Learn from your elders: Ageing workforce strategies

The UK should learn from the pioneering older worker policies used at Singapore's National Environment Agency

It’s hard for us Brits to imagine living in a country only 50 years old. Yet this is exactly what Singapore’s five million citizens are celebrating this year.

Singapore gained independence and became a sovereign nation in 1965. Since then it has overcome being just 700 km2 in size, having no natural resources, and being woefully underdeveloped back in the ‘60s, to become a beacon of economic success today.

Much of this can be attributed to the country’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died earlier this year. In particular, his uncompromising standards for public education and his astute recognition of human capital as Singapore’s key competitive advantage.

Such strong emphasis on human capital is in evidence in Singaporean organisations today, including at Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) – winner of the HR Excellence Awards 2015’s Best HR Strategy Overseas category.

The organisation scooped the prize for its ‘Five As’ older workers programme, which is designed to ensure NEA makes full use of the ever-growing ageing segment of Singapore’s population. As HR director Gloria Chin puts it: “The low birth rate and ageing population have a huge impact on the only resource that we have. In Singapore we have nothing except our people and therefore HR is important.”

What better organisation for UK businesses to learn from then, as a country facing similar ageing workforce challenges? We caught up with NEA to hear about its Five As programme and gain some top tips.

1: Don’t presume to understand any one demographic’s needs

Every Five As initiative is underpinned by evidence, says Chin. “The majority of the HR team is relatively young. So it’s important we run surveys and focus groups, and hear from our employees about what they really want. That’s important rather than just doing something and making it look great.”

For NEA this often involves liaising closely with unions. “ [Our] relationships are quite different with unions compared to some countries,” explains Chin. “In Singapore we don’t usually have issues with unions; we work together a lot.”

“They raise issues sometimes that we haven’t seen,” she adds, citing the example that some older workers were not keen on new street cleaner uniforms. “Through talking to the union we found that they were not keen on change. But together with the union we managed to get everyone on board to realise the importance of new, safer uniforms.”

2: Be patient about the small stuff

The above is a great example of how older workers often need just a little more time to adjust to new ways of working, says Chin.

“A younger generation might think ‘now I don’t have to bother with what I wear to work and I look professional’, but the older generation sees things differently. So we give them time; that’s important.”

Chin says this is particularly vital where new technology is concerned: “For example we recently introduced iPads for work. If I give a gadget to a 25-year-old they might think: ‘Wow I can boast to my friends that NEA gave me an iPad’. But a 55-year-old might think: ‘This costs $1,000, what if I lose it?’ So we have to understand how different groups of people look at things. We need to give older workers time to get used to things.

“It’s not just about training; it’s about trying to address the physiological and emotional needs of older workers.”

3: Remember to fully communicate all initiatives

Packaging all of NEA’s activities around supporting older workers as the Five As programme is important in itself, says Chin. She explains that NEA has always had various policies and initiatives here but that labelling them more explicitly as a “cohesive concept” two years ago “makes it easier to position [NEA] as an age-friendly employer.”

This is significant in light of the emerging, more questioning public mindset than that encouraged by a historically largely state-controlled and -monitored media environment in Singapore. “With an increase in public expectations we’ve got to be able to communicate these sorts of things clearly,” says Chin.

It’s crucial to remember when formulating support initiatives for older workers that the rest of the company is watching, Chin adds. “Everyone ages, so employees look at how older workers are treated. They’d be out of the door in no time if that treatment wasn’t good,” she says.

4: Don’t neglect other age groups

NEA places equal emphasis on attracting and retaining people of all ages. “We are always asking ourselves: ‘how do we make sure we attract and retain so there’s a pipeline of specialist leaders?’” says Chin.

Vital here is employer branding, capitalising on younger generations’ typically stronger environmental concerns, a strong presence in schools and universities, and offering scholarship and further education opportunities as part of employment. “Much as we’re happy to be recognised as a good employer for mature workers, we put as much effort into other issues,” she says.

5: Make it work for employer and employee

Chin is clear that treating older employees well and supporting them to work later in life than they might have expected to isn’t a charitable endeavour. For continuing employment to benefit both parties, meaningful roles must actually be available.

NEA’s re-employment scheme ensures this is always the case. When employees reach the national state retirement age of 62 a review is conducted and the individual, if still happy and able to carry out their role, is given a further three-year contract. From 65 onwards this re-assessment is carried out on a yearly basis. “The yearly contract enables our workers to consider whether they want to continue. It’s in the interests of both NEA and the employee,” says Chin.

She adds: “We also have part-time options. Or sometimes someone at 68 says at their year review, ‘I just want to do another six months’. We’re open to that too.”

NEA’s support for workers once they’ve left helps employees transition smoothly out of work at the right time for them and NEA. Retirees are free to come in and use NEA’s gym, and badminton and squash courts, which helps allay staff concerns about feeling cut off when they retire, says Chin.

“Some of our older workers are not really working for the money, it’s more about making a contribution and because they’ve been working so many years with NEA it might feel like a loss to suddenly leave,” she explains.

Chin adds: “We let them use those facilities because they want to keep in touch. It’s really not a difficult thing to offer because retired people mostly use them in the day when employees are working.”