cross-training staff

Cross-training staff: A guide to effective implementation

Cross-training staff has long been viewed as a useful way to groom future managers. Today, the practice has moved beyond managerial candidates to all levels, and there are good reasons behind this change.

In the past, up-and-coming talent spent time in every aspect of their business and had to demonstrate a base level of proficiency before they could move into leadership roles. The theory behind this traditional approach was that managers who better knew the inner workings of the business would be better prepared to lead. Over time, this method fell out of favor.

Recently, the practice has been revived and applied to rank-and-file employees. The intention is to strengthen teams, give employees more opportunities to advance and create redundancies in case key team members leave. It can be useful to prepare a company for dealing with challenges presented by unforeseen emergencies, such as a sudden death, a disaster or a pandemic.

While cross-training may seem like a no-brainer, it’s not without risks and requires planning to be carried out well. In other words, successful cross-training requires more than simply teaching employees new skills and plugging them into different or unfamiliar roles as needed.

Although the process takes time to develop and implement, it can help employees, clients and your business. Doing it wrong, however, can negatively impact morale – and potentially be costly to your bottom line.

Here’s what to know when cross-training staff:

Why is cross-training employees important?

Cross-training is about developing employees to improve the business and customer experience. It allows employees to expand their skills and knowledge on a job because they work on new projects and gain the skills necessary for specialization or a more senior role.

For businesses, cross-training helps ensure stability and provides valuable flexibility across teams. Any organization without backups for key roles can grind to a halt if key personnel are unavailable. Cross-trained staff can provide safeguards for these contingencies.

The company can also benefit from a service perspective by deepening employees’ understanding of the business. Exposure to different roles allows employees to see how what they do impacts the business and how the various roles contribute to the company’s goals.

Then, when a key employee goes on vacation or leaves the company, a trained team member can step in to the vacant role. This helps the company, particularly in a service environment, because it allows for better coverage of key jobs.

Some firms learned the value of having employees who can handle expanded duties from disaster recovery situations. They didn’t have enough people for all the roles and wound up putting their business at risk while in disaster recovery mode.

Cross-training staff also helps preserve institutional knowledge through inevitable staff turnover.

Imagine if a tenured employee decides to retire after 20 years on the job. That’s two decades of collected knowledge and experience walking out the door.

In this instance, you should implement purposeful cross-training that will allow uninterrupted completion of those duties, while capturing the institutional knowledge of the retiring employee. Consider pairing the retiring employee with a capable replacement to learn the role over an extended transition period.

While this scenario is reactionary, a pro-active cross-training program can mitigate risks of information loss long before an employee decides to retire or quit.

Are your processes clearly defined?

Cross-training needs to be consistent, planned and organized.

Define what makes the role successful. What will be accomplished and what knowledge and skills will be required? Be specific. The cross-trained employee should know exactly what the new work entails and what is expected.

From there, determine if your process or steps are accurate, usually the person in the role can validate the process. If not, then make adjustments. Like any new process, things work better after a few iterations.

The goal is to build and fine tune a plan to consistently cross-train employees for a critical role or specific skills. This process is similar to what would occur when onboarding a new employee.

Remember: Employees are learning something new and will need support. There will be a learning curve. Allow for this in the implementation period.

Can you clearly communicate the goals and the risks involved?

Help employees understand your strategy behind why they’re being cross-trained.

From the outset, clearly communicate your rationale and goals. Begin by selling them on how individual employees may benefit:

Beyond that, talk about how the experience and training will help the company. Paint the larger picture for them.

If presented correctly, cross-training can be an opportunity to get staff members excited about taking on new types of assignments and growing their careers while helping the company.

Managing resistance

Be especially thoughtful about how you approach employees who stonewall your coaching efforts.

Note that some people may see the addition of another task as punishment, which could lead to dissatisfaction because you are adding to their workload. Or staff cross training others may fear they’re about to be replaced.

Try to anticipate and address these worries upfront. If anxiety arises anyway, work quickly to dispel any rumors. Refocus the conversation on the benefits to individual employees, the team and the company.

Communication is critical. Be honest about your intentions. If employees know they’re learning new skills in preparation for possible advancement down the road, they may be more receptive.

If you don’t get buy-in from your team – cross trainers and trainees alike, negative sentiment of the training program could spread. Consequently, others may not want to participate in future training opportunities. It could be viewed as additional responsibility without a corresponding pay raise.

Another risk: employees who were not asked to cross-train may resent being excluded. In this instance, explain that cross-training must be done incrementally. Work with them to identify in which areas they seek to grow. See if you can help them obtain additional training, whether through cross-training or another avenue. (This all hinges, of course, upon these employees meeting agreed upon performance results.)

How should you select trainers and trainees?

Before you can begin cross-training employees, you must determine which ones would make the best candidates.

Personality, preferences and motivation play a part in cross-training.

Most businesses seek to hire people they can develop into multiple roles within the organization. These individuals have a thirst for knowledge and a desire to advance. Those are also the characteristics you look for in somebody you’re trying to cross-train.

Be advised that a lot of whether cross-training will succeed can depend on the field and whether the person has the capacity for the added responsibility. A new duty may be in their wheelhouse or maybe not. Do they have the passion for it?

Selecting cross-training candidates and pairing them with the ideal trainer can be as much art and science.

A veteran well-versed in the subject matter is a preferred teaching candidate.

Selecting the student should hinge on a several factors:

  1. Do they have a base knowledge level of the task or skill?
  2. Have they demonstrated abilities in similar or complimentary duties?
  3. Are they already a high-level performer?

Some roles may have testing procedures to identify the best candidates. Input from supervisors and human resources may also help in the selection process.

Can someone be too specialized to be cross-trained?

In some areas, it’s not advisable to cross-train.

For example, in business where the work is highly specialized or involves compliance-oriented jobs, like a human resources specialist handling employee relations issues, or bank compliance department positions.

By only having on-the-job cross-training in these jobs, you run the risk of less skilled workers attempting to resolve complex issues. Instead, any training should be supplemented with advanced coursework and earning the appropriate certifications.

In these cases, the training should be deeper, not broader.

Summing it all up

In most businesses, people are the biggest expense. When cross-training is done well, it improves employee engagement, codifies institutional knowledge and drives productivity gains that can lead to bottom-line results.

However, cross-training staff is only one way to develop your employees. If you’d like to learn about other strategies for empowering your employees to better succeed and grow your business, download our complimentary magazine: The Insperity guide to learning and development.

The Insperity guide to learning and development, Issue 11
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