by Anne Bahr Thompson and Kim Essency Pillari*

Over the past five years, sentiment about work and workplaces has evolved notably. Today, companies of all sizes are focused on employee engagement and employee well-being as the landscape in which businesses operate shifted with the confluence of Millennials in the workforce and the growth of social media. Alongside these factors, the importance of fostering meaningful relationships with employees has jumped to the top of many CEO agendas. The companies that people identify as great places to work understand both the practical realities and underlying forces that define a rewarding and fulfilling employee experience.

As early as 2014, a CultureQ® study into how people define their ideal employer revealed that Millennials, more so than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, seek a friendly, supportive work environment; opportunities for social engagement; a commitment to volunteerism; good values and a leadership reputation; and life enriching experiences. Deloitte, PwC, McKinsey & Company, and many others have conducted studies that have uncovered similar insights. It’s no wonder a number of employers in Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For now offer sabbaticals for employees to explore their passions — and get paid for doing so.

Practically, companies are more exposed than ever—inside and out.

As headlines continuously demonstrate, social media has changed the landscape for employer decision making, and for some companies even more so than it has for investor announcements. In the days of in-person communications and paper-based handouts, companies were minimally concerned that an employee might leak a story about lay-offs or benefit cuts to a local reporter in advance. And few corporate executives were concerned about questionable policies and procedures being exposed. Today, employees snap pictures and take videos of factory operations on their phones, post their images on social media, and in seconds reach national, if not global, audiences in the thousands.

The quitting economy is hurting brand reputations and costing companies a significant amount of money.

Wanting to be treated well and fairly by your employer is not new. Nor is cultivating a happy workforce or more enjoyable employee experience. Since the height of the Industrial Revolution, employers have equated employee benefits with the output of higher-quality products and better employee recruitment and retention.

Long before Millennials entered the workforce, nineteenth-century industrialists understood that happier employees were more productive workers. Post–World War II, companies offered perks as they sought to recruit and retain the most talented workers from a limited pool. As the labor force grew, however, workers became more dispensable. And in the 1970’s when companies began to lay off middle management downsizing to distribute greater earnings to shareholders, the needs of employees shifted to a secondary concern. Today, employees are again being highlighted because of the price of job switching on the economy.

Based on Gallup estimates, Millennial turnover costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion in turnover annually. More so than prior generations, Millennials are less loyal to companies and more focused on their own priorities. Gallup’s 2016 study, How Millennials Want to Work and Live, reported that 21 percent of Millennials, more than three times the number of non-Millennials, say they’ve changed jobs within the past year. Similarly, a Jobvite study found that 42 percent of Millennials change jobs every one to three years. Gallup further uncovered that 60 percent of Millennials are open to a different job opportunity, as compared to 45 percent of non-Millennials.

People want to work for companies whose missions reflect and reinforce their values.

In many ways, who we work for says something about who we are and what’s important to us to our family and friends. As Gallup found in State of the American Workplace, “The modern workforce knows what’s important to them and isn’t going to settle. Employees are willing to look and keep looking for a company that’s mission and culture reflect and reinforce their values.”

People today have so many more choices about the type of work they do; college graduates especially are no longer limited to big accounting firms, well known CPG firms, and other stalwarts. They can, and will, work across the spectrum of companies, ranging from artisanal designers to tech start-ups to social enterprises and even mature corporations. Regardless of the type or size of company, they expect and demand a meaningful experience that is consistent with their belief system.

Workplaces are becoming like communities, especially for Millennials and Gen Z.

Beyond wanting to feel good about where they work, employees are seeking an experience of belonging and wish to find workplaces where they “fit in” rather than ones they have to mold to. People join communities to interact with other people who share a common social identity or a common goal. And to remain relevant, communities must be like living organisms, continually morphing with members’ evolving needs, interests, and rituals. These forces mean employers have an even greater responsibility to ensure their workplaces are inclusive and connecting employees and their roles to one another, and the company’s purpose.

Employees champion companies that champion them.

Traditionally companies have looked to nurture employees who will advocate for them. A Weber Shandwick study, Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism,  found “Nearly six in 10 (56%) respondents surveyed have either defended their employer to family and friends or in a more public venue — such as on a website, blog, or in a newspaper.” Yet, as Anne’s research into Brand Citizenship® consistently demonstrated, today people demand their employers advocate for the things that matter most to them before demonstrating their loyalty for their employers publicly.

Employers can cultivate more meaningful relationships, develop a more fulfilling employee experience, and simultaneously harnesses the power of employees to enhance their brands through a focus on five activities:

1.  Build trust by living up to your promises: Today, a fair salary and benefits, the basis of trust in the workplace, are expected. Policies that promote transparency in operations and decision making, and that ensure people are acknowledged regularly and praised for a job well done are also crucial for fostering trust.

2.  Interact on their level: People yearn for supportive managers that recognize them as individual people; rewards for and implementation of good ideas; egalitarian organizational structures; professional and personal development programs; and project assignments that make the employee experience more varied and exciting.

3.  Nurture their sense of belonging: A sense of ‘belonging’ and participating in a culture that mirrors our values has always strengthened the employee experience. People aspire to spend time in cohesive and supportive work environments that recognize them as individuals, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. They wish to connect with co-workers who share their values and interests, not just career stages and job functions.

4.  Help them achieve life balance: When fulfilling, work is part of life, not the enemy of it as work-life balance often implies. With flexible work schedules and remote working increasing, employers should think more holistically and craft an employee experience focused on making work more enjoyable: flexible paid time off, gym breaks during the work day, team outings, community service days, lunchtime book groups, job sharing, and more can make work more covetable.

5.  Be a platform for exploring potential and actualizing aspirations: View each and every job as essential to creating the whole – and ensure employees understand how they individually play an important part in achieving both financial goals and the company’s larger purpose. Workshops to identify personal aspirations can be supported by tools that link personal drivers with team and organizational goals, and achieved through sabbaticals, secondments and special projects to pursue passions and develop new skills.

Finding purpose at work is in the spotlight. And fulfillment through work is the future. Attracting and retaining the right talent helps a company thrive. And great places to work know employee fulfillment is about more than motivating employees with financial incentives and benefits. It’s about giving meaning to the work they do every day.

*Kim Essency Pillari is Director, HR Communications and Employee Engagement, at AIG. She specializes in executive, change, crisis management, and employee engagement communications across digital and traditional channels. Kim communicates business strategies and priorities to drive employee engagement and create brand ambassadors.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the view of AIG.