Watercooler: Older employees will drive changes to workplaces

ADJUSTING TO “SILVER TSUNAMI”: An ergonomics expert says American companies are going to need to make a lot of changes as they adjust to an increasingly gray-haired work force.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Group predicted that 25 percent of American workers will be 55 or older by 2016, up from nearly 19 percent today.

An older work force is going to be a fact of corporate life, and in order to retain important intellectual capital and avoid age-discrimination lawsuits, companies need to figure out how to change office life to accommodate silver-haired employees, said Lance Perry, a senior risk engineer for insurance company Zurich Financial Services in Fort Worth, Texas.

Perry has been analyzing company ergonomics, or the science of beneficial workplace design, for more than 25 years, and recently helped write a report on how to best accommodate and retain aging employees.

Some basic recommendations:

■ Make buttons on phones, instructions on printers and other visual signs larger so aging eyes can read them more easily.

■ Voice-activated software is going to be more and more in use, Perry said, as typing gets harder for older hands.

■ Forget highly-polished, slick lobby floors in office buildings, he said. Think about changing to carpet, or a floor with more friction. Floors should also be all one height to try to fend off tripping over unexpected inclines or steps.

■ More face-to-face meetings, rather than communication by e-mail. Older people also often prefer face-time instructions when dealing with newer technologies.

■ Provide incentives for wellness program participation. An older population is more in need of nutritional guidance and physical activity to maintain fitness, he said.

■ Mentoring with younger employees is also important to pass corporate knowledge from one generation to the next. Older employees are more likely to have been with a company for a long time.

LEAVE THE HAREM PANTS AT HOME: As the weather cools, the fashion-forward are wriggling their skinny jeans back on, tucking into suede ankle-length “booties” and throwing a bomber jacket over their one-shoulder tops.

Er, wait.

“Filter those trends a little bit,” said Stacy London of TLC’s “What Not to Wear” makeover show. “Kick it down a notch ... That’s a good way to use trends in workwear.”

She has the following tips on how to sneak fall’s fashion trends into a working woman’s wardrobe, and what absolutely doesn’t belong at the office.

■ Layers. You can wear a looser top like a tunic. London suggested belting it, wearing a thin knit turtleneck underneath, and pairing with a pencil skirt and ankle boots.

■ Boots. Instead of an eye-popping over-the-knee boot, choose one that’s mid-calf, or the ankle boot, which London said any age can wear. Super-high platform heels are not acceptable.

■ Motorcycle and military-style jackets are big this fall. Upscale leather versions are great for work with a more feminine shirt underneath, such as a ruffled or Victorian blouse. “You can mix lots of hard and soft things,” London said. “Chiffon and leather looks incredible.” Trench coats are another popular outerwear choice this season, and almost all styles are a safe and enduring choice.

■ Embellishments. Rather than studs, London suggests trying jewels, ruffles or bows. You can get away with a studded bag if the decorations are the same color as the bag and don’t look too “heavy metal,” she said.

■ One-shoulder tops. Well, you can do it if you must. Just put a blazer on top — perhaps a schoolboy cut in wool or wool flannel with colored trim — and don’t take it off. Showing too much skin is never appropriate, London said.

Bottom line? Don’t be overly trendy, don’t wear clothes that will distract co-workers and do cover up.

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