This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

When Erica Kilpatrick talks about her workplace, she uses language every human-resources manager dreams of: "It's definitely a place I want to stay, within the WellStar system, probably for the rest of my career."

How many employers get to hear that? Especially in the health care sector, which is constantly battling labor shortages in an environment that demands professional services 24 hours a day, every day?

WellStar Health System, a health care network with more than 12,000 employees in Marietta, Ga., has worked hard for its beloved reputation among workers. The nonprofit was one of Working Mother's top 10 family-friendly employers to work for this year, it has been in Fortune magazine's list of top 100 employers, and it is a six-time honoree of the Society for Human Resource Management's "When Work Works" award.

There are a lot of reasons for these honors. WellStar is one of the few nongovernment employers that provides workers a traditional pension plan. It offers other rarities like an on-site day-care center and a concierge to pick up workers' dry cleaning, take their cars for oil changes, or do their grocery shopping. You read that right. This organization isn't kidding around about employee satisfaction.

But these services, as awesome as they are, aren't what gets Kilpatrick excited. It's WellStar's new online scheduling system developed by Avantas, called Smart Square, which allows her to pick her own work days. As a registered nurse who specializes in emergency care, Kilpatrick's life is dictated by her three 12-hour shifts a week, which can occur at any of WellStar's five area hospitals. Lately, she is spending most of her off-hours at the hospital as well, attending to her mother, who has been in intensive and critical care for almost a month after a ruptured stomach ulcer and is also chronically ill with lung disease.

"My stepdad and I work opposite schedules. Someone's there at all times," Kilpatrick says.

Kilpatrick, like most people, doesn't have the luxury of turning off her life's demands when she is at work. But as a nurse, she must ensure that no-work responsibilities don't creep up when she's on the job. That's why WellStar places such a premium on taking care of those needs, to the point of paying other people to do their household errands for them.

In some ways, WellStar's employee services fill the role of the stereotypical 1950s wife, and that's a bonus for employee retention. "It's also true that 83 percent of employees at WellStar are female," says Tyler Pearson, the company's public-relation's director. "You look at benefits and things that they want—there is an expense to this, but it is well worth it."

Human resources professionals have been placing a premium on work-life balance for years, often by urging managers to be generous with telecommuting or flexible scheduling. Public-opinion surveys also show that workplace flexibility is one of the most important factors in a person's decision to stay with an employer or join another. But the easiest answers for workplace flexibility—telecommuting and flexible scheduling—can't happen in jobs like nursing or shop-floor manufacturing, which require a rigid adherence to shifts. The most forward-thinking employers in the health and manufacturing industries have struggled with how to find other ways to help their shift workers manage their non-work responsibilities.

As it turns out, what those workers generally want is advance notice of their schedules. In the best-case scenarios, they can also choose their shifts. "It's all about giving the employee some kind of control," says Lisa Horn, congressional-affairs director at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Horn says some employers are reluctant to cede control of scheduling out of sheer fear. "They think, 'If I let them all schedule themselves, aren't they all going to just pick the good shifts?' Now, a lot of people would embrace working what I would call weird hours," she says.

WellStar's scheduling system has built-in parameters that ensure its nurses work their required holiday and weekend shifts. Managers also have the ultimate say over how the final schedule looks. The biggest difference is in the attitude the system creates as a collaborative way for workers and their managers to make the schedule. Shifts are not decreed from the top down.

There are some downsides. Moving to a fancy scheduling app, like any house renovation, comes with upfront costs and headaches. Scheduling nursing shifts is particularly dicey because there are rules dictating the nurse-to-patient ratios. Patient counts aren't always easy to predict, which can lead to last-minute changes. It's not uncommon for hospitals to make scheduling decisions just 24 hours in advance on weekdays and 48 hours in advance for weekends or holidays, according to the American Nurses Association.

WellStar has always been more deliberate in scheduling, setting hospital shifts at least a month in advance as a rule. But before Smart Square, each hospital in the network had its own set of patient and work logs, so it was difficult to look for patterns across the whole organization. It took some legwork to change it, but the system is now more finely tuned to demand. Eight weeks out, managers can use data from all hospitals to determine what shifts they will need and where they will need them. Then they give the employees the chance to sign up.

"It definitely has opened up that ability for the nurse to have a lot more control over his or her schedule. It's not, 'I'm hiring you specifically for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and you'd better be there on those days.' This way is a lot more fluid," says Kris Betts, WellStar's assistant vice president for workforce engineering.

Even absent the complexities of caring for her ill mother, Kilpatrick says the new scheduling system has smoothed out frustrations shared by many of her coworkers. The smartphone app helps them keep track of upcoming shifts and allows them to sign up for extra shifts if they need the additional pay or to trade with one another at the last minute.

The patient predictions enabled by the system are especially helpful to Kilpatrick, who serves five WellStar hospitals as part of an emergency-services team. Before the new system came online, she would be scheduled to work at one hospital but sometimes would be sent home due to lack of patients. She would learn only later that another hospital needed her.

Now, the new data-driven system uses up-to-the-minute patient logs to determine where she should be working on a given day. Kilpatrick learns 90 minutes before her shift starts which hospital she will go to. That initially took some getting used to, but she says she likes the variety. "Smart Square equalizes everything. I get called to where the greatest need is."

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.

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