Do employers care about happy employees?

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesA few years ago the phrase "war for talent" was all the rage in discussions of hiring trends. The thinking was that as aging boomers started to move out of the workforce, there would be a fight to capture the young people rushing in to take their places.

Consultants gave advice about how to court younger workers who craved different things than their boomer predecessors, and authors and bloggers wrote volumes about demystifying this new breed of worker. (Here's a post I wrote about this for the New York Times back in 2007.)

Then the economy fell apart and talk of firing replaced talk of hiring. But it's possible that all that talent war talk is coming back. A new research report published by the Center for Work-Life Policy and covered in this month's Harvard Business Review, suggests that employers are already thinking about how they will compete for the most talented workers once the economy springs back to life. {Sorry, both the study and the article are only available for a fee.)

The report focused on something I've been thinking for some time, which is that older and younger workers are craving the same things -- "flexibility, personal growth, connections, and opportunities to give back." So the idea is that great employers will incorporate these concepts into the way jobs are structured -- both to retain aging workers who want to scale down rather than retire and to attract younger workers who want to work in a flexible, purpose-filled way.

This all sounds great in theory, but with job cutbacks still hitting record numbers, it is hard to believe that senior managers are spending their days brainstorming about how to woo the best and the brightest. That's why I was fascinated by the final section of the report, which highlighted innovative efforts already in the works at various companies. A few examples:

CVS: Snowbirds -- Recognizing that many senior workers want to live in different places during different times of the year, CVS started a program to let employees transfer to different pharmacy store locations on a seasonal basis.

UBS: Investment Bank Graduate Deferral Program -- In 2008, with offers extended to a new group of hires, but not enough work to keep them busy, the firm offered those who had accepted offers a chance to defer their work for one year and instead do public interest work while receiving a stipend of 1/2 their starting salary plus health insurance benefits. In its first year, 43 candidates took part in the program.

Citi: Alternative Workplace Strategy -- Citi's corporate real estate division started a program to more efficiently use its office and create a more environmentally friendly atmosphere by encouraging people who work largely online or by phone to work remotely or participate in office-share arrangements based on people's schedules.

While I'm still having a hard time believing that employers are currently focused on catering to employees' wishes about their workplaces, I am seeing some signs that companies are thinking of how to attract and retain good people once recovery arrives. I got a call last week about a speaking gig for a Fortune 500 company trying to find ways to keep its eligible-for-retirement employees a few years longer. They recognize they have talent and that it would be expensive to lose those folks. So they are helping those employees prepare for the next stage of life. It's nice to hear about employers who are still investing in their people. Now if only they'd start hiring new ones.

What do you think? Are you seeing any signs that employers are planning for a recovery or catering to their employees in this market?