Redesigning workplaces for an aging workforce

In a society that is rapidly aging, the ideal future workplace would be designed to meet the physical and psychological needs of an older workforce. Yet this remains an ideal, with few organizations actively going down this path. Nonetheless, there are prominent examples of what an older-worker friendly workplace would look like.

Perhaps the best-documented case is BMW’s redesigned factory for workers age 50 and older. BMW recognized that the average age of its production workers would increase to 47 by 2017. This demographic trend threatened the company’s competitiveness. Its older workers were absent more and worked harder just to keep up, yet their experience and skills are essential for productivity. ‘Project 2017′, as it is called, recruited a team of 50-plus production workers (supported by engineers and health professionals) to help redesign all aspects of assembly line work to reduce physical strains and the chance of errors. In all, 70 worker-suggested changes were made. Most were simple and inexpensive, such as wood flooring, orthopedic footwear, magnifying lenses, adjustable work tables, large-handled tools, larger fonts on computer screens, rest breaks, and ergonomically optimal job rotation.

Follow-up projects have been launched in other BMW plants. An entire new BMW factory has been built, based on Project 2017 and employing only workers over age 50. Beyond ergonomic design, the company’s goal of retaining older workers is achieved through its approach to training, employee health, knowledge management, and personalized retirement transitions. BMW’s solution for its aging workforce aside, there is little evidence that other employers are ergonomically redesigning jobs and work environments. Interestingly, few award-winning best employers for older workers in the US or Canada focus on ergonomic accommodation.

More common than full-scale work redesign, however, is adjusting HR policies and practices to an aging workforce. Three areas stand out in this regard: recruitment, training and employee relations.

See: Loch, C. H., Sting, F. J., Bauer, N., & Mauermann, H. (2010). How BMW is defusing the demographic time bomb. Harvard Business Review, 99-102. Also see: http://www.impactlab.net/2011/02/19/bmw-opens-new-car-plant-where-the-workforce-is-all-aged-over-50/