‘Building back better’: Post-COVID opportunities for older workers

| August 5, 2020

The second Global Access Partners (GAP) Virtual Business Roundtable in association with the NSW Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) and the GAP Standing Committee on Productive Ageing, discussed changes in work practices in the current health crisis and opportunities for mature-aged workers in the post-COVID economy.

The aim was to gain insight from employers on how their companies have adapted to the ‘new normal’ of social distancing, how post-COVID workplaces should change, the opportunities for mature-aged people to uniquely contribute (as they did during COVID- 19 restrictions), and how to stimulate their employment in new ways.

NSW Acting Minister for Seniors the Hon. Geoff Lee opened the discussion and participated in Q&A, and the keynote speaker was Martin Bowles AO PSM, CEO of Calvary Health, who outlined how this large healthcare provider successfully adapted to COVID-19 restrictions to meet the needs of its mature-aged workforce.

The Roundtable was co-facilitated by Stephen Hayes MBE, the National Defence Industry Workforce and Skills Facilitator and Executive Director of Gravity Consulting,Prof Abby Bloom, Non-Executive Director of the Sydney Water Corporation, the State Insurance Regulatory Authority, and the Sydney Children’s Health Network, and Kathryn Greiner AO, Chair of the NSW Ministerial Advisory Council on Ageing (MACA).

Technology, board-level leadership, accessibility and communications emerged as the main themes of the discussion.

The NSW Government is reopening the economy in a staged and responsible manner, and is aware of the needs of mature-aged workers, including mental health support, in its efforts to revitalise employment. Society has tackled sexism and is facing up to racism but has still to address ageism. Australia cannot afford to waste the human and economic potential of its senior citizens, especially as immigration will be on hold for some time to come.

The COVID-19 crisis has telescoped 10 years of progress in flexible, online and homeworking into 10 weeks. Despite initial management scepticism, office workers adapted well to home working, and productivity did not decline. Many employers and employees are likely to retain more flexible working practices when the pandemic abates.

The greater acceptance of online working should suit mature-aged workers and those in rural and remote regions. While older workers may struggle to find new jobs after a recession, employers and employees can take positive steps to ensure their skills meet changing market requirements. The important role of volunteers should be acknowledged, as well as paid employment.

Calvary Health, for example, adopted flexible working practices during the COVID-19 crisis, and will continue to do so as part of its overall strategy to remain viable after the pandemic. Bunnings remains an exemplar of mature-aged worker practices, and reaps commercial rewards as a result.

In general, mature-aged workers have adapted well to online working, although support will always be required. Senior workers do not identify as a group, as they do not wish to mark themselves as different, but new pathways for both employers and employees can help them continue to make constructive contributions.

Company boards and CEOs should take responsibility for creating and implementing age- friendly policies and practices in their companies, and government, business, individuals and other stakeholders should all cooperate and play their part in ensuring positive and tangible results.

Recommendations

For Government

• Government subsidy for broadband connections and computers or phones could bridge the digital divide and ensure every Australian can participate in online work and education regardless of location or disadvantage.

• The business case for recruiting and retaining seniors should be articulated more clearly through evidence and success stories, to ensure businesses see them as a benefit, rather than cost. Fact sheets, social media campaigns and information breaking outdated myths and stereotypes about older workers could be produced by DCJ and other organisations to encourage a more age-diverse workforce.

• Better coordination between local, state and federal government on ageing policies and public information would help increase overall outcomes. For example, a ‘Retirement Navigator’ could be offered to ease people’s transition from work.

• More direct interaction between sector experts and policy makers could further strengthen existing co-design efforts.

• Segmentation of mature-aged people into cohorts with similar needs and interests would empower more targeted and effective policy-making.

For Employers and Business

• Employers need to identify specific, concrete and communicable pathways to increase age diversity in recruitment as well as retention. Skills development and succession planning should start earlier at 45 or 50, rather than 55 or 60, to benefit both employers and individuals.

• Employees and employers need to work together to keep their skills up to date, and pathways should be developed for them to do so. Training and support should be given to help older workers mentor younger staff.

• A modernised charter on principles for recruitment could help reduce age discrimination and include a commitment to workplace change and more lifelong learning opportunities to accommodate older workers. The concept of inclusive workplaces should include mature-aged people in deed as well as word, alongside ethnic, gender, disability and socio-economic backgrounds.

• Encouraging men, as well as women, to work part-time could ensure more equitable retention. Retiring workers might retain some degree of connection with their former firm, while retirement-readiness courses could smooth individual transitions.

• Company boards and CEOs should drive the implementation of these and other enlightened employment policies to ensure their adoption. Metrics for success could measure and encourage progress, but a broader commitment to an inclusive business and social culture is also required.

For Researchers

• A new research and start-up hub for telehealth and emerging technologies could develop user-friendly digital platforms and business models for telehealth and home care. This could encourage more older people to use virtual services in the future.

For Communities

• Local communities should be encouraged to take action themselves, rather than rely entirely on government policy actions.

These recommendations will be progressed through the GAP Standing Committee on Productive Ageing. They will also inform the new whole-of-government, whole-of- community ageing strategy, to be launched by the NSW Government in 2021. Global Access Partners will continue using its independent platform to work with business and the broader community to deliver on policy and empower older workers.

The virtual business roundtable to consider the post-COVID future of Australian workplaces was held on 4 June, 2020. Read the final report and recommendations.

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