Cross training isn't a new concept. It has long occurred informally in the workplace when employees cover the front desk while the receptionist takes lunch, when someone handles a teammate's tasks while they're on vacation and when managers groom employees for promotion.
But because employees who can perform a wide range of functions are a valuable asset – and are more engaged, because they're taking ownership of a variety of tasks – it may be worth formalizing this training.
Types of cross training
Cross training comes in several varieties: vertical, horizontal and rotational.
Vertical is the most common cross-training method. Whether you're training employees to take on more responsibility or preparing them for promotion, vertical training increases their skills and abilities for the next phase of their careers. This is especially effective when done formally. When an employee knows that the company is investing in his or her future, they're likely to be engaged.
Horizontal cross training expands an employee’s skill set away from their daily duties and into other departments or functions. While it might not be a direct path to promotion, it can be a means to expose the employee to tasks and responsibilities that might be of interest. For employees who may see no more growth in their own department, horizontal training can provide talent you don’t want to lose an incentive to stay with the company. This type of training has long been part of succession planning.
Rotational training is all about coverage. Everyone on a team is able to perform everyone else’s function. For many small businesses, this training is critical, as the loss of a single worker can be devastating if left without coverage.
"Cross training assists a company in providing valuable 'back up' for important tasks and duties," according to Lawrence Hamilton, senior faculty and executive coach at the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College.
It also provides workers a chance to learn and grow, he said. For teams, the exposure to the tasks and responsibilities of others can be an eye-opening exercise in appreciation.
Who to cross train
Staffers who have already expressed interest in learning and taking on more responsibility are a good place to start. Ask individuals to identify roles or tasks they have an interest in learning more about. Then, if appropriate, coordinate formal or informal cross-training sessions.
Managers also can suggest options for rotational training within their group (or identify star employees for vertical training), and management teams may benefit from departmental cross training, which can demonstrate how one group works to support another.
But really, all types of employees should be cross trained if it adds to the security of backing up an important role, Hamilton said. "Having expert knowledge that can be used across the job spectrum is a safety net that most companies need to be successful.”
When to cross train
Timing also is important. While employees like "just in time" training, Cross training when you’re under the gun isn't the most effective use of resources, experts say.
Instead, create opportunities when staff members can teach and learn at a comfortable pace. You might consider incentives for both members to participate, placing value on their additional skill as trainer and student.
"It takes time and investment," Hamilton said. "Generally, when you commit to cross training, you also must commit to the time that it takes for an associate to learn and master a new function."
Learning leaders can also look for opportunities to cross train on specific assignments. Are employees working on a project that affects another team? Can a team member give them more insight into how they perform their function? And, if there isn’t an organic opportunity, try to create one.
Why to cross train
“Cross training was quite popular in the 70s and 80s," says Dr. Lepora Menefee, managing director at Nextgen People. But with the decline of budgets came the decline of cross training.
Now, the skills gap is necessitating its return. "Given the retention issues faced by most major companies, it has never been more important to invest significantly into cross training," Menefee said. "While cross training is still an effective way to develop leaders, it may become critical in maintaining basic business operations when unexpected attrition takes place."
It can help reduce turnover, too. When employees are engaged and see opportunities for growth, they're more likely to stay. To retain top talent, "special focus and priority should be placed on the star employees who are the most valuable producers of the organization," Menefee added. Even employees who aren't part of cross-training initiatives can benefit from those efforts. The knowledge that their company is willing to invest time and resources in co-workers is a powerful motivational and engagement tool.
It may be difficult to justify the time and expense involved with cross training, but with its benefits for engagement, retention and succession planning, it may be more expensive not to.