symes says improving office design will benefit the entire workforce. “Good design is not faddish – it is enduring, applicable to all and good for everyone,” Symes concludes.

Read more of this article