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13 Best Practices for Cross-Training Employees

Companies use cross-training to hone and improve their employees' skills, making them faster, more well-rounded, and ultimately more successful. Of course, this benefits the companies that implement the training, but it also helps the workers. Cross-training your teams makes them more dynamic in their capabilities and better able to work around challenges. Workers who get cross-training often find their work varied and stimulating, enhancing morale and engagement.

However, not all cross-training efforts are successful. Sometimes, administrators fail to create and follow a clear plan that ensures that cross-training is adequate, relevant, and thorough. As a result, some programs lack direction or a formal way to measure progress, leading to underwhelming results.

If you'd like to implement a cross-training program at your company, keep reading. This guide will tell you everything you need to know.

What Is Cross-Training?

Cross-training employees means teaching workers duties that generally fall under different roles or departments. Approaches vary widely across industries and companies.

You might establish a program for cross-training employees in just a few key areas. You could also cross-train workers in every aspect of another role. 

The program you create for cross-training employees will depend on your organization's needs. Of course, you should also create these training programs with your workers in mind, as they can benefit from being cross-trained.

Why Cross-Train Employees?

Managers once implemented cross-training at work to prepare top workers for management positions. These upwardly mobile workers needed to do many different jobs to lead effectively. They learned what to expect from the people they would eventually be managing through cross-training.

Now, there are many reasons for cross-training at work. Sometimes, it's simply a way to deal with staffing shortages. The more people know, the better prepared to do work if someone leaves or is unavailable.

Cross-training employees also prepares them for lateral moves. Cross-training is key to helping cover needs in another department or implementing changes that involve multiple teams.

What Are the Benefits of Cross-Training Employees?

There are many benefits of cross-training employees. Here are some of the things your organization could gain when cross-training at work is a priority:

  • Easier to ensure that workers complete necessary tasks
  • Identify team talents and capabilities
  • Allow motivated workers to explore new roles
  • Improve retention rates
  • Prepare for shortages and crises
  • Foster empathy, understanding, and communication
  • Save money by meeting temporary productivity needs internally
  • Identify redundancies

Workers benefit from cross-training, as well. They will:

  • Learn beneficial and marketable skills
  • Do work that is engaging and interesting
  • Earn promotions from within
  • Avoid burnout
  • Explore new positions and create a plan for professional development
  • Ensure better job stability

When workers have adequate cross-training, knowledge stays within the company, even when someone leaves. There's no danger of just one person knowing how to do a mission-critical task or being the only person with critical information.

Why Does Cross-Training Fail?

Regretfully, some efforts at cross-training employees fall flat. Before you begin, be aware of these common issues.

Employees feel threatened or territorial

Some workers may feel that their exclusive knowledge and abilities give them job security. To them, cross-training may feel invasive, even threatening. These team members may resist training that breaks down information silos they perceive as key to their value.

Further, workers may worry that their jobs are in danger or think you're punishing them for inadequate performance. It can also be inconvenient and frustrating for a busy department to take on a new person for cross-training.

Fortunately, this is something you can remedy with effective communication and planning. Cross-training should be implemented in a way that doesn't leave anyone short-handed or overwhelmed with the task of training. 

Workers don't always want cross-training

On the other side of the issue are workers resistant to being cross-trained. Some perceive cross-training as simply a way to give them more work, often without a raise or promotion. Others may enjoy their work and have no natural desire to make lateral moves.

Again, communication is vital. However, it's crucial to treat these concerns as valid. The question, "Why cross-train employees without providing compensation or other incentives?" is a legitimate one for workers to ask. 

Consider what you plan to do after cross-training is complete. Will workers be taking on these new duties permanently or only in the case of an emergency?

Who Are the Best Candidates for Cross-Training?

Some employers believe that cross-training is something they should provide to all workers. This approach is helpful in industries where turnover is high. Also, cross-training every worker is quite beneficial in retail, where it is common to have hectic times.

