Disrupting the Workplace: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Posted Monday, November 9th, 2015  | Comments (2) rule
Faculty Sponsor, Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Professor, Graduate School of Social Work & Caroll School of Management, Boston College

We live in an age of innovation. From travel to technology, financing to food, every industry is driven by a sense that rethinking and reinventing is the key to success. Yet when it comes to the way we work, so many of us are stuck in old patterns that have barely changed in decades. Most of us go to workplaces that look very much like they did decades ago; we work Monday to Friday (well, okay, often on Saturday and Sunday as well) on the same 9-5 schedules that our parents did; and (with the exception of the use of new technologies) we complete many work tasks using the same steps we always have.

It is time to disrupt the workplace. We can ignite positive disruption by asking a simple question: If you could walk in to work tomorrow and change one thing that would make your workplace better, what would it be? This is the question posed by OpenWork, a new online platform built so that employees at all levels of the organization can share the stories of what happens when employees and employers collaborate to reinvent how work is done. I’m proud to be among those who are introducing OpenWork.

The term “disruptive” often has negative connotations. However, ever since Clay Christensen introduced the language of “disruptive technologies,” leaders in the business world have begun to think about some of the positive consequences of disruption, particularly when change and innovation introduce transformative solutions. I like to place the aging of the workforce into the context of disruptive demographics. With baby boomers now making up the largest percentage of the workforce, and given that many people are choosing to work later into life than ever before, these changing demographics have already disrupted the workplace. Companies that see this opportunity and utilize these new demographics to their advantage will have a leg up on their competitors moving forward. In order to do that, companies, executives, managers and employees will all have to think about designing work a bit differently.

Not that long ago, there were two primary responses to the aging of the workforce: promote early retirement, or develop technologies that help older workers compensate for physical decline. Both of these approaches still have some relevancy, but neither recognize what a mountain of research has shown: not only can older workers offer concrete benefits to employers, but there are distinct bottom-line advantages for those workplaces that adapt appropriately to suit the needs of a multigenerational workforce. Many employers have already realized that rather than try to get older workers to retire, they need to figure out how to keep them on board.

A lot of people are scared off from conversations like this because they assume that in order to accommodate a changing workforce they are going to need to change everything. But sometimes just slight shifts in thinking or operations can make huge differences. For example, a lot of companies have leadership development programs, and many HR people will admit these are mostly used for younger employees. They rarely consider someone late in their career for reasons that seem intuitive: Why spend resources on someone who is going to retire soon? Yet statistically speaking, older workers are actually more likely to stay with a company for longer, so when you break it down, putting someone in their 50s or 60s on a leadership track may pay more dividends than focusing only on younger workers. I’ve seen companies make this kind of small change—not instituting a new program, but realizing that an existing program can be well-suited to diverse, unexpected employees—and quickly reap the benefits.

Recently at the Center on Aging & Work’s Innovation Lab, one company exploring ways to engage their multigenerational workforce came up with the idea of an employee internship program, where people worried about aging out of certain departments—say, grounds and buildings— could learn new competencies, such as financial skills, that might allow them to remain in the workforce longer or possibly transition to self-employment. Again, this is an inexpensive and resource-light approach that has the potential to keep valuable, trusted and experienced employees on the job for longer than expected.

There can be benefits for employers to view disruptive demographics not as a downside, but as an opportunity to innovate. Many companies are taking similar steps to attract millenials, working parents, and others as the talent war escalates once again. That’s what OpenWork is all about: Small changes that make a big difference, disrupting the way we work and shattering the poverty of imagination that holds all of us back.

At OpenWork.org we’ve compiled the stories of 12 businesses that have each innovated to ensure their workplaces make sense for employees and managers alike. Each of these businesses has made small changes that resulted in big dividends. As demographics continue to disrupt the workplace, I believe the only way for companies to succeed moving forward it to embrace these changes and adapt existing approaches in order to make the most of them. For more stories of companies that have made small changes with big impacts, follow OpenWork on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

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