More and more companies are coming to realise the importance of attracting, supporting and sustaining an ageing workforce. It’s easier to ‘sell’ this this kind of approach to workforce development than it used to be (and not so long ago): the reasoning is becoming more persuasive as the considerable benefits become clearer.
Firstly, look at recruitment. As companies adapt to the fact that external talent pools are ageing - and in some places quite quickly - they are beginning to see that there are gains to be had from taking on older employees. As well as bringing valuable experience and networks of business contacts, they may be highly motivated to boost the company’s performance.
Secondly, there are clear opportunities for productivity gains. Most companies know that they will need to provide internal support to an ageing workforce to perform the tasks productively. If they are smart, they recognise this as an opportunity to bring in cutting edge technologies and solutions that upgrade working procedures and infrastructures across the entire company. With proper planning, this kind of action may not only enhance effectiveness but also reduce costs, as BMW’s factories in Germany and the CVS pharma chain in the USA have demonstrated.
Thirdly, many companies rely on skilled workers and they want to avoid losing experienced and elder employees, who often have different preferences and requirements. And lastly, we know that diversity and inclusion are important for engagement, innovation, decision-making and performance in the workplace; and it is becoming increasingly hard to ignore age as a positive factor in diversity.
A combination of technology innovations and social trends is reinforcing the attractiveness of older workers. Traditional stereotypes of ageing disadvantages, such as the declining of physical strengths, seem increasingly outdated. More and more human activities are being replaced by robotic technologies, a widening range of AI applications, and new developments in automation. Digital tools and human-machine interfaces are empowering older workers to perform all sorts of tasks as well as younger workers, and sometimes even better, thanks to accumulated experience.
Many older people want to stay in paid employment for longer. Sometimes, for sure, this is because they cannot afford to retire. Often though, the choice is a positive one: people keep working because they want to stay active and engaged. Stephen Hawking famously said; “Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.” Furthermore, as well all know, the current pandemic is accelerating the shifts toward remote working, flexible schedules and a better work-life balance, all factors rated high by older workers.
All this makes for a situation that provides a fertile ground for the development of many kinds of innovative products and services. Although many of these are being designed and developed for sale directly to consumers (B2C), companies will soon start to look for context-specific ‘business to business’ (B2B) solutions to workforce issues. Designers sometimes find it difficult to understand these (B2B) needs because of the associated problems around closed systems, complex relations with internal stakeholders and the requirements of trust. Some principles, such as humble inquiry, can be useful to support deep mutual understanding, interactions and relationships building.
There are also some organizational models and ideas, which can accelerate and intensify the collaborations developing innovative B2B products and services. In the last few decades, for example, many companies have implemented various innovation vehicles, ranging from corporate venture capital to accelerators (i.e. smaller amounts of seed funding to start-ups). Some also publicize innovation challenges to attract “outside-in” innovations, i.e. potential collaborators. Up to now, however, most of these themed challenges have been driven by business units with the intention of acquiring new technologies or products. It is much less common for internal functions such as HR or production facilities to encourage external collaborations relevant to the requirements of an ageing workforce (e.g. digitalisation of labs or specific benefit offerings for the ageing workforces).
Companies can do more to foster both internal and external collaborations, which will help them enhance their own learning and develop suitable products or service solutions. With a more comprehensive innovation strategy, companies can transform their position vis-à-vis an ageing workforce - so that instead of being a problem to be minimised it becomes an asset to be used for gaining competitive advantages.
The benefits that product and service providers (both established companies and start-ups) can reap from working closely with companies which want to support ageing workforces (i.e. B2B) can be seen in successful user cases studies. These studies can help speed up development cycles and further enrich the product and service innovations. As for the investment communities, such as venture capital funds, that already target the silver economy (especially age-tech), why shouldn’t they look more into start-ups which develop promising B2B solutions for ageing workforces? With sustainable business models, companies are developing innovation ecosystems, which bring values to the economy, the societies and the fulfilment to the employees.
Aboout the Authors:
Luc Yao is a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Luc is based in Darmstadt, Germany and is active in the electronics industry, related start-ups, and the Open Innovation networks. His research at the Institute focuses on the adjacent domains of population ageing, innovations and strategic investments.
Dr. Vicki Wu is the Design Researcher at Ma Ma Interactive System Design in Frankfurt, Germany. She specializes in user experiences, creative processes and cross culture design.
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