However, it takes time and resources to cross-train employees properly. That being the case, it makes sense to focus these efforts on delivering the most significant ROI. If you only want the best workers for cross-training, look to the following team members:

  • Bright employees who feel bored and unchallenged
  • Workers in departments or positions in danger of being eliminated
  • Employees who have expressed an interest in other departments
  • Team members who have complained about a lack of employee development
  • Workers who are pursuing training or further education and want on-the-job experience

Don't forget about workers you are considering for management positions. They will benefit from cross-training, and so will their employees.

Remember, cross-training isn't just for the rank and file. Company leaders can develop a real sense of empathy and understanding if they undergo cross-training.

When Should You Avoid Cross-Training?

Some roles aren't suited for cross-training. These are positions that require detailed, in-depth knowledge. Also, jobs that require specific certifications or licensing may not be a good fit for an employee cross-training program. For example, work relating to legal compliance is probably best left to only the most qualified workers.

13 Best Practices for Cross-Training Employees

So, you have decided who will undergo cross-training. You've also explored areas where workers might struggle and removed other roadblocks to success. Now, you're ready to implement a successful cross-training initiative. Here are some best practices for getting started:

1. Look for and learn from existing training programs

Even if your company has never launched a formal cross-training program, chances are workers are cross-training right now. Remember that the practice of training employees to take on other roles is born out of necessity.

You likely have team leaders cross-training people to meet their goals and objectives in your organization. Likewise, there are probably motivated team members who have taken it upon themselves to develop new skills and learn about roles that interest them. Ask some questions, and you might find some great examples to learn from.

2. Present the benefits to managers and teams

The decision to cross-train employees shouldn't be made at the executive level, then foisted onto everyone else. That's just going to lead to frustration, resistance, and loss of productivity. Instead, every team should be given as much autonomy as possible in deciding whether cross-training is for them, which roles should receive priority, and how to implement the program.

To maximize enthusiastic participation, understand the needs and challenges of each department at your company. Prepare a well-justified case that cross-training will benefit (not burden) them. If you've implemented cross-training successfully in one area of your organization, use that as an example.

3. Document roles and responsibilities

It's critical to document the training process for each role. First and foremost, there should be a clear, up-to-date job description. Then, outline the responsibilities for each position. This outlining is necessary to identify the skills and competencies your trainees need to master during cross-training. 

Ask both managers and workers to participate in this process. There may be a disconnect between what managers perceive team members to be doing versus what they do now.

4. Match workers to cross-training opportunities

Now, it's time to determine which employees will be the best fit for specific cross-training activities. Start by deciding whether you will implement this training on an intra-departmental or interdepartmental basis. 

With the first option, you only provide cross-training to teams within their business area. If you choose the second, you will cross-train employees to work in entirely different departments. As a general rule, inter-departmental training will be more complicated to design and implement.

Consider their talents, skills, and professional development goals to assign workers to the best cross-training opportunities. The more interested they are in pursuing the opportunity, the more engaged they will be. At the same time, teams will benefit more when cross-trained employees have an affinity for the work.

5. Document procedures

It is imperative to have processes and procedures documented to cross-train employees effectively. Unfortunately, this is often a problem at many companies and organizations. 

It's very common for team leaders to implement procedural changes. This implementation helps teams solve urgent problems, adopt new technologies, improve productivity, and more. However, it is much less common for formal documentation to reflect current changes.

When these updates slip through the cracks, there can be a disconnect between the documentation and what workers need to learn during cross-training. That's why the first step is to bring all documents and manuals current.

Make sure this process includes any digital training assets. Now is the time to find and update training videos, online training manuals, and other assets used to train workers. This organizational undertaking will help with your effort to implement cross-training and improve future onboarding efforts.

6. Determine the best methodology

Many people envision cross-training as simply "job shadowing" or sending an employee over to another team to learn "on the job." Sometimes, this is a perfectly valid approach on its own. 

