Cross-training is great way to educate your employees, fill in for emergencies and create more job satisfaction — if you do it strategically. A haphazard plan with no real goals or reasoning won’t benefit your organization, and it may just annoy your staff.
To find out how you can create a cross-training program that will really benefit your company, we reached out to Gloria West, senior consultant and executive coach at Success Labs, a leadership development and management consulting firm in Baton Rouge. Here’s her advice.
Before you put all your effort into cross-training, first decide what you’re trying to achieve and determine whether cross-training is the best solution, West says. If you just need to cover someone’s job while they’re on vacation for a week, it may make more sense to hire a temporary employee from a staffing agency or to work without that position until the person comes back and can catch up. “It may not be worth the time and expense for a trainer and trainee to devote energy to cross-training,” West says.
She cites the idea of “should you train the flight attendants to fly the plane?” Sure, it’d be nice if they knew how in case both the pilot and the co-pilot have heart attacks, West says. “But how often does that happen? And is it worth it for the extra cost of all that training? Probably not.” she says. So before you begin, seriously consider whether cross-training will really solve your problems.
Cross-training is a solid way to prepare your organization for unexpected leaves of absence, vacations or employees quitting or retiring, but there also are benefits you can share with staff to get them excited about cross-training.
For example, it can help with stress, West says. If your organization has a high level of customer support for internal or external clients, someone has to be available for those reactive situations and important requests. If you have depth in who can cover that role, it allows others to be more strategic with their time for things like planning, taking a class or working on long-term goals, West says. “If not, you have to have people available for whatever comes up. People are constantly in reaction or crisis mode to get that covered,” she says.
Another benefit is the synergy that comes from knowing different roles. When people take on tasks outside their norm they start to share perspectives, she says. They can find gaps in their process and identify ways to improve things. It adds another set of eyes to watch out for mistakes in the final product. “They can say, ‘Something looks off here. Let’s stop and consult,’ versus just doing their single part and not knowing the rest,” West says.
A big thing West cautions against is cross-training being seen as a way to reduce staff. Sometimes people can be paranoid that if they show others how to do their job, they’ll be let go. This is a surefire way to disincentivize training and education. Reassure people this won’t happen and focus on the benefits of cross-training for both the individual and the organization.
“When I worked at Intel, once you’d been there seven years full time, you were awarded an eight-week paid sabbatical. The condition to take it was that your job had to be covered seamlessly from day one. This encouraged cross-training so that people could take their time off, but also benefited those who learned other positions. Every single promotion I got at Intel was the result of covering for someone’s sabbatical. It was win-win-win for me, the person taking the time off and the organization,” West says.
Once you have everyone on board with the need for training, how do you decide who learns what? West recommends thinking first about critical tasks and roles, and then about people. Which roles or skills would be hardest to replace? Whose knowledge will be missed the most if they are suddenly gone?
The critical roles may not be what you think. Consider a police force, West says. Is the critical role the chief? Not necessarily. Every municipality has a chief. If you lose one, you just hire another. But the administrative assistant to the public relations officer who has been around 30 years, who is best friends with the transit authority chief and can get a bridge closed in 10 minutes, and who knows all the local politicians? That role will be hard to fill. This assistant needs to pass on that knowledge before an emergency happens, she says.
Once you’ve identified critical roles, keep an open mind about who can train on them. Things West says she considers include: Who’s good at this type of work and wants more? Will this work be a stretch assignment or development opportunity for someone? Will this increase someone’s job satisfaction or prepare someone for a promotion or lateral move? Is everyone pulling their weight or are there people who can take on additional work?
Cross-training won’t happen overnight, nor should it. Again, West recommends you plan this out by thinking about tasks first. The critical roles and tasks you identified earlier? Prioritize that list. Pick three that are the most critical, she says. Then look at your people. Identify who’s the biggest flight risk. If you know someone’s spouse is likely to be transferred or a longtime veteran is coming up on retirement, now’s the time to train someone on their critical tasks.
Consider the cost of cross-training and find a timeline you can afford. Both the trainer and trainee will be removed from productive work at least temporarily while this knowledge transfer happens, West says. Your timeline may be to have someone trained on three critical tasks this quarter. Once that is completed, begin again. Reevaluate your critical list and plan again, she says. “You have to treat cross-training as any other project. Develop this plan and then sustain it as part of your culture,” West says.