As I shared in my previous post, it’s imperative for forward-thinking workplaces to acknowledge and adapt to their evolving workforce. As the national population ages, their Boomer, Gen X, and now Millenial employees are increasingly juggling work while caring for their aging parents and grandparents.
While many companies have made strides in providing robust accommodations, we all still have a lot of work to do. Here are five simple starting points ALL caring companies should be taking to support their employees.
Over the past few months, I’ve heard several accounts of employees feeling unfairly discriminated against for caring for an aging parent versus their colleagues, who are often recognized and acknowledged for taking maternity/paternity leave. Many of them shared anecdotes of coworkers that had exchanged gifts and had thrown baby showers at the office.
By acknowledging this could similarly be occurring at your organization and doing your part by addressing it, you are normalizing the experiences of those dealing with the reverse (caring for their parents) towards a more equal workplace.
2. Train your managers to understand elder care
This goes beyond merely offering the phone number to your EAP, flex time, or the ability to work from home. Seek out partners who can help inform your managers on dedicated elder care resources, in addition to understanding and communicating your company’s policies and benefits. If your organization doesn’t have funds for training, I can point you to numerous nonprofits or webinars as a starting point (PSS being one of them).
Additionally, introduce opportunities for employees to initiate conversations with one another and their managers about their personal lives because they are far more intermingled nowadays with employees’ professional ones. Providing these opportunities will amplify their productivity and engagement by allowing them to bring their “whole self” to work.
3. Fund and create employee resource groups
Invest more in supporting ERGs: internal communities that provide resources based on ethnicity, gender, and now more frequently, age-related ones. Sponsor speakers that encourage fruitful discussions on topics like elder care, caregiving, and employee wellness. Often, it’s best asking a third-party to facilitate them to ensure employees learn from industry-experts and feel safe participating in them without feeling like they’re being judged.
4. Analyze your elder care benefits or offer them if you don’t
According to a 2017 SHRM Benefits study, only 13% of employers offer elder care referral services and fewer provide anything more comprehensive. While most employers offer EAPs, little evidence exists that demonstrates EAPs are effective in maintaining healthy and productive employees.
This is why the market is seeing a rise in companies offering specialty (i.e. fringe) benefits like childcare, fertility, and pet insurance to name a few. It’s because employees perceive them to be much more valuable and personalized when they have a specific, singular focus.
Put together an official strategy incorporating best practices of maximizing the value of your existing core and fringe benefits. Conduct focus groups for employees that have had these challenges to better understand how you can resolve them moving forward.
5. Start planning a “take your parent to work day”
Enough said. 37M parents participate in the annual “take your kids to work day” in April. Instead of solely budgeting for crayons and coloring books galore, it’s time to split that for November’s epic crosswords and Tai Chi instructors! ;)
For the first time in US history, older adults are projected to outnumber children. People are living longer, families are having children later, and on top of that, the birth-rate is at a 30-year low.
While the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been for decades, the upcoming ones will be marked by abundant unfilled posts due to the widening skill gap in the labor market from retiring Baby Boomers. Elder care, however, is also causing highly experienced women to have to resort to leaving the workforce at an alarming rate. When HBS published their Caring Company report earlier this year, they discovered a whopping 73% of employees had an active caregiving responsibility. On average, many of them spend more than 20 hours a week providing this care.
Employers frequently include child care benefits at the top of their priority lists. They have been quick to adopt accommodations for child care-related absenteeism and frequently provide care subsidies. In fact, more than half of employers offer dependent care assistance plans for their employees’ children.
Yet, the proportion of employers who have pledged to supporting their employees balancing work while caring for an elderly family members is far fewer. Only less than a quarter provide caregiver assistance to support employees with aging loved ones.
So why the discrepancy? Well, it could very much come down to ageism.
Last week, I saw Chip Conley, author of Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, speak at the NYC SHRM Conference. Chip contended older employees bring the knowledge and interpersonal skills critical to organizations, and that employers should be aware this is the first time in history there are FIVE working generations from the Baby Boomers to Gen Z.
Chip affirms multi-generational workplaces are most successful because they marry the essential elements of digital intelligence from younger workers with the emotional intelligence of more experienced ones. But his findings indicated the conditions at our most progressive corporations are often ill-suited to accommodate these knowledgeable employees, often leading to toxic ageism prevalent in many workplaces.
