Flex Retirement: The Newest Headache for Managers

Experienced employees want to work part-time. How do firms manage team schedules—and avoid the ‘coordination tax?’

Remember when “retirement” meant leaving the workforce? These days, the options include partial retirement, semiretirement, and now flex retirement. As you may have already noted, none of these arrangements actually involves leaving the workforce.

In “flex retirement,” the latest workplace euphemism, someone works on a flexible schedule, whether it’s a standard 9-to-5 with extra vacation months, a shorter workweek, or a discrete project. As with most workplace trends, there’s a downside for the employer—unless they can successfully tap the experience of seasoned pros. “The complexity of managing schedules means there’s a real con here,” says organizational-strategy consultant Maria Amato, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “But organizations are going to need to figure this out.”

In a Microsoft survey in May, half of the 31,000 respondents reported they’d had the experience of going into the office—only to discover that the person they’d planned to meet with wasn’t there. In corporate circles, scheduling can be burdened by the so-called “coordination tax”: Even when team members overlap, as planned, someone has to shoulder the administrative task of messaging everyone and finding mutually convenient days and times. This is why the specter of many retirement-age employees not working at all on some days gives leaders pause.

To be sure, there’s benefit to keeping veteran staffers on board longer. They are knowledgeable and likely effective, says HR expert Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry; certainly, extending their employment is more efficient than diving into today’s very tight labor market. “People today are far more productive into their later years than they’ve been in the past,” he says. But it can come at cost. “It’s a hassle if they’re not available or the quality of work falls off.” This conundrum is relevant across every demographic: Korn Ferry’s latest Global Workforce Survey found that flexibility with hours is the second-most important job factor to employees.

The key to making flex retirement work, experts agree, is prioritizing the needs of the firm, not those of the employee. The idea is to avoid disruption—scenarios in which teams wait days to hear back from a part-time worker, or managers have to send dozens of messages to set up a meeting. “Bespoke arrangements are only fine if they actually fit the needs of the organization,” says Dennis Deans, vice president of global human resources at Korn Ferry.

A litmus test of a flex-retirement arrangement, says Shanda Mints, vice president for RPO analytics and implementation at Korn Ferry, is whether the business needs to accommodate it. For example, a company with a knowledge gap might have a compelling reason to approve a flexible working arrangement; ditto a firm at risk of institutional knowledge walking out the door. But in the absence of a meaningful reason, firms might be best served by finding a different solution that does not disrupt the workflow.

Experts say that the success of flex-retirement arrangements lies in the planning, beginning with a thorough assessment of potential flex retirees. This can include an interview, as well as a formal assessment process. The idea is to avoid the false assumption that an employee who’s been successful in a full-time role can also excel in a part-time one, says Porter. It’s critical for firms to define the new job—and not to simply shoehorn the employee’s full-time role into fewer hours. “It’s better to help them balance it now, rather than seeing them quit or burn out later,” says Porter.

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