Office Design for Older Workers
Designing an office for millennials is a hot topic among business blogs and magazines. But recent studies have found that older workers will soon be the more prominent group in the workforce.
A struggling economy, longer lifespans, more job opportunities and career longevity have contributed to workers staying on the job well into their old age. This article will focus on these workers and what they would like to see in an office.
The Aging Workforce
In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that by 2022, 31.9 percent of workers falling between the ages of 65 and 74 on that year will still be working. In fact, in eight years the population of workers will skew heavily toward older employees. According to the report, the number of workers below age 55 will go down, while the number of workers 55 or older will go up.
For facilities managers, these findings pose the question of how they’ll need to adjust their own workplace design strategies to match the needs of the aging workforce.
Different Ages, Different Needs?
A lot of advice proliferates on the Internet about designing an office with the millennial in mind. Lots of color, open areas, mixed-use spaces, etc. What about the older generation? What should good office design for older workers look like?
As it turns out, while a few special considerations need to be made—older workers may not be as open to hot-desking and hoteling as their younger counterparts, for example—all workers want the same thing: a space that’s comfortable and helps them be productive. So while an older employee may not make use of quirky design features like an office slide or a firefighter pole, they can still benefit from the same environment as a young staff member.
Older and Younger Staff Want the Same Thing
At least, that’s what Jeremy Myerson argues. He’s the director and chair of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art. Myerson recently published a report on older workers after observing several of them working in the pharmaceutical, technology and financial services.
Writing about his findings in The Guardian, he says, “It isn't just older workers who crave quiet and privacy when they want to concentrate on solo tasks – or dedicated tools and spaces for collaboration when they want to work in a team. Everybody does.”
In his report Welcoming Workplace, he proposes spaces that allow for concentration, collaboration and contemplation will be popular across the board. Workers need places to focus, collaborate and relax, regardless of what decade they were born in.
Office Design for All Generations
Furniture company AllSteel also published a whitepaper on older workers, with recommendations on how to design an office that would minimize the workers’ discomfort. These tips included:
- Purchase ergonomic seating
- Install shelving at safe heights (not too high or low)
- Teach staff proper ergonomics
- Remind workers to take frequent breaks
- Encourage exercise
Older employees will of course benefit from having comfortable seating and receiving reminders to stay physical throughout the day. When we think about Myerson’s point that all workers want the same environment, though, it's easy to see how these tips could easily benefit both groups. But let's look at 4 design tips specific to older workers:
1. Vary Lighting Sources
In his study of knowledge workers 50 and above, Myerson found that several staff members preferred to print out documents and read hard copies, instead of reading them on a computer screen. For this reason, he recommends task lighting. Task lights can better enable older staff to see. They also reduce the risk of eyestrain. Lighting that workers may control themselves may also be helpful, as having these different options available lets workers adjust their environment to their specific needs.
2. Provide Ergonomic Seating
A comfortable office that supports senior workers should also provide ergonomic office chairs and adjustable desks. (The latter will encourage workers to move and get their blood flowing by letting them sit or stand as they please.) But for either of these design elements to succeed, they also need to be user-friendly. Myerson observed that workers are less likely to get the full benefits of ergonomic office chairs or height-adjustable desks if the chairs’ controls aren’t intuitive. So while ergonomics should be an important part of the selection process, ease of use should be given equal consideration.
3. Invest in Noise Reduction and Sound Blocking
Part of Myerson’s study involved providing workers with solutions to the issues they encountered in the office. So when some of the workers he spoke to said that they were distracted by the background noise in the office, Myerson introduced two noise-reducing elements. One was a white noise software that could change background noise into more relaxing sounds. The other was an office partition that simulated a water fall, with water flowing over its surface. Both were well-received.
In addition to these “sound-masking or sound-conversion technologies,” the study also recommends designing with “lightweight and absorbent” material for reducing echo and “dense and heavy” material” for blocking sound.
4. Adopt Flexible Working Arrangements
A study led by two British organizations, The Work Foundation and Fit for Work, researched the work experiences of those who suffer from musculoskeletal disorders. (Ages ranged and were not restricted to older workers). The way companies responded to these conditions ranged. Some let staffers work from home. Others let them work flexible hours. One even let a worker stay in the same space while the rest of their colleagues used hot-desking. Because older workers often suffer from MSDs, consider whether similar arrangements could be made for such employees in your own workplace.
As always, though the workplace may soon favor older workers, FMs should focus on helping their colleagues work, collaborate and unwind in a safe and comfortable environment. That's something an employee of any age can get behind.
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