On-the-job training and shadowing are two methods of cross-training that can be effective, especially for roles that don't require a lot of specialized knowledge or practice. However, some workers may need to undergo more formal training before stepping into a new position. 

Instructor-led training

Formalized training happens in a training room environment to participants in the cross-training program. This approach works well when a) specific skills and abilities are vital to job success and b) workers must undergo an assessment before executing their new roles in a productive environment. Consider using this option when trainers are also required to have specific qualifications.

Self-directed training

With this option, participants complete any necessary training and assessments at their own pace. This method will utilize web-based training, video courses, and other eLearning options.

Hybrid training

Hybrid training will include any combination of the methods above. For example, workers may take a brief online course to pass a certification test, then move to on-the-job training.

7. Design training processes

No matter how you plan to train your employees, it's essential to have some formalized training plan in place. Even if your only goal is to use on-the-job training, there have to be some training objectives at an absolute minimum. 

Otherwise, an employee may learn only a fraction of the skills they need to be truly competent in a new role. By establishing training processes, you ensure that the organization and the employees benefit from the experience. Consider these questions as you formalize training for each position:

  • What skills should each participant master?
  • How will the company assess each trainee's knowledge and ability?
  • Which key work activities should trainees experience?
  • Is there time- or date-dependent training (e.g., working during an opening or closing shift or before a holiday)?

It may be helpful to create a checklist of tasks or activities for each trainee to complete. Workers can then use this checklist to document their progression through the training process.

Consider who is going to be delivering the training, as well. People with different expertise may need to provide instruction or guide trainees through specific tasks.

8. Start small

It's rarely a good idea to roll out a company-wide cross-training initiative. Instead, start with something that is both small and impactful. Look for a team that could benefit significantly from cross-training and start there. If you can identify enthusiastic participants, that is certainly a plus.

Use that as your pilot program once you can create and successfully execute a cross-training program at that level. Gather data on the positive outcomes, and use this to achieve buy-in from other business areas. People initially hesitant to take part may be more willing once they see a real-life example of success.

9. Rotate cross-trained workers regularly

Workers will gain valuable knowledge and experience during cross-training. Unfortunately, that's going to be lost if they can't use it regularly. 

Every cross-training program must include plans to rotate workers into other positions regularly. This rotation will allow them to use what they have learned and ensure they can integrate into different roles easily. 

10. Keep training current

In addition to being rotated into alternate roles regularly, cross-training programs should provide necessary "refresher" coursework. Regular updates ensure that everyone can step into their new duties regardless of any changes. 

For example, if a department begins using a new software package, that training must be available to both team members and anyone identified as being cross-trained.

11. Collect feedback

It's paramount to collect and analyze feedback from everyone who is a stakeholder in a cross-training program, including:

  • Trainees
  • Trainers and mentors
  • Department heads
  • Managers and supervisors
  • Team members

To get the most valuable data, you'll want to collect feedback during the training process, immediately after, and in the future once there's been enough time to see (or not see) the results.

Create surveys and other instruments to ask the most pertinent questions of every stakeholder. However, consider inviting some open-ended responses, as well. Surveys will allow everyone to express frustrations, successes, and suggestions.

12. Modify existing cross-training programs

Cross-training should be an interactive process in many ways. Now that you have helpful feedback, use it to return to your cross-training programs to make improvements. Then, once those are implemented, you can continue delivering training, collecting feedback, and making additional changes. 

13. Expand the program

If your cross-training program is successful, look for ways to expand it. Expansion might include introducing cross-training to new teams. You could also offer cross-training opportunities to a broader selection of workers in your organization.

Get Help Executing a Successful Cross-Training Initiative

The benefits of cross-training are clear. However, the processes you need to engage in to make this endeavor work can be complex. Fortunately, you don't have to do this on your own. 

Several platforms offer the tools and resources you need to design and deliver beautiful and functional cross-training to your team members. The right platform will have everything you need to start this or any other corporate training initiative.

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