His talk was preceded by Johnny Taylor, Jr., the CEO of SHRM. Johnny suggested agility and adaptability are the most essential attributes of modern employees. He then said the aging workforce is one of the most important topics of our time because there is a “Silver Tsunami,” which results in our need to also understand how to accommodate the aging (yet very productive) labor pool.
It’s evident from these trends what has traditionally worked well for employers in attracting the best talent will not continue to. In the posts to follow, I will provide a tangible framework for you to develop a strategy that is inclusive of all the needs of your diverse workforce and employee-caregivers — not just those caring for young children.
Forget politics. Talk about something that may invoke gratitude and nostalgia with your family this Thanksgiving weekend instead of frustration.
According to a recent survey by Capital Senior Living, 36% of “Baby Boomers” feel unprepared to start caring for their parents. This number is expected to rise in the coming years, as people are living longer and having children later in life.
The uncomfortable ‘role-reversal’ conversation may seem distressing at first, but the consequences of not having it can be far more challenging in the long-run. If framed as a check-in not calling for confrontation, it can actually feel cathartic.
If you haven’t yet had the “The Talk” with your parents, here are some starter conversation topics for the Thanksgiving Table:
1. “Where do you want to retire?”This is a non-invasive way to get your loved ones to start talking about where they envision themselves in the future. Keep it light. Ask about what kind of climate they find suitable and how important it is to remain close to friends and family. It’s designed as an icebreaker to get them comfortable by visualizing the years ahead.
2. “What kind of home do you want to live in?”While most seniors prefer to age at-home because they value familiarity and independence, others prefer the convenience of additional support they might find in senior communities. Having them clarify the residence they foresee may even spark a philosophical discussion on what “home” feels like to them.
3. ”Do you feel prepared for the years ahead?”Americans are increasingly choosing to retire later. Some make the choice because they want to continue working, while others have to keep working to make retiring financially-feasible. Asking whether they feel prepared for the years ahead could unearth positive sentiments towards areas they feel like they have fully-covered. For example, they may disclose some of their existing savings, investments, or insurance premiums that make them feel confident they have some of at least some components of their plan in place.
4. “Do you have any concerns about the future?”This segue is meant to start directing the conversation towards some of the more challenging topics, including financial worries, health problems, and inevitably, death. If they don’t already, it might also be a good time to ask if they’ve completed their Will, Durable Power of Attorney, and other critical legal documents.
5. How do you want to go someday?A study published last year uncovered that only about one in three have any type of “Advanced Directives” in-place, which spell out your loved one's wishes in the event of incapacitation or terminal illness. During a difficult situation, the last order any family member wants to make is one that goes against their loved one’s preferences. As such, it is essential to have the document, but it can only be drafted if your parent’s desires are known.
Bonus: “How do you want to be remembered?”Over the past couple years, there was a trend emerging in South Korea that facilitated mock funeral services. While asking your parents to lay in their coffin is certainly an unnecessarily provocative Thanksgiving faux pas, getting them to reflect on their lives and helping them come to terms with their unavoidable passing might bring solace. As stated in Bronnie Ware’s book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, one of those is possessing the courage to express their feelings. If framed positively, this could serve as an empowering moment and help them express their gratitude in areas you or they had previously taken for granted.
Although these are difficult conversations to have, they are likely easier than the ones, say, about the Midterm Elections. And unlike talking politics at the dinner table, these conversations won’t be destructive to your family’s long-term happiness. Happy Thanksgiving!
In 2014, I saw Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh speak in downtown Las Vegas. Of all he said, what stuck with me most was his notion of ‘collisionable hours,’ in other words: hours spent colliding with people sharing ideas. He conjectured that transplanting people in different communities has the potential to improve them by introducing diversity-in-thought and fresh ideas. I always thought the theory was interesting, but I never really experienced it much in-practice until Cornell Tech built and opened its doors to its new campus on Roosevelt Island.
Universities all around the world structure curriculums to enhance potential for interdisciplinary interactions; it’s quite possibly one of the best arguments one could have to go to college nowadays. It’s also why most institutions require math, science, and humanities general education requirements (among others) to graduate. Cornell Tech, however, was methodically designed to maximize those opportunities.
As a graduate student in the health tech program at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, I’m surrounded by masters students pursuing their MBAs, law masters, and technical degrees like computer science, operations research, and electrical engineering. Enrollment this year was at approximately 250 masters students, and I’m amazed everyday how the campus was designed to improve the probability of collisions.
