Gearing up for an age-diverse workplace

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Written by Claire McCartney on 1 June 2014 in Features

Claire McCartney discusses the critical role that L&D professionals can play in unlocking the benefits of age-diverse teams

The UK labour market is continually evolving. The UKCES recently opened a window on the future of the UK workforce, showing that by 2030 it will consist of four generations working side by side1.  Research recently published by the CIPD revealed that employees and employers believe that their workforce is already age-diverse2.  But forward-thinking companies should be preparing for the scope of diversity to increase further still. 

Positive findings         

The population is ageing, the workforce is too. More than ever before, organisations are made up of different generations with potentially different cultures, expectations and beliefs.  The CIPD recently surveyed organisations to gather their views and find out just how they are gearing up for this increasingly age-diverse workforce. The good news is that employers and employees alike recognise the benefits of age-diverse teams and, in particular, highlight the knowledge sharing and diverse perspectives they bring. Employees working at the coalface are also likely to highlight the advantages of innovation, with the perception that different age groups bring fresh thinking and facilitate problem solving. 

Both employers and employees were also less likely to identify negatives arising from age diverse teams.  When they did identify challenges, however, HR professionals were most likely to be concerned about problems related to succession planning while employees were most likely to be worried about age stereotyping and potential misunderstandings.

However, despite these positives, what also emerged from our research was that many employers are not doing enough to harness the reported benefits of a soon to be four-generational workforce.  They are simply not responding to the issue in a strategic way. Only one in five respondents said they have or are developing a strategy that informs how they will respond to an ageing population. Meanwhile almost a third (31%) said they deal with demographic changes as they arise. In other words, these businesses are being reactive, not proactive.

Another worrying finding was that nearly half of HR professionals surveyed said that line managers in their organisations are not trained in promoting team working amongst employees of different ages. What’s more, these respondents said their business has no plans to change this in the future. This appears to be a serious oversight, particularly when you consider that one in five employees also believe their managers are lacking the skills or are taking the wrong approach to promoting better team working. It also suggests that employers are missing out by failing to effectively manage and get the best out of the people they employ.

Training to unlock the benefits

Learning and development professionals have a vital role to play in helping organisations improve how they manage age-diverse workforces in order to reap the rewards. They can help by training line managers – the people responsible for the day-to-day running of business – to better understand and play to the strengths of age-diverse teams. They can also design workforce training that caters for the needs of different age groups.

Uniting teams around common goals

Training should focus on helping line managers unite their teams around common organisational values and aims. Every company has its own values and these need to be communicated. Line managers should be trained to work with their team-members to show that these values should be upheld for the good of the team itself and, by extension, the company as a whole. After all, the needs of the team are more important than the needs of the individual. This will help reduce possible problems caused by differing generational perspectives that could pull a team in opposing directions. 

Eliminating biases

Beyond this, line managers should be trained to be aware of and take action against their own biases, should they exist. These may be conscious or unconscious, but the effect they can have on working relationships and business success can be equally damaging. Believing that someone from one age group would be less suited or somehow less able to take on a certain function or project simply because of their age is demonstrably biased. Line managers need to be made aware that they cannot play to biases of any kind in their decision making and that they need to open up opportunities to everyone on their team, regardless of age.

Forging relationships

The skills required to manage an age-diverse team are broadly the same skills required to be a good manager.  Line managers should be personable and approachable and know how to handle and facilitate strong working relationships. Of course, such relationships can’t be created overnight. However, a line manager who is trained to operate with an ‘open door’ policy and to have regular one-to-ones with colleagues will be well-equipped to understand the differences and manage an age diverse group.

Making company-wide training age-diverse

Learning and development professionals can also help organisations unlock the strengths of age diverse teams by designing training programmes to help employees of all ages hone their skills and progress their careers.

Employees of all age groups should be encouraged to take control of their own career progression and development, and the benefits of lifelong learning should be promoted in a way which appeals to all workers. This should help ensure employees of all ages participate in training opportunities and that no particular age groups miss out.

Putting employees in control

Above all, employees should be encouraged to identify what training they need now and what they will gain most value from in the long term. Learning and development professionals must not be tempted to spoon-feed or dictate or force employees down a certain training path. This can be avoided by discussing with employees the merits of training: for professional development, for fulfilling career aims, for making day-to-day work more effective and for the simple satisfaction that learning something new offers. Learning and development will then become self-perpetuating.

Even within this environment, there is a chance that specific age groups will not take up opportunities to sharpen their skills. It is possible that some employees may think that when you reach a certain age, there are fewer progression opportunities and so the benefits of training are reduced. If this is the case, learning and development teams need to speak openly and honestly with employees who hold this view. They need to ask staff what might be holding them back, try to debunk any negative preconceptions about training and promote its uses.

