Constantly updated and reconfigured, office software is the bane of older workers—whose struggles with IT lead to frustration and lower productivity.

But does it have to be that way?

At the business school HEC Montréal in Canada, I studied the performance of hundreds of older workers on job tasks that require the use of common organizational…

Constantly updated and reconfigured, office software is the bane of older workers—whose struggles with IT lead to frustration and lower productivity.

But does it have to be that way?

At the business school HEC Montréal in Canada, I studied the performance of hundreds of older workers on job tasks that require the use of common organizational software such as spreadsheets. Here’s the bad news for older workers and the organizations they work for: I consistently found that several of the software problems older workers face are caused by cognitive changes that come with age.


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It takes them longer to process information. It is harder for them to ignore distractions such as instant messages or system notifications. And they find it harder to figure out novel situations, such as trying out new office technology. In one study I conducted, older workers reported using, on average, just 0.5 of six new features in Excel 2019. Younger workers used an average of two of the new features regularly.

This isn’t true, of course, for all employees. But it’s true for enough of them that it can cause problems in an organization.

The story doesn’t end there, however. While managers can’t stop cognitive decline, there are all sorts of things they can do to help older workers increase their productivity and experience less stress when using office technology. As one human-resources director told me, “You cannot lower the performance expectations for older employees, but you have to adapt the working conditions.”

Here’s some advice for making technology less painful for older workers—to the benefit of both the workers and organizations—drawn from my research and interviews with managers and older workers.

Train and train again

It seems like repeated training for older workers would be a no-brainer, especially when major changes occur to software or other systems.

Yet even though HR typically recommends such training, many managers don’t follow through.

For one thing, it is expensive and time-consuming. And, managers figure, older workers close to retirement will use that training for a much shorter time than younger ones will.

It is a shortsighted attitude that hurts older workers and the company itself. Continual training on new software features improves memory and helps older workers process information at faster speeds. It also lets them use technology more comfortably and intuitively, instead of struggling with it—all of which more than makes up for the cost and inconvenience.

There is also the matter of self-confidence. When they feel surer of themselves, and more IT-savvy, older workers are motivated to make fuller use of what workplace technology has to offer.

Train face to face

It is important to do that training right, however. And one crucial part of that is training older workers face to face and not online.

Unlike younger workers, who are often more comfortable doing things remotely, older workers place greater emphasis and value on in-person interactions. They are reassuring, they stimulate more positive emotions, and they require fewer cognitive resources.

In my research I found one type of training had a particularly big payoff: mentorship programs that pair older workers with expert users. Instead of going to formal training sessions, older workers can call on these users at the precise moment they need help. This approach is also more informal and friendly, so that older workers feel more comfortable about seeking advice.

Fix search engines

Not all of the changes fall on managers’ shoulders. Software designers must develop software and websites that are friendly to older users.

One important change would be using search engines that make it easier to find information.

Think about how search engines typically work. You type in a phrase and get back an extensive list of results that you need to hunt through to get what you want. The answer you want will usually be hidden among things you don’t need at all.

Searching through all that can be taxing for older workers, who process information at lower speeds. For instance, in one study I conducted, workers must substitute a series of symbols for numbers based on a code they have been given. Older workers substituted 16 symbols for digits, on average, in 90 seconds, whereas younger ones substituted 21.

How to make search engines less taxing? There is an approach called “faceted” search, where you type in a phrase and instead of getting a list of links all lumped together, the search engine first organizes the links into big, broad categories and lets you choose which one you want to see—making things much easier to process. (You would also have the option to use a conventional search approach if you prefer.)

Let’s say you type in a search term such as “account.” You aren’t shown any links yet. Instead, you see a list of five categories clearly related to the search term—perhaps assets, liabilities, equity, revenue and expenses.

If you then click on, say, “assets,” you see the search results that concern assets—but you also have the option to click on additional, narrower categories to focus your search even further. With “assets,” you might have the option to drill down to search results for checking, petty cash or accounts receivable.

Along the way, there would be a clearly marked trail to show you all the clicks you have made, so if you want to backtrack, you won’t get lost.

Less distracting distractions

It is also important to cut down on the on-screen interruptions that older workers must face. In an experiment I conducted with over 100 older and younger people, I discovered that older workers have a harder time ignoring distractions, such as meeting reminders or alerts for incoming calls, because they have impaired selective attention. If these messages and alerts always appeared at the same location, older workers could easily predict where they would occur—and make them less of an interruption.

Don’t generalize

Talk of diminishing capacities and struggles with IT should not be a pretext for underestimating older workers. My research results are based on averages, and don’t apply to all employees. Some of those who are 60 or older may even perform faster and do better work with IT than younger ones.

And almost all older workers have strengths that can help them compensate for cognitive decline. Abilities like information-processing speed decline with age, but ones like transferring knowledge from one application to another improve. Office 365 provides a good example. Since Word and Excel are structured similarly, older workers who are already familiar with Word can more easily transfer their knowledge of its menu structure and its labels to Excel.

Any kind of discrimination against older workers is unacceptable. Organizations simply need to give these employees the opportunity to excel by providing them with suitable system designs and the right conditions for working with IT productively. Office software doesn’t have to be the bane of older workers.

Dr. Tams is an associate professor in the department of information technologies at HEC Montréal. He can be reached at