Take, for instance, one of the days I recently experienced:
Though it’s not necessarily representative of my everyday, it really does highlight that I’m surrounded by a culture that is supportive, generous, and agile. As such, I’ve identified a couple patterns I believe enhance opportunities for catalyzing these interactions in other environments as well:
1. Create spaces that cultivate interactions
There should always be opportunities to meet people you don’t everyday and have cross-function topics of discussion. WeWork has championed this originally through co-working space, but they continue to push these boundaries with other ventures like co-living through WeLive.
Cornell Tech also designed its campus for maximal interaction. Through communal spaces with open-floor plans, students also reap the benefit of every faculty department being housed in the same building. Gabe Ruttner, a friend who started the company Ursa out of Cornell Tech, told me many of his early business development relationships have been sparked by introductions to campus visitors. He recently said to me: “This place is a community in its truest sense. The environment offers much more than just a set of desks.”
2. Design structured interactions between people of different backgrounds
Organizations and businesses should strive for different departments to collaborate on projects together; bringing these varying perspectives will undoubtedly yield inventive thinking.
One of the ways they do this at Cornell Tech is through required experiences like the Studio Curriculum, but there’s also potential to take classes with students in other programs: in fact, it’s recommended we take courses in other departments. In addition to learning in conjunction with business, engineering, and law students, I also had the opportunity to work with them on projects. We have monthly scrums where we pitch our projects to other Studio teams and ask for their candid, critical feedback; we’re also sure to leave our feelings at the door.
3. Create open communication channels
Create communities that are constantly open to helping each other out, and always ask people, “what’s your biggest challenge right now?” to determine how you can be most helpful. Try to get buy-in from everyone in the ecosystem, regardless of their seniority.
Use platforms like Slack, GroupMe, and groups on WhatsApp. They’re faster than e-mail, and they really let you take advantage of the Network Effect. It may seem counterintuitive, but it actually saves you hours from needing to schedule lengthy meetings to get everyone communicating. This does not, obviously, replace face-to-face meetings; it just reduces their frequency and duration. Another one of our practices is to bring everyone together for a targeted Town Hall. We do these monthly as a student body, but they also occur with specialized topics like student life with our Dean Dan Huttenlocher or program directors to discuss the curriculum. No matter what, aim to involve all leaders from every area and level.
Cornell Tech also recently allowed me to ‘take-over’ their Instagram stories for a day as an individual student. My mention as a health tech student prompted a Roosevelt Island resident to reach out and propose a way we could work together. By allowing me to officially represent Cornell Tech, I was able to more seriously engage with residents in a more personal way I couldn’t on my own.
4. Get everyone on the same page
Find ways people can go through a shared experience. A student recently told me his favorite aspect of Cornell Tech is our Sprints. Sprints were inspired from Jake Knapp’s book Sprint and take place monthly for us. It’s a block of time where there are no classes and we commit to a 24-hour work block (except the time we’re sleeping) with our multidisciplinary teams. It’s also certainly when we get the most done.
Companies could also similarly benefit from asking their employees to wholly commit to developing and prototyping an idea for a week by starting with the simple question, “how might we…?”
5. Don’t forget to get out of your bubble
Though much of the time I spent in graduate school is with fellow students, one of the most refreshing aspects of being a part of the Roosevelt Island community is my participation with local organizations: the school, senior center, and art gallery to name a few.
I even took a course that encouraged us to observe a local organization and work with them to create a technology or design a service project to address one of their challenges. We initially strove for intra-organizational impact but quickly realized we should also have inter-organizational forums to unite their respective leaders and again elevate the Network Effect.
That is what Cornell Tech intended when it won the NYC Tech Campus bid in 2011. Its aim was not to solely have an identity as a “Campus of the Digital Age”, but also one with a deep connection and commitment to serve its local inhabitants. Transplanting a bunch of academics on a narrow island will surely shift its dynamics, and ideally they maximize positive collisions and therefore serendipity.
What’d I miss?
This is definitely not a comprehensive guide to fostering a collisionable environment but hopefully it’s a helpful start. Maybe someday we can all harness that energy from water cooler talk and direct that to an idea or action you wouldn’t come up with on your own. But then again, perhaps we really DO want to have that conversation to determine once-and-for-all if that dress is truly white and gold or blue and black.