According to a 2017 Gallup survey, nearly three-quarters of employed U.S. adults plan to work past the average retirement age of 66 years old. Given this trend, architecture firms are taking measures to support their more seasoned employees’ well-being and performance. Here, design practitioners, a human resources director, and a research psychologist offer advice for empowering this generation of workers.
Create Ergonomic, Active Workplaces
For Richard Marietta, AIA, senior principal at Baltimore-based Design Collective, his firm’s competitiveness in the Mid-Atlantic region along with its commitment to sustainability initiatives have motivated him to stay on. (The 71-year-old plans to retire this year.) But passion isn’t the only thing that has kept him engaged in his later years. Ergonomic chairs and adjustable-height desks that accommodate sitting or standing have made his office a comfortable place to spend eight—or more—hours a day.
When he feels stressed or has a headache, a low-lit, private wellness room offers refuge. “If you have an issue that would [otherwise] prevent the continuation of the workday, there’s a space where you can go and still get your work done,” Marietta says.
SmithGroup recently transitioned its Chicago, Los Angeles, and Madison, Wis., offices to agile work environments, with plans to convert its San Francisco and Detroit offices next, says principal and corporate communications director Dave Whitman. With no assigned seats, multigenerational teams can choose to sit together depending on the task. “It makes it much easier and more natural to collaborate when you don’t have to get up and walk down the hall,” Whitman says.
Bridge the Generational Gap
A 2018 survey from Canada Life Group Insurance shows around one-third of younger employees are concerned that the continued employment of older workers makes it more difficult for them to earn promotions, and that these more senior designers might require training to remain competitive in the 21st century workplace. “I wouldn’t absolve us of that as an architecture firm,” says Ed Dodge, vice president and director of human resources at SmithGroup. “I think where tension exists with Millennials and Baby Boomers is a pay-your-dues mentality versus an immediate gratification mentality.”
To mitigate resentment and encourage knowledge sharing, Design Collective pairs junior- and senior-level architects in a monthly mentor-protégé program. Marietta, who participates in the program, says face-to-face meetings with junior architects have boosted his understanding of Puerto Rican and Chinese culture as the firm staff has become more diverse, and allowed him to discuss professional lessons from his 30-plus years of experience. This kind of two-way learning helps older employees feel valued for their understanding of complicated practice matters, such as how to prepare an AIA B101 agreement for building design and construction administration, and ultimately promotes retention: “The mentor-protégé program is successful because it helps us grow, promote, and transfer knowledge from within,” Dodge says.
Design Collective also sponsors employee participation in interactive activities in and out of the office, including walking competitions, after-hours sports leagues, and happy hours to help employees unwind and bond with colleagues.
Offer Flexibility and Competitive Benefits
As workers age, flexible scheduling can be integral to employee retention and performance. “A lot of older adults are part of the ‘sandwich generation,’ responsible for caring for family members, both younger and older,” says Jennifer Rineer, a research psychologist at the Research Triangle Park, N.C.–based non-profit RTI International who studies the health and well-being of employees. "Flexible [work schedules] can help older workers stay in the workforce longer, remain productive, and balance their work and non-work demands—taking care of family members, dealing with chronic illness, and handling other obligations,” she says.
Whitman says SmithGroup’s alternative work schedule—8.5-hour workdays offset by 15 days off per year, typically Fridays—gives employees opportunities to see the doctor, chaperone school trips, and attend to personal needs. The firm also offers an option to shift to a part-time schedule without losing benefits, which appeals not only to aging workers looking to ramp down, but also to new parents returning to work.
As design increasingly relies on 3D visualization and modeling software, it is integral that older practitioners keep pace with technological changes to remain competitive. “The concept of falling behind and not being current doesn’t really exist because of the team-based nature of the work we do,” Dodge says. SmithGroup’s internal talent development system, InKNOWvations, is an attempt, among other things, to bring employees of all ages up to speed on new technologies. Courses taught online or by in-house practitioners orient new hires to software, such as Autodesk Revit, expand employees' technological repertoire, and offer continuing education credits.
What are the risks of not supporting aging workers (other than legal action associated with accusations of age discrimination)? Declining job performance, the loss of institutional knowledge, and costs associated with health complications, absenteeism, disability leave, and new employee recruitment and training are all real threats, Rineer says. In her 2015 dissertation, "Supporting the Aging Workforce: The Impact of Psychosocial Workplace Characteristics on Employees' Work Ability,” she examined the survey results of 274 employees at two public works agencies in Portland, Ore. The findings revealed that older workers who perceived they were part of a cohesive team and had supervisors who supported them regardless of age tended to be healthier and more proficient at their jobs.
It’s reasonable to presume outcomes for firms who fail to support aging workers will be far less rosy. “In this day and age of Glassdoor, if you’re not supporting workers with long-held, crystallized knowledge, and not allowing younger employees to take advantage of that experience, you risk negative publicity that could affect your ability to attract new recruits and be successful in the future,” Rineer says.