Businesses can lead the way on family-friendly workplaces

By Jenny Dearborn and Chris Lu

Businesses can play a critical role in advancing the needs of workers beyond simply providing a paycheck. Businesses can also ensure that workers, families, and communities are healthy and thriving. 

The convenient media narrative offers a zero-sum perspective: what’s good for workers must be bad for a company’s bottom line. In reality, many successful businesses have adopted practices that prioritize the needs of their workers through policies that allow them to thrive both at work and at home. All around the country, companies of various sizes, across many industries, have discovered that putting workers first can lead to a significant increase in productivity, recruitment of top talent, and employee retention.

The national dialogue about the future of work often focuses on fundamental shifts like artificial intelligence, robots, and driverless cars. But, it’s not just work that’s changing. It’s also the workforce.

Employees are working for more employers during their lifetimes – often at the same time. In addition to a skills gap, employees are also increasingly juggling the caregiving needs of both their children and their parents, and are interested in more flexible working arrangements.

As the composition of the workforce evolves, businesses are evolving by adopting policies on equitable pay, paid family leave and sick days, secure retirement options, childcare, updated scheduling practices, and more. While paid family and medical leave garners daily headlines around the country, these polices, when implemented in tandem, can create a noticeable uptick in employee engagement.

SAP is a great example of a company that sees the interconnected nature of productivity, performance, and robust benefits. At SAP, every one percent in the employee engagement index creates a $40-50 million increase in operating profits.

While companies like SAP are proudly committed to these practices, too many American workers continue to be employed by organizations that do not offer holistic support systems. The result is a lack of engagement. Gallup reports: “85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work. The economic consequences of this global ‘norm’ are approximately $7 trillion in lost productivity.”

The question remains: if we know the human impact, why are U.S. workers marginalized when it comes to paid leave? In reality, even for companies that recognize the value of paid leave in promoting a thriving workforce, there isn’t a direct understanding of how this policy impacts the bottom line. Much more work is needed to measure the return on investment to strengthen the business case for paid leave.

In the past, demonstrating the business case for workplace policies like equal pay and banning the box has helped drive their adoption. Similarly, it’s critical to collect and share data on how paid leave policies affect recruitment, retention, productivity, and employee health.

That’s why two nonprofits, Panorama and JUST Capital, have created a research project to measure the impact of paid leave policies. SAP is proud to be part of this growing effort to build the business case for worker-centric policies such as paid family and medical leave. Companies are invited to publicly share their data through The Paid Leave Pledge.

When businesses put employees first, they create a workplace culture that is built on a foundation of mutual respect. Think of it as a new investment portfolio. Start by adding one new enhancement to an existing program, for example, allowing the use of sick days to care for a family member. Consider a brand-new offering like flexible work hours, or breast milk shipping for new moms that need to travel. Work your way up to expanded paid time off for new parents. Once you start, it becomes easy to add to your portfolio of worker-centric policies and programs. Employees will take notice of the changes, and that makes it easier to recruit and retain a high-quality workforce.

If companies are willing to engage in this effort, they can help ensure that the future of work means a prosperous economy for all. After all, an employee shouldn’t have to win the boss lottery to be able to live a balanced life both in and out of the office.

Jenny Dearborn is Executive Vice President for Human Resources and Global Lead for Talent, Leadership, Organizational Effectiveness and Learning at SAP, the world’s largest business to business software company. Chris Lu served as the Deputy Secretary of Labor during the Obama Administration. He is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center and is an advisor to Panorama, a Seattle-based nonprofit that is spearheading the Paid Leave Pledge.