Flexible retirement: Work. On your terms

When you achieve the perfect balance between free time and extra cash, life is good.

(Photo: Kintaiyo/Wikimedia)

Mickie Ashman has what she regards as the ideal arrangement at work as she nears retirement. The 66-year-old Calgary human-resources co-ordinator has the security of a permanent job at AltaGas Ltd., an energy infrastructure firm, but she has been able to reduce her work hours from full-time to a more comfortable three days a week. That suits her better than either continuing to work full-time or retiring completely. She enjoys her job, appreciates the paycheques with benefits, but also likes having more time to herself. “This way I have both the wherewithal to do the things I want to do and the time to do it,” she says.

Ashman is one of the fortunate few nearing retirement who have achieved the ideal combination of a secure job plus flexible work hours. Many baby boomers in their late 50s and 60s expect to keep working longer than their parents’ generation, but studies show they’re hoping to do it on their own terms. A Sun Life Financial survey conducted by Ipsos Reid released earlier this year found that 59% of Canadians age 57 to 65 were expecting to gear down to part-time, freelance or other reduced-hour arrangements prior to full retirement. But with the paucity of flexible arrangements on offer to permanent employees, getting what they want may not be so easy. There are opportunities for older employees to work part-time or get more time off by becoming contract workers, but those options don’t come with job security.

Pioneering employers like AltaGas that offer flexible arrangements to their older permanent employees usually have an eye to trying to retain the skills and experience of their aging baby boomers a little longer. “We have baby boomers coming down the pike and getting close to that age, and so we want to look more frequently at flexible arrangements,” says Nicole Arienzale, AltaGas director of human resources and administrative services. Flex policies at different companies often include reduced hours in various forms, including a transitional “phased retirement.” There is also job sharing (where two employees might co-ordinate to fill one full-time position), temporary leaves and time off (including leaves to care for ailing spouses or parents), and being allowed to work from remote locations.

Many companies will cut one-off deals for flexibility for particularly valued employees, but few do it as a general practice, and even fewer as a full-blown program that is backed by the full weight of executive support. Arienzale calls flexible work arrangements at AltaGas a “work in progress.” So far, a handful of engineers, administrative staff, accountants and gas-plant operators have taken advantage of it. But companies like HSBC Bank Canada, the Canadian subsidiary of the international financial giant, believes flex programs are a necessity. “HSBC has made a real effort to execute on it,” says Michael Webb, senior vice-president of human resources. “This is not just a warm and fuzzy nice thing to do. If we don’t make these accommodations, we’ll lose [the experienced employees]. So we must do it. We drive this into our leaders’ heads.”

When companies offer flexible arrangements, it’s not automatic. Human-resource departments generally set guidelines. But details have to be worked out between line managers and individuals. In Ashman’s case, her former permanent position as executive assistant was deemed ill-suited to part-time work. So AltaGas moved her to a better-suited position as human-resources co-ordinator, which doesn’t require her to be there every day.

While a few innovators are starting to offer more flexibility to permanent staff, the far more common way to get flexibility is through contract work. Whether it’s called “freelancing,” “independent consulting” or “interim management,” these positions have one common attribute—no long-term obligation.


Watch Graham F. Scott, managing editor of Canadian Business, speak to Breakfast Television about how baby boomers are easing into their retirement years with non-traditional work.


Despite this lack of commitment, workers may stay for one organization for years on contract and even be part of the management structure. Dennis Hamade, 62, assistant vice-president of finance transformation projects at HSBC Bank Canada, has worked on contract for seven years after choosing to take early retirement there. He currently works about 15 to 20 hours a week on projects and is able to take time off to travel. “This current situation lets me work on my own terms,” he writes in an e-mail. “I didn’t really plan to do this, especially for such a long time. The first contract was to assist in the transition for my replacement, but projects kept coming, and the bank keeps asking me to assist.”

Contract workers sometimes fill very senior positions as part of the growing field of “interim management.” Many companies are so streamlined these days that if a manager leaves suddenly or is terminated, often there aren’t other qualified permanent employees available to step into the role or get the job done, says Frances Randle, managing director of the interim management practice at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. But recruiting a permanent replacement takes time. “Companies can’t afford to go six months without someone in that chair,” she says.

Some smaller companies have even started to use interim managers for some of the most senior executive positions, says Sheila Hamilton, managing principal of the Osborne Group. For example, since joining the Osborne Group two years ago, John Bielby has conducted two assignments as interim chief operating officer for small manufacturing companies, applying years of experience garnered in high-level permanent roles at larger manufacturers. Typically, Bielby, who is in his mid-60s, gets asked to help a company deal with a serious business problem, then might get invited to stay on as interim COO to implement the solution. “Interim executives provide a cadre of very competent people who have a lot of experience jumping in and getting the job done and getting back out,” Bielby says.

Interim managers often find far more flexibility and control than they had in permanent positions. Donna Brazelton, in her early 60s and also with the Osborne Group, retired as vice-president of human resources from a major transportation company eight years ago. Now she does a mixture of interim management and other assignments. When her father got seriously ill for two months before passing away last summer, she was able to cut back on the number of clients she was working with in order to spend more time with him. “I was fortunate to have the ability to flex my schedule during that time,” she says. “I could never have done that in a permanent job.”

While there are plenty of opportunities in the contract market, expect to also find lots of competition for those positions. Ongoing corporate restructuring over recent years has resulted in “an exodus of phenomenally talented people,” says Philip Wilson, an organizational consultant with Felix Global Corp. in Ottawa. So, aside from some specialized positions and relatively buoyant sectors like oil and mining, experienced talent is in ample supply. Then there’s the issue of how companies feel about older workers. And while their experience, maturity and skills are valued, sometimes employers are concerned about near-retirement candidates’ energy levels, comfort with new technology and willingness to embrace change. As a result of all this, older workers often need to make concessions on pay and the seniority of the position they’re willing to take. Fortunately, older workers are usually realistic. “They realize they may have to move back to move forward,” says Wilson.

While corporations have been slow to embrace flexibility for permanent employees so far, many experts expect that this trend will pick up speed. Today’s cost-conscious companies will need a strong business case to be convinced. But flex policies for older workers can make sound economic sense when you consider all the costs related to not retaining older workers, including recruitment, training and development of their replacements, says Barbara Jaworski, chief executive officer of the Workplace Institute, which helps organizations develop older-workforce strategies. “One of the beauties of having older workers is you don’t really need to spend much time managing them,” says Jaworski. “You just need to tell them what to do and they go do it.” Says Daphne FitzGerald, chair of the Ontario-based Human Resources Professionals Association and a consultant with Capital G Consulting Inc.: “I think the business case for flexibility is absolutely taking hold.”

Meanwhile, Mickie Ashman is enjoying what she regards as the happy medium of working Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “It suits me absolutely perfectly,” she enthuses. “It gives me extra money in my pocket and time to do things in the day on Tuesday and Thursday. Because I have a workday after having a day off, I never get really tired.”

She also has more time to go shopping, stay active with tai chi and line dancing, spend time with her four grandkids, or go to lunch with friends, most of whom are fully retired. Some of her friends spend a lot of time shopping or looking after grandkids, but Ashman isn’t ready to do any of that full-time. “As much as I love my grandkids, I don’t want to look after them every day.” So she’d like to keep up these arrangements for a few years: “If I’m healthy, I’d just as soon work until I’m 70.” As Ashman proves, it is not always easy to find the right balance between work and the rest of your life as you near retirement, but it can be done.