A new report published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that workers over 50 have been hit the hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s why.

Over a year has passed since the pandemic struck the world, killing millions and restricting hundreds of thousands in the UK to working from home. During these extraordinary times, inequality and discrimination issues have come under the spotlight – triggering riots and social movements.

Many corporates have embraced their responsibilities and committed themselves to change within their organisations, under the watchful eye of employees, clients, and the public.

However, jump forward to restrictions lifting in the UK, and businesses are at grave risk of undermining all this hard work with the very hybrid working practices that they hope will enhance the working environment. Older workers fall into this category. 

A new ONS report, Living Longer: Older workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, shows a decline in the number of those employed aged 50 to 64 years over the year despite an increase in this demographic over this period. 

While younger people have support systems and schemes in place to get into employment at this time, older workers are often overlooked. Karen Watkins, founder of Rowan Consulting believes this gap can be bridged by HR teams in businesses big and small. 

“When you consider the huge amount of funding and focus that has gone into the younger generation in terms of the Kickstart and various apprenticeship schemes, there does appear to be a huge gap in initiatives that cater for this potentially forgotten generation,” she says. 

“There is clearly a role for HR to play in this and any decent HR team will be the driver and custodian of a solid, progressive D&I policy that works with managers to ensure that this generation of older workers is not left behind culturally or technically.”

“With the recruitment market as competitive as it is, I do wonder if the Government has missed an opportunity in terms of providing grants for older workers for training in IT support and associated technologies. In this day and age, age should not be see as a barrier to progress in any company.”

Technology emerges as a barrier for this age group. Whether this is a hiring bias or an actual obstacle for older workers remains to be seen. 

Research shows older workers take longer to ‘bounce back’ into work, for reasons ranging from plain ageism to a lack of re-skilling and flexible working opportunities. 

For Sarah Loates, director at Loates HR Consultancy, businesses are missing out on decades of experience and cultivated work ethic. “Over-50s are the real casualties of the coronavirus crisis. We have seen a mass exodus of older workers, with companies haemorrhaging corporate memory, as employees leave with know-how gleaned over many years,” she says.

“Older workers are an untapped goldmine of talent, with a wealth of experience, life skills and wisdom.”

Employers should consider simple strategies ranging from targeted attraction campaigns and flexible roles to intergenerational learning, such as reverse mentoring, whereby more tech-savvy employees train older workers.

Government policy should provide a ‘triple lock’ guarantee for older workers to prevent the birth of a ‘lost generation’, she adds.  “The triple lock should provide older workers access to bespoke help to secure work and reskill, and deliver focused funding for employers who recruit older workers, similar to the Kickstart Scheme for younger workers.”

Technical expertise can be learned, but experience understandably cannot. Paula Gardner, founder at Redundancy Recovery Hub says that the largest group of clients made redundant are people in their fifties and over, and technological barriers remain a main reason. ”Not only are they concerned about finding work post-pandemic, but they are very aware that they are competing with younger people who are often more technically savvy and able to move for work.”

“Many older workers have been panicking and looking at the possibility of early retirement, but sadly this isn’t an option for financial reasons.”

Much of the work she has been doing is around encouraging people in this age group to take all the training and re-training they can find, especially if it adds technical skills to their repertoire. “I would say that older employees are probably the ones best suited to a hybrid model of working. They no longer have small children and can get on with their work from home with the space and peace and quiet to perform well,” she says.

“They have learned their craft so don’t need that ‘learning by osmosis’ that younger people often do. They can just get on with it. They also have years of business wisdom and people skills behind them. Companies just need to recognise this.”

Unintended discrimination in hybrid working

According to a leading Cambridge firm of business psychologists, OE Cam, this is the time for businesses to consider the unintended impact of hybrid working. Their modelling suggests that planned policies will likely lead to greater discrimination and a lack of diversity within organisations in the UK and offices worldwide.

The very flexibility to work from home that is being welcomed by employees may inadvertently lead to those who choose this option suffering detrimental impact to their careers by missing out on opportunities.

OE Cam’s insights into hybrid working - published in a journal launched this month - has revealed that organisations could face having to backtrack on diversity initiatives that have taken decades to put in place.

Diversity & Inclusion policies - that ensure women, the disabled, parents, older workers and culturally diverse employees have equal opportunities in the workplace - could be seriously undermined. Business performance will quickly follow.

The team of organisation consultants and psychologists at OE Cam has explored how businesses will be affected as they move to a hybrid working model. The formation of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’, something that has been noticed by organisations during remote working, will be even more prominent in a hybrid workforce.

Present privilege: Will remote workers miss out?

‘Present privilege’ means that those in the workplace are more likely to be involved in spontaneous discussions in the office and have better access to the boss - meaning that they are more front of mind for that promotion.

Those working remotely, who may potentially include greater numbers of working mothers, the disabled and minority groups, will be left at a disadvantage, finding themselves a part of the ‘out-group’. Over time this could lead to them becoming unnoticed, left without a voice, the ability to contribute or progress. This is particularly relevant to older workers who may face technological barriers in using the business’ tech stack while staying connected from home. 

“I saw first-hand in a meeting I observed, how remote workers became disadvantaged over their physically present colleagues,” Martyn Sakol, managing partner at OE Cam, explains. ”A team was considering a significant deal. It adjourned for a planned break. Those who were working remotely logged off to take a comfort break alone, while those in the office continued group conversations. When the meeting resumed, it became glaringly apparent that the opinions on how to shape the deal had changed amongst the office-based team; their new stance did not reflect conversations that had included any remote participants. It was apparent at this point that the implications to businesses worldwide could be hugely damaging.”

“The issue for any organisation now is to reduce the effects of out-groups. Businesses must be mindful of which employees are the ones most likely to wish to work remotely most of the time.”

Experts believe that there are certain groups this will include: those with caring responsibilities, parents (with more mums choosing, or even feeling obliged, to work remotely over dads), disabled employees – for whom the commute can be more difficult - and older generation workers, hoping to improve their work-life balance.

“To prevent these staff from losing their voice, their ability to contribute effectively to the business and their chance of promotion, firms must take active steps. This is not something that will just ‘work itself out’ as teams become accustomed to hybrid working.”

Hybrid working and an age imbalance

Age imbalance between city-dwelling young staff and commuting senior managers will also create challenges. The experts warn that offices could become playgrounds for young, inexperienced employees working without hands-on managerial support. The lack of experience, guidance and support from experienced peers will lead to weaker employee development, affecting complex decision making, creativity and collaboration.

Those inexperienced, professionals may unknowingly use their ‘present privilege’ to shape the business and create a new culture that is misrepresentative, and potentially destructive, reversing a company’s progress by decades.

“Hybrid offers huge advantages, but the risks must not be underestimated. Business leaders must take note of all the impacts and consider the complexities to ensure they cover all bases for all employees,” Sakol adds. 

”No-one should be compromising their career by choosing to work from home more. No business should lose the value of their team’s inputs, because they have not been given equal ability to make an impact.”