What's the Big Idea?

The backbone of every organization is its people. We know this to be true. Workers are the fundamental source of productivity and the drivers of innovation, especially in the knowledge economy. Happy workers save employers crucial time, money, and energy by being actively committed to their jobs and staying in them longer. By Gallup's estimation, employee disengagement costs more than $300 billion in the U.S. annually -- an economic pitfall if ever there was one. 

And even in a recession, the most talented people will always be attracted to roles at companies where their efforts are clearly appreciated and rewarded. An increasing number of American businesses are recognizing the competitive necessity of building and retaining an engaged workforce. But few have a clear-cut strategy for doing so.

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A vague sense that job satisfaction and work-life balance programs are important is not enough. Companies that don't provide exceptional benefits packages (including not just vacation days, but leave options such as flex time) risk losing everything. "If you’re dealing with creative people, you should treat them like they make a difference," says Jim Goodnight, founder and CEO of SAS, the largest privately owned software company in the US. "I often say that 95 percent of my assets drive out of the front gate every night, and it’s my job to make sure they come back the next day." 

Work-life balance is the second most sought-after attribute in an employer, ranking just below compensation as a priority of jobseekers. Yet nearly a third of American employers are out of compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires large organizations to provide at least 12 weeks of unpaid maternity or sick leave to anyone who has worked 1,250 hours the preceding year. 

Too often, managers see work-life balance as the sole responsibility of employees. That's a mistake. Goodnight's argument is that the annoying, everyday distractions that arise in all of our lives inhibit creativity, which makes them his problem too. Employees who are worried about how long a doctor's appointment will take or whether they'll be able to pick up the dry cleaning by six are not able to focus fully on the task at hand. And let's face it: no matter how good we are at multi-tasking, we're all thinking about these issues some of the time. 

Employers who enable us to check off our to-do lists are not just nice, they're smart. 

What's the Significance?

"I think the job of the CEO is to help alleviate as much stress as possible on the people that work there," says Goodnight. "We want some good stress -- if you’ve got a deadline that’s coming up -- but we don’t need the stress like... 'I need to leave and drop something here or there' or ‘I’ve got to drive across town for a medical exam. We try to do as much of that kind of stuff as we can right here, right on campus."

Founded by Goodnight in 1976, SAS has been ranked as a top company to work for by Fortune for the last 15 years. Every employee is offered subsidized Montessori child care, unlimited sick time, intramural sports leagues, and the use of a free health care center staffed with 25 doctors and nurses. The company has the lowest turnover rate in the industry -- just 2%.

As one manager told Fortune, "People stay at SAS in large part because they are happy, but to dig a little deeper, I would argue that people don’t leave SAS because they feel regarded -- seen, attended to and cared for. I have stayed for that reason, and love what I do for that reason."

Which leads us to wonder, what would happen if healthcare and fulfilment were available to everyone on the job?