Creating a Flexible Workforce
Imagine that the person who runs your firm's accounting reports is off sick. The problem? No one else knows how to run the reports without making mistakes. And if they aren't run, the month-end recap will be thrown into chaos.
Your organization has likely run into situations like this. Often, teams are made up of individuals with specialized skills or knowledge, and one person's absence can negatively affect the productivity of the entire group. This is especially true in smaller teams.
This is just one reason why it can be useful to cross-train people within your team. In the example above, if another member of your team had been trained to run the accounting reports, there would be no need to worry.
In this article, we'll examine the many benefits of cross-training, and we'll look at how to implement a successful cross-training program with your team.
What Is Cross-Training?
Cross-training is the practice of training your people to work in several different roles, or training them to do tasks that lie outside their normal responsibilities.
For instance, you might use cross-training to teach someone who works in Collections how to work in the Billing Department, and vice versa. You could then move people from one team to another when there's a staff shortage, or when one department is exceptionally busy.
There are many benefits to cross-training people in your team. For instance, cross-training can:
- Save money – if one of your team members is sick or goes on vacation, there's no need to hire a temporary worker; existing team members can fill the gap until he or she returns.
- Help you react quickly to changing goals and business conditions – because your team is trained and flexible, it can easily handle fluctuations in workflow demand. Cross-training can also help you deal with workflow bottlenecks.
- Strengthen team relationships – when team members can see and understand what others do, they're far more willing to lend a hand when someone falls behind. They're also able to help out more, because they've learned what other team members do.
- Improve satisfaction – many people like being challenged, and enjoy learning new skills. So setting aside time for cross-training can help keep your team interested and engaged. People working in new roles can also discover talents, strengths, and skills they didn't know they had: this can lead to renewed excitement and self-discovery, resulting in reduced employee turnover.
- Improve processes and workflow design – you can get some great ideas for organizational, team, or process improvement from cross-trained people, because they're looking at a role or task with a fresh perspective.
- Protect your knowledge assets – as part of a wider knowledge management program.
Cross-training can also help with succession planning. For instance, you might allow junior managers to train for a week in the role of the district manager. This allows you to gauge which employees perform best in that role, so that when the district manager retires, you'll have a good idea of who will be best to replace her.
Overall, cross-training helps increase team productivity, performance, and communication.
Implementing a Cross-Training Program
1. Identify Roles and Responsibilities
Make a list of everyone on your team, along with their job descriptions. Spend some time thinking about the knowledge and skills needed for each position, as well as the unique strengths that each person brings to the team.
2. Cross-Reference Skills
You now want to match each position with the right potential cross-trainee. Try to pair positions that require similar skills and strengths.
For instance, imagine that your regional sales manager is a natural multi-tasker. He's very detail oriented, and works effectively in high-stress situations. Because of his unique strengths, knowledge and skills, he could easily be cross-trained in the role of the regional customer support manager, since that position is also stressful and requires someone who can handle many demands at once; plus, he knows and understands customer needs.
Although it's often easiest to cross-train team members who work in similar roles, keep in mind that it can also be useful for people to learn about positions that are radically different from their own.
3. Identify the Method
Once you've identified the team members who should be cross-trained for each role, you need to think about how they should be trained. Approaches include:
On-the job-training – this is when a team member follows or "shadows" another team member for a period of time to learn new skills.
When you set this up, bear in mind that not everyone is naturally an effective trainer – you may need to teach them how to train their colleagues. (Our Bite-Sized Training class, Training for Non-Trainers, can help you do this.)
On-the-job training can be the most effective cross-training technique, as learning takes place under normal working conditions.
- Instructor-Led Training – this is often most efficient where instructors are expensive, because one instructor can teach many people at the same time. However, for training to be effective, people must then have the opportunity to put the skills they've learned into practice in a working environment.
- E-Learning/Online Training – this can be beneficial, because team members can learn at their desks, at a time that suits them. However, as with instructor-led training, people must have the opportunity to practice skills live in the workplace.
Take a look at our article on the 70:20:10 framework which describes how to balance different learning methods.
4. Explain the Benefits
Before you implement a cross-training program with your team, it's important to explain why you're doing it, so that people understand why you want them to be trained in multiple roles.
This will help people to see that cross-training is a positive exercise, rather than a negative one.
5. Get Training!
Once you've planned your cross-training program and people understand why they should cross-train one-another, it's time to get going!
Launch the program, make sure that the training is happening, give people the support they need to be successful, provide opportunities to apply skills, and follow up to ensure that training has been successful.
6. Rotate Tasks
People lose knowledge if they don't use it regularly. Once your team has gone through a cross-training process, consider implementing a rotation plan so that every few months, members of your team spend a half or a full day working in the role they've cross-trained for.
Not only will this help keep their training fresh, but it will also add challenge and interest to their work.
7. Get Feedback
Encourage your team to give feedback and offer suggestions on developing the cross-training program.
This feedback will help you improve how you train your people in the future.
Our How Well Do You Develop Your People? quiz will highlight your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to developing your team, and it offers strategies and tips that will help you mentor, coach, and train your people effectively.
Cross-training is the practice of training people to perform tasks that normally lie outside their role. It offers teams and organizations several important benefits.
First, cross-training saves organizations money, because it eliminates the need for temporary workers to fill gaps when staff or workflow changes. Cross-training keeps people motivated because it offers new challenges, and it can even help them uncover skills or strengths they didn't realize they had.
To develop an effective cross-training program, follow these steps:
- Identify roles and responsibilities.
- Match roles with the right trainees.
- Identify the method to be used.
- Explain the benefits.
- Implement the program.
- Rotate tasks.
- Get feedback.