It's not just about salary-it's about building communities and rethinking the basic compact between a company, its employees, and the world.

On a Monday morning, a father dressing for work receives that dreaded phone call: the babysitter’s down with a cold. He then calls the office, setting in motion an all-too-familiar chain: A day of work missed, a crucial meeting rescheduled, a deadline extended, a customer frustrated. Now multiply that incident tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of times. It’s not hard to understand why absences related to childcare cost U.S. companies $3 billion each year.

To stem those losses, and to extend a helping hand to their employees, seven in 10 employers now provide financial assistance for childcare—and a small but growing number of companies even offer access to emergency care when an employee’s regular arrangements fall through. Yet no sooner does a company address an issue like this, it seems, than other employee needs arise. Millennials want the flexibility to work from home. Dads want paternity leave. Boomers and Gen Xers need time to care for aging parents.

For many companies, deciding whether and how to respond to these concerns is a matter of weighing each one’s specific costs and benefits. But there’s another way to view such issues—not as isolated needs to be addressed ad hoc, but as interlocking elements of a fundamental transformation in the way people think about work. “Our workplaces were designed in the "Mad Men" era,” says Joshua Levs, a former CNN journalist and author of "All In," a book on workplace parenting policies. With those days long gone, companies that seek to grow responsibly are embracing and investing in new approaches designed to help workers feel happier and more productive across all aspects of their lives.

“Investing in our workforce to create an environment where teammates can thrive is central to our responsible growth strategy,” says Brian Moynihan, chief executive officer of Bank of America. “Our goal is straightforward: We want to be the best place for our employees to work, so we have a mix of policies to put that into practice. Our success is dependent on our employees feeling they can be successful.”

Our goal is straightforward: We want to be the best place for our employees to work, so we have a mix of policies to put that into practice. Our success is dependent on our employees feeling they can be successful.

Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America

Keeping productivity high

Although more and more Americans want flexibility in how, when, and where they work, that doesn’t mean they’re looking to slack off. To the contrary, Americans still work nearly 20% harder and take less vacation time than Europeans do, according to Bloomberg. And not just because U.S. employers insist on it. In a 2015 study by Pew Research Center, Americans rallied around the belief that their accomplishments on the job enable them to control their destinies. On a scale of 1 to 10, 73% of Americans rated work a “10” as essential to personal achievement—compared with a global median of just 50% holding that view.

Yet if Americans haven’t lost their legendary work ethic, they’re clearly reconsidering how work and career meld with other demands in their lives. In fact, the very notion of “work-life balance” seems outdated, as it implies two elements of equal—but separate—weight. Today’s employees seek a more seamless integration between the two, one that bypasses traditional gender stereotypes and emphasizes commitments to family and community. For example, Levs says, “Today most men want to care for their children more, and women want to come back to work. You cannot attract and retain today’s moms and dads without policies that help them do that.”

Tackling turnover

And for managers today, few questions are more vexing than how to retain valuable employees. In many fields, it’s a job seeker’s market, and millennial employees often look for their next position the way they shop for anything else, comparing notes with friends on social media and reading online reviews about the culture and benefits of companies they’re considering.

Turnover among this age group—now the largest generation of American workers—costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion each year. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 21% of millennials changed jobs in the preceding year, more than triple the rate of older workers. For individual companies, the Center for American Progress pegs the cost of replacing an employee at approximately 20% of that person’s annual salary, factoring in lost work while the position is vacant, the expense of recruiting and hiring, and lower productivity as the replacement learns the job.

Yet there’s no need for companies to simply accept that their most talented workers have one eye trained on the door. Despite millennials’ have-smartphone-will-travel reputation, there’s growing evidence that they, perhaps even more than their parents and grandparents, have a yearning to put down roots. A 2017 study by Pew showed that when it comes to establishing homes, millennials move less frequently than other generations. While housing costs and the slow economic recovery may have something to do with that, a 2015 Florida State University study noted that younger Americans “desire a sense of community and connection to their surroundings.”

1. Apart from salary and health insurance, what’s the most important benefit in a potential new job?

amount of paid time off
0%
parental leave policy
0%
availability of onsite emergency daycare
0%
flexible work schedule
0%

2. The quality you value most in a workplace is:

racial and ethnic diversity among employees
0%
opportunities for advancement
0%
family-friendly policies
0%
onsite amenities like concierge services and gyms
0%

3. What’s more important: how much you earn, or your ability to either work from home or set your own schedule?

how much I earn
0%
ability to work from home/set my own schedule
0%

Supporting stronger communities

That gives companies an opportunity to hold on to their best employees by establishing themselves as not just a workplace, but an essential part of their communities. At the broadest level, doing this includes a concerted effort to be good corporate citizens by taking steps to protect the environment, and by making sure their products and policies are good for society as well as profitable. Such issues are increasingly on the radar of all employees, especially women and younger workers.

Community support also means fostering a diverse workforce, born out of the recognition that by offering greater opportunities for women and minorities, companies can grow in constructive directions and serve a changing customer base. The media and information giant Thomson Reuters, for example, not only insists that recruiters find diverse applicants for all open positions, but last year mandated that panels conducting job interviews must themselves be diverse. “By bringing in more diverse minds, we increase innovation, productivity, and ultimately the bottom line,” says Patsy Doerr, the firm’s global head of corporate social responsibility and inclusion.

Bank of America’s U.S. workforce is now more than 40% racially and ethnically diverse, its executive team more than one-third female—both good reasons that it was recognized last year as the world’s leading bank in diversity and inclusion policies by Euromoney magazine. In receiving the award, Sheri Bronstein, Bank of America’s global human resources executive, noted, “Having a diverse and inclusive workplace is core to who we are as a company. Our diversity makes us stronger and is essential to our ability to meet the needs of our customers and clients.”

By bringing in more diverse minds, we increase innovation, productivity, and ultimately the bottom line

Patsy Doerr, Global head of corporate social responsibility and inclusion, Thomson Reuters

The rewards of being responsive

In the end, companies that support employees in the ways employees find most important—with policies that help them navigate increasingly complicated lives— have a clear advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining talented workers. Not only that, it’s a way of enhancing a company’s reputation beyond a specific industry or geographical location.

But most of all, by understanding and addressing what employees need today, employers can become more productive, and ultimately more successful. As Doerr from Thomson Reuters puts it, “It’s all about the business case. It’s not a soft exercise.”