Listening to aid learning

To develop successful training programmes, learning and development professionals should garner feedback from staff. It is obvious that people are only going to learn effectively in an environment where they feel comfortable. They should not be forced into taking on training; if they do they are unlikely to see the full benefit of it.

It may be necessary to tailor training towards groups or individuals. Face-to-face or group learning that is very participative should be considered as much as e-learning. Again, learning and development professionals should avoid stereotyping or making assumptions about how younger or older age workers might want to train. The onus is on the learning and development teams to talk to their staff and present them with as many options for their training as possible to find out what is going to be most effective. 

The basis for achieving these goals is effective communication. A series of open conversations with employees is the best route to achieving a really robust learning and development offering for all age groups.

Making training more effective

There are several steps that learning and development professionals can take to ensure that training is as useful as possible for age-diverse employee groups. One of the most helpful is to pilot training activities. It is likely that businesses will not have considered the different structures, content and methods of learning that employees from differing age groups demand. The value of piloting comes from the feedback that can be received from employees. This is a further example of how two-way communication between managers and staff can be really effective.

A more informal way that staff can be trained is through knowledge sharing. This was identified by employees in our survey as a key advantage of being in an age-diverse team. Activities such as mentoring or work shadowing offer more experienced employees the chance to impart some of their business knowledge to more junior staff. As well as honing the existing skills in a business, this brings the added benefit of building positive working relationships between colleagues across age groups. Of equal value is ‘reverse mentoring’ – younger workers giving informal training, advice and expertise to older workers. This offers an opportunity for businesses to broaden and develop some of the skills of individual employees in an inexpensive and time-effective way. Learning and development professionals can help by encouraging and facilitating these opportunities among staff.

Organisations need to prepare for tomorrow, today

Our survey showed that organisations are, at the moment, more likely to take a reactive than a proactive stance to the issue of a shifting age demographic. Businesses have only recently woken up to the extent of the issue of our ageing population, with more people choosing to work into their 70s, and the fact that they need to do something about it. 

Given that the UK’s economic recovery remains in its early days, perhaps it is not surprising that many organisations have yet to develop a detailed plan of how they will approach the prospect of a four-generation workforce. Many organisations will not yet feel confident enough to look at these sorts of changes. Yet, it would be short-sighted to ignore the benefits and potential problems of an age-diverse workforce.  Organisations that do so risk finding themselves at a serious competitive disadvantage in the future.

The business benefits that age-diverse teams can bring are clear, especially for providing organisations with a wider talent pool to recruit from. This is particularly valuable at a time when employers fear that the workforce is lacking the skills that businesses in the UK require.

Learning and development can help businesses gain the most from an age-diverse workforce by developing training, both for managers and employees as a whole that is designed to get the most from age-diverse teams.  This way, learning and development can ensure that the potential benefits of a four-generation workforce become reality.

Five top tips for gearing up learning and development for an age-diverse workforce:

  1. Focus on line managers. Since line managers are the people responsible for the day-to-day running of a business, learning and development professionals need to ensure that managers understand and play to the strengths of age diverse teams. Line managers need to be trained to operate with an ‘open door’ policy and to have regular one-to-ones with colleagues in order to appreciate differences and best manage age-diverse teams.
  2. Raise awareness of biases. Biases – be they conscious or unconscious – that may exist among employees, including line managers, need to be highlighted so they do not affect decision making processes. Age biases can obviously have very damaging effects on working relationships and business success. Line managers in particular must be made aware that they cannot play to biases of any kind in decision making and that they must open up opportunities to all team-members, regardless of their age.
  3. Communicate common goals. Line managers should be trained to work with colleagues to show that company values should be upheld for the good of the team and the company as a whole. This will help reduce the chances of differing individual perspectives pulling a team in opposite directions.
  4. Let employees take control of their training. Learning and development professionals should encourage employees to identify what training they need now and will need in the near future. This can be achieved by discussing with employees the benefits of training: for professional development, for fulfilling career aims and for making day-to-day work more effective. Creating opportunities for more informal training, such as work shadowing and mentoring, will also help employees realise and manage development needs.
  5. Encourage and make use of feedback. Learning and development teams need to talk to their staff to build a learning environment in which employees are comfortable. Employees must present as many training options as possible to employees so they can offer the most effective training packages and methods for every team member.


1 Beck H, Glover P, et al., ‘The Future of Jobs and Skills in 2030’, UKCES, February 2014

2 CIPD, ‘Managing an Age Diverse Workforce: Employer and employee views’, March 2014

About the author

Claire McCartney is advisor in the Resourcing and Talent Planning, HR Practice Development Team at the CIPD. She can be contacted at


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