It was a millennial who helped Choice Financial figure out how to connect employees scattered among its 20 mostly rural branches in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Samantha Berg, Choice's director of employee development, said that the Fargo, N.D., company had long wanted to foster closer relationships between its roughly 250 employees. But with branches in far-flung towns like Comfey, Minn., and Dickinson, N.D. — nearly 300 miles from its headquarters — regular employee get-togethers were impossible.

Then Tim Heilman, its chief information officer, hit upon an idea: Equip bank employees with videophones. He initially suggested it to Chief Executive Brian Johnson in 2013 and, within a year, had received approval to supply 10 millennial employees with the phones as a test.

They took to the devices quickly — millennials "may not all be tech savvy, but they are all tech dependent," Berg said — and today everyone at the $1.1 billion-asset company has a videophone and is required to use it whenever communicating with co-workers. The result is that Choice employees are starting to develop tighter, more meaningful relationships with each other, even at a distance.

That's the type of fresh thinking millennials can bring to banks that are sometimes stuck on the way things have always been done. While it's a demographic that comes with its challenges, Choice is among the banks finding millennials can be a huge asset, often in ways that make banks work better.

Some of the very challenges millennials introduce — whether it is pushing the limits on dress codes, seeking more benefits, demanding flexible schedules or asking for frequent feedback on performance — also can turn banks into better places to work for employees of all ages.

Choice has made a conscious decision in recent years to hire more millennial employees, and many have already moved into managerial positions, thanks to a promote-from-within policy that comes with many hours of mentoring. Heilman was 26 years old when he began working at Choice in 2006, and was promoted to CIO four years later.

A comfort with technology is one advantage banks cite for seeking out millennial hires. But some banks also are targeting millennials on the premise that they bring extra energy to the workplace — even if they have no financial training.

Benchmark Bank in Plano, Texas, is one example. Wendy Skorburg joined the $495 million-asset bank in 2008, after she graduated from divinity school. Skorburg, then 26, was new to the area at the time and applied at the bank just to have a job.

She ended up working in Benchmark's internal auditing department, despite having no accounting training. The bank paid for the training she needed to become certified as a community bank internal auditor and today, at 33, she is senior vice president for risk management.

"We hire a lot of people right out of college — history majors, education majors — based on personality," Skorburg said.

She highly recommends the approach to other banks. "Be willing to hire people with absolutely no experience. So many of our inexperienced hires prove to be incredible employees and have packed Benchmark with talent."

Sammie Dixon, a millennial himself, founded Prime Meridian Bank in Tallahassee, Fla., in 2008. His now $264 million-asset bank has 57 employees, 41% of them millennials.

"I love hiring them — they're optimistic," Dixon said. "Older bankers, who've lived through the fiscal crisis, are afraid to try things."

All new hires at Prime Meridian — even executives — start off as tellers. "We find that the best way to get people into the bank is to have them work as a teller for six months and to cross-train them as personal bankers," Dixon said.

He is well aware that millennials value mentoring and speedy promotions, and many of his hires have been given management posts after participating in a one-on-one mentoring program.

Happiness on the job and a sense of control over one's work are often cited as keys to attracting and retaining millennials, said Karyn Twaronite, a partner at EY who has done research on millennials in the workplace.

The top three reasons millennials quit their jobs are excessive hours, a lack of flexibility and a real or perceived penalty for taking advantage of flexible working hours, Twaronite said, citing findings from a recent EY survey of 10,000 millennials.

The high value that millennials put on flexible hours ties in with their desire to spend time with their children and partners and to achieve overall work-life balance, she said. "They want benefits like parental leave and 38% even say they'd be willing to move to another country to get it."

These are values that resonate with many of our Best Banks to Work For. Benchmark even allows its controller, a millennial, to live and work halfway across the country in Pennsylvania, where her husband is employed.

Machias Savings Bank in Maine goes farther than most with its flex time policy, though. Millennials make up 39% of the workforce at the bank, which started offering "family flex time" to all staff in 2013 and doubled the amount of time awarded this year.

Now employees receive 16 hours of paid time off to spend with the families — beyond their normal vacation and sick days — said Danielle Caricofe, a senior vice president in human resources at the $1.2 billion-asset bank.

Employees are encouraged to use that time to go to their children's athletic or school events. But, "we don't narrow the scope of 'family' to children," Caricofe said. "We know that family means something different to everyone, whether it be a spouse, child, parent, sibling or even a pet."

The intent of the flex-time policy is to promote work-life balance, she said. "We used to say that we encourage you to spend time with your families and have a healthy work-life balance," Caricofe said. "Now we will pay you to do it."

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