SMEs need to embrace age diversity or risk losing staff and clients

Australian SMEs need to engage the complexities of a rapidly ageing workforce, or risk missing out on the best staff and alienating customers, a white paper has revealed.

The Executive Connection white paper – Finding the Gold in Silver Hair, due to be released in Sydney on Thursday – highlights the demographic changes SMEs face now and in the future.

It says SMEs “need to be prepared to cope with the implications of both an ageing workforce and ambitious younger employees eager for advancement”.

Rather than focus on perceived problems associated with an ageing workforce, TEC wants companies to focus on how to benefit from it.

TEC non-executive chairman Nigel Stoke says in the report that “SMEs will need to consider the impact of an ageing customer base and whether their business model, marketing and communications, and product set remain appropriate for the new world in which they will find themselves”.

TEC chair Deborah Burt, also a business coach, facilitator and mediator, told SmartCompany larger organisations may have an advantage when it comes to managing demographic diversity in the workforce, due to having more sophisticated human resources departments and funds.

However, she thinks SMEs can also be prepared and “take great advantage” of the opportunity an ageing workforce can represent.

Burt says employers should recognise the benefit of mature workers when it comes to knowledge retention, experience and facilitating the high expectations of clients.

“Diversity is good for any organisation, you need the young and ambitious and you can balance that out with more mature workers who may bring a sense of calmness because they have seen it all before,” she says.

Burt says older workers can say “we did this 10 years ago”, or “we’ve been through this issue before”, enabling other staff to learn and progress.

She gives the example that a contract could be up for tenure to build a railway. The company may want to put the young staff member on the case, but it is also beneficial in the eyes of the client to put forward the staff member with experience in the sector.

“You can have the young hot-shot gun… but the client would value the one who has been through it before… walked in the mud and cracks and made the hard decisions,” she says.

“There are some situations where you need experience to solve problems and to give your clients confidence.”

A diverse age group can not only be good for internal operations, but also for customers dealing with the business. Burt cites retailer Bunnings as an example of a business that has engaged diversity in the ages of its employees, in response to customer demand for staff they could trust and had credible advice.

“This is a strong business case for matching your customers with your staff,” she explains.

A key thing to recognise when having a diverse array of ages in a small business is that everyone has different needs. However, Burt says a good workplace should be able to navigate this this with communication.

For example, she says much attention has been devoted to mothers’ needs in the workplace, but the needs of mature workers should start to be recognised also, such as leave without pay or part-time hours.

“Younger workers may want flexibility to study or have travel breaks… older workers may want time to be a grandparent and help care for their grandchildren,” she says.

Other elements raised in the white paper include the benefits of cross-generational mentoring in the workplace and ensuring the progression of up-and-coming managers and potential business owners is not blocked.  

Stoke says it is vital to ensure all employees are trained to their full potential and have clear career pathways in place for their future development and growth.

“Otherwise, it can lead to frustration and the loss of younger talent,” he says.

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