Training Programs

Cross-Training Employees: Ensure You’re Ready for the Unexpected

Woman cross-training man on a computer

Across the United States there are many unemployed people, yet there are also many job openings. So why aren’t these jobs being filled? Because there’s also a skills gap across the U.S., and the gap continues to widen as new jobs with specific skills become available, while not enough qualified graduates enter the workforce and current workers don’t possess the skills needed.

Cross-training can benefit your business in many ways, including ramping up productivity and allowing for more effective succession planning. Instead of expecting employees to have the exact skills and knowledge needed for a role when they start, successful organizations empower employees with talent potential by providing thorough training opportunities, including cross-training.

To help identify what your organization’s skill gaps are, check out our ebook: How to Find and Close Your Organization’s Skill Gaps

What Is Employee Cross-Training?

Cross-training involves teaching an employee who was hired to perform one job function the skills required to perform other job functions. Cross-training employees goes beyond training in case someone gets sick. It starts by identifying the tasks and skills needed in a specific area of your business, so employees can jump in whenever needed.

Cross-training aims to build the skills of everyone in the company, so they better understand what it takes to keep the company running. This empowers organizations to find support from within instead of having to outsource work when times get busy or someone with specific skills isn’t available or leaves. Employees become greater assets for the company while gaining knowledge and skills to benefit their own careers.

Benefits of Cross-Training Employees

As you consider cross-training plans, consider the organizational benefits.

Key benefits of cross-training include:

  • Potentially reduced absenteeism and employee turnover
  • Ability to keep employees engaged through assignment rotation
  • Increased opportunities for employee advancement
  • More ability to promote from within, reducing recruiting costs
  • Increased flexibility for scheduling
  • Employees are better able to collaborate and identify ways to improve processes
  • Increased efficiency

Pros and Cons of Cross-Training Staff

There are many pros to this type of training; however, it’s also valuable to recognize the drawbacks if cross-training isn’t done well.

Pros of Employee Cross-Training

Grow Employee Skill Sets: Cross-training provides an opportunity for employees to grow professionally while expanding their skill sets. It also allows them to gain diversified work experience. Employees feel empowered by challenges which increases productivity for your company.

Encourage Teamwork: Cross-training promotes people working together. Having employees train others on aspects of their role makes everyone feel more valued and can create stronger relationships amongst coworkers.

It also gives staff a chance to see what their colleagues do and can foster a team-oriented environment when they are helping one another. When employees have a vested interest in how the company operates, this helps them understanding processes and increases productivity and collaboration.

Ensure Roles Are Covered: Cross-training employees provides assurance that you will always have complete coverage of critical functions. This is beneficial in the event that an employee goes on vacation or extended leave, is absent, or moves on from your company. The fact that others know how to do the job ensures continuity of operations.

If an absence is planned, it’s easier to deal with by being prepared beforehand. But unexpected gaps in coverage can be costly. This hinders productivity and profitability. When existing employees can hop in to cover in the meantime, it limits interruptions.

Cons of Employee Cross-Training

There may be negative outcomes from cross-training if done improperly; however, by being aware of these potential pitfalls, you can curtail them and make sure cross-training is done in a way that leads to positive outcomes.

Added Responsibility Without Extra Pay: Some employees may view cross-training as an added responsibility without added pay. Make sure you balance their workload as much as possible.

You also don’t want to add too much too fast, so you avoid the risk of burnout. Be sure to share the “what’s in it for them” before you start cross-training, and get employees’ feedback to make sure everyone is on the same page about expectations for taking over others’ tasks temporarily.

You definitely don’t want employees feeling that they’re being unfairly burdened with tasks outside the role they signed up for.

Creating Too Many Generalists: Another potential negative outcome is creating too many generalists. These are employees that know a little about a lot of things, but not enough about specific tasks to do them really well.

While this may be beneficial to fill in gaps while employees are out, you don’t want to end up not having any specialized employees. In order to avoid this, make sure you are selecting who you cross-train wisely.

This may not be something that’s offered to everyone on the team, if it doesn’t make sense for them.

Cross-Training Programs

To reap the benefits of cross-training, doing it right is important. Follow the steps below to start cross-training effectively.

Task Identification

Identify the tasks performed for various jobs and designate which ones could be successfully performed by other people.

Choosing Who to Cross-Train

Before you begin the cross-training process, you must determine who the best candidates are to be trainers and trainees.

Most businesses seek to hire people they can develop. These individuals must be curious and driven. Those are also the characteristics that you look for when choosing someone to cross-train.

A veteran employee well-versed in the desired skill is a preferred candidate to be a trainer.

Selecting the student can be based on several factors:

  • Do they have base knowledge of the task or skill?
  • Do they want to take on another responsibility?
  • Are they already a high-performer?

Input from supervisors or HR may help in this selection process.

Reduce Workload

Reduce workload during training and while extra tasks are being performed. Otherwise, the people involved may feel overwhelmed and resentful of the process.

Leverage a Learning Platform

Learning platforms are an excellent way to offer employees a wide range of training – they can be used to house custom training materials, or off-the-shelf video content that builds skills for common roles and tasks. This makes them a highly useful resource, ideal for employee cross-training, where you’re continually growing the scope of skills.

Coach Employees

Apply coaching skills to the process. Cross-training is challenging. The trainers may not normally be involved in managing or developing others, so they need to understand appropriate coaching behavior.

Listen to BizLibrary’s Director of Talent Development & Learning Culture share how to develop coaching skills.

Recognize and Reward

Recognize and reward employees who have developed new skills and responsibilities. Every employee likes to be recognized, in some capacity, for the hard work they put in for the success of the company. This not only rewards them for hard work but motivates them to continue learning.

In business, people are your most important asset. Retain talent and be prepared for filling gaps in employment by cross-training. When cross-training is done well it improves employee engagement, grows skill sets, and encourages teamwork.

To help identify your organization’s skill gaps so you can cross-train effectively, check out our free ebook.

Training & Development Industry Researcher | Caroline researches and writes about the impacts of employee learning on organizations and individuals. She looks at L&D and HR issues and industry trends and helps them understand how to create better training programs that grow their employees and their business.