By Kris Jensen

Well-trained knowledge workers make a choice to work with your organization on a daily basis. But what if one day a large proportion of those employees never returned? Do you have a sense of the cost of the loss of their intellectual capital; the replacement costs of recruiting another workforce with such dependable and driven people; or the impact on your company’s productivity of losing highly manageable workers with well-defined work ethics?

While companies have been slow to recognize the implications of the shrinking U.S. talent pool, they have been even slower to realize the potential impacts of the loss of thousands of Baby Boomers over the next 10 years. In some cases, companies may even be encouraging the attrition of older workers, assuming they are expensive and less productive segments of their workforce.

Those who recognize the impact of the loss of Boomers to companies and potentially to the economy are probably asking, “What can we do to proactively address the needs of our workers over 50?” I offer these ideas both from my experiences over the last 35 years as a Human Resource professional as well as from my personal experience as a 54-year-old struggling with the same issues and questions as my peers.

Audit your policies, practices and benefit programs to determine those that will limit your ability to work with Boomers effectively long-term.Employee benefits and management practices have historically been designed with the assumption that older workers would seek leisure between the ages of 59 and 65, and that younger workers would have developed in sufficient numbers to replace the graying workforce. Clearly, there are not sufficient numbers, and won’t be for several generations, to replace the highly skilled Boomers.

Therefore, consider creating part-time benefit programs or alternative work arrangements, rethinking mandatory and early retirement programs, and opening time-off programs to uses beyond vacation and illness. Identify and modify programs and practices that may inadvertently preclude management from shaping arrangements to individual situations.

Offer flexibility. All employees are juggling multiple priorities, including family and work. If employers could re-examine how and where their work can be done, it provides a great start for a dialogue around flexibility. But a dialogue around results could produce the most productive solutions. The more clearly you can define the business outcomes you need and when, you provide employees the clear direction of how to rebalance their time to focus on the right things at the right time.

Give employees the gift of time. This could take the form of organized sabbaticals or programs and practices that give employees permission to step away from the day-to-day pace to open up new ways of thinking about old work, research and development and new products and services.

Provide professional planning services. Most people think about their preparation for retirement and the years before and after from a purely financial perspective. However, it is the emotional and psychological elements of life after 50 that have the most impact on how satisfied we will be with our lives. Many times a hesitancy to leave the workplace is not because of failing to plan financially but, rather, concerns the employee lacks the components to make his or her life personally satisfying without work.

Consider offering your employees professional assistance from such groups as My Plan After 50. Professional assessments on multiple factors beyond finances in addition to life and retirement coaches help guide employees to productive solutions to their individual issues. These services can also open discussion threads that allow non-retirees to be mentored by retirees to get a sense of the reality of retirement or how to continue their career in a variety of ways.

Conduct formal workforce and succession planning. Develop an annual inventory of your talent pool and needs – critical jobs with no replacements, employees likely to retire and when, employees willing to be reassigned or relocate, skills and abilities required of the workforce, etc. Anticipating issues and preparing solutions is the best way to maintain resilience in a turbulent and highly competitive economy.

This inventory gives employees clear direction on skills to learn and behaviors to develop, defining competencies that will be required to achieve career success in the future. Planning also offers the opportunity to create phased retirement programs.

Rethink how older employees can contribute in the workplace. Boomers may be your best teachers for subsequent generations of employees. Formalize mentoring or shadowing programs that connect workers in related positions. Think of all the written and unwritten expectations, experiential teachings and cultural norms that Boomers can engrain in your workforce. You will also be securing for your organization all the institutional learning for which most companies have no formal documentation.

Companies today are on the front lines of generational diversity. Many of us have three if not four generations of workers in our workforce. This means a great conflagration of values, attitudes and experiences that are similar in some ways but quite different in others. Create opportunities for your generations to collaborate – taking the best of Generation X and Y and combining those with the proven advantages of the Boomers.

We all want purpose in our lives well into retirement, and want to believe we are making solid contributions to our world. The behaviors we often mistake for slowing down or poor productivity are actually one of the few ways graying workers have of indirectly making management aware of their desire to re-engage in the workplace in new and different ways.

At this point, I don’t doubt you’re wondering how much these ideas will cost you to leverage this sizeable talent pool. The answer: Far less than allowing your Boomers to quietly leave your company with only a gold watch.

Kris Jensen is Vice President, Corporate Services for My Plan After 50. For more information on how to manage your organization’s irreplaceable talent pool, contact Margaret Altmix, President, My Plan After 50, at 515-471-2333.