The US is still in the midst of the Great Resignation. Many employees are quitting in search of jobs that fit them better, whether that means higher wages, more interesting work, professional development opportunities, or more work/life balance.

With employees gaining the upper hand in the labor market, how can organizations that are left in the lurch ensure they’ve got enough skilled staff on board to keep things running smoothly?

One answer is to invest in cross-training.

What is cross-training?

Cross-training is the process of teaching an employee another set of skills to perform in a job they didn’t initially qualify for. Many business owners will cross-train to cover for a sick or on-leave employee, but cross-training goes beyond a temporary compliance measure.

When done right, cross-training identifies the skills and tasks needed in your business and works to fill in the gaps. A crossed-trained employee can simply hop in and keep the company running without the employer having to crisis train or outsource work at a moment's notice.

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What are the benefits of cross-training?

As you consider implementing a cross-training plan, you should also consider the organizational benefits. Here’s what cross-training can do for your company:

1. Produces more collaborative employees

When someone has a wider skill set, they’re able to work with more employees on different projects. However, a hyper-focused individual may have a more difficult time collaborating. Teamwork is more easily forged through a broad, working knowledge of other company aspects.

Related: If You’re Not Doing Job Shadowing Training, You Should Be (And Here’s How)

2. Brings significant return on investment

Outsourcing employment or hiring another employee to staff a position is a waste of money if you already have a skilled staff willing to take on the work. Done well, cross-training does a lot to empower employees to share their knowledge, which removes the need to bring on costly, additional hires.

Related: The L&D Case for Peer Training: 3 Unignorable Reasons to Make the Switch

3. Creates workforce sustainability

What would happen if your payroll expert suddenly quit or had to take a mandatory leave? If your business would fall apart without them, that’s a sign that your company isn’t sustainable. Cross-training allows your employees to hold up your business in a time of need.

4. Increases employee engagement

The perception of a dead-end job will kill your employees' motivation, even if they’re staffed in their current career field. There are numerous studies that show that top employees tend to stay in the jobs with great employee benefits such as health insurance, work-life balance and further skill training. It's also important that they know they are valued. When employees see no possibility of movement, they'll start looking elsewhere, but cross-training provides an opportunity for personal and professional growth.

Related: How to Advocate for Your Own Internal Mobility (in 3 Steps)

5. Improves productivity and efficiency

Each department should have a valuable skill set that they can pass to another employee. More skilled employees increase productivity and efficiency across departments. Honing the skills your employees require through cross-training will streamline all aspects of your business.

6. Makes companies more agile

We often hire employees based on a particular skill set, but cross-training can bring out hidden talents that could be utilized across your business. With an increased skill set, all of your employees can more easily advance the goals and objectives of your business.

7. Establishes scheduling flexibility

It can be frustrating to find someone to fill in for a last-minute call-in or for a vacation request, especially if you only have one person per department. With cross-training, employees can work across different roles, increasing flexibility in cases of increased workload or staff shortages.

8. Facilitates succession planning

Hiring within your company is easier than hiring outside it. Through cross-training, managers can equip employees with a skill set that would be beneficial to have once someone leaves. Even if training doesn’t lead to a promotion, employers can see who has the initiative to learn.

Related: Why Not Sharing Institutional Knowledge is Costing Your Company Money

Are there disadvantages to cross-training?

Yes, there are several negative outcomes that could occur if you neglect to cross-train correctly. 

For example, poor cross-training could lead to a company that staffs too many generalists. Too much cross-training will produce employees who know a little about a lot, and you’ll have no experts in a particular subject. That’s disastrous for both the employees and the company.

However, it’s more likely that your employees will view cross-training as an excuse to add on to their responsibilities without extra pay. This opinion isn’t unfounded either. Several employers will cross-train in order to avoid hiring and paying another employee to staff a position.

How can I mitigate cross-training problems?

It’s important to be transparent when beginning your cross-training program. Talk about the elephant in the room immediately and explain that those who participate in your cross-training program will receive higher pay and a reduced workload to prevent overwhelm, if appropriate. 

You should only pick a few people for your cross-training program. A veteran employee who’s well-versed in the desired skill is preferred to be a trainer, but students should be judged by:

  • Their base knowledge in a skill or task.
  • Their willingness to take on extra responsibility.
  • Their performance in the company as a whole.

Your HR team can help out with the selection process. In the end, make sure you separate generalists from experts within your company, so you have a vast talent pool. However, selecting participants for a cross-training program doesn’t equate to cutting out continuous, peer-to-peer learning throughout the company—this kind of Collaborative Learning is important for all employees, even if it isn’t formalized during a specified cross-training program

Overall, it’s beneficial for you and your employees to understand multiple industry aspects, at least somewhat, to stay competitive. Knowledge sharing is a net positive for your company.

How to structure cross-training for job enrichment

Before developing your own cross-training program, it’s important to understand what makes one succeed. Try to structure cross-training for job enrichment, but if that isn’t possible, at least aim for job enlargement, as both situations can benefit you and the employee.

Job enlargement

Job enlargement is a horizontal job expansion. It includes tasks that are on the same level of skill and responsibility. For example, if HR staff only facilitates hiring, job enlargement would involve payroll or additional administrative activities that HR would otherwise handle. Or, you can take advantage of an HR application that helps you remotely track employee performance.

Job enrichment

Job enrichment is a vertical job expansion. It includes tasks that go beyond the person's wheelhouse. For example, a customer service representative may be cross-trained as a repair person and can fill in for the regular repair person if they go on leave or require extra hands.

Job rotation

Job rotation is a circular job expansion. While less common and more suited towards employers, job rotation can help effective managers understand each aspect of the business. This allows them to empathize with other employees and gives them the tools to fill in for anyone.

Developing your own cross-training program

Using all of the knowledge you’ve gained from this article, you can now start creating your own cross-training program. Follow these tips when implementing your coaching initiatives.

Set formal expectations

At least one person should be able to step into a role at a moment’s notice. While you don’t have to make cross-training mandatory for all workers, you should still set clear expectations for who’ll take on extra responsibility. Make sure to provide enough time to cross-train effectively.

Create a “collective success” culture

Many employees want to be indispensable because it’s a point of pride. If an employee recognizes their value, they’re more likely to support you in a time of collective failure or weakness. Show your employees that their help benefits them and the company.

Run cross-training simulations

After cross-training your employees, run simulations or set up an absence scenario to make sure your coaching initiative was effective. Your newly trained employees may make a few mistakes, but if they don’t grasp the material at all, you’ll need to go back to the drawing board. 

Develop a feedback mechanism

Allow your employees the opportunity to coach you on your cross-training initiatives. Taking criticism is never easy, but if there’s a gap in your cross-training activities, you must know what it is so that you can fix it. Feedback gives you the chance to improve your efforts.

Cross-training creates successful businesses

While cross-training may result in a momentary loss in productivity, your organization will quickly bounce back and become more efficient than ever. Cross-training helps you build insurance against the inevitable. At some point, you’ll have to cover for an absent employee.

Even if your employees take very few sick days, cross-training does more than protect your bottom-line in a time of need. Cross-training should be used to increase productivity and efficiency with all hands on deck and to decrease employee turnover.