The Successful Manager’s Guide to Cross-Training Employees

When it comes to sports, there are all kinds of shoes. Cross-trainers are a good shoe to have.

Maybe you’re going to do a little running. Maybe a little climbing, or some rocky hiking or trail walking. Who knows what the path ahead will be? The point is, don’t let unpreparedness catch you wearing the wrong shoes.

Just as a multi-purpose shoe is a good choice to cover more ground faster, so is cross-training employees. And just like at the gym, cross-training targets the ability to build strengths. 

Cross-training employees is when you train your team to perform tasks related to a specific area. It’s not simply showing them how to run a bunch of machines and computers, or a quick run-through of how everything works. It’s giving them training on related tasks.

Once you understand the benefits, you’ll understand why and how you should begin cross-training in the workplace.

What can cross-training do for your workplace?

While it might seem easier to train employees on fewer tasks, the extra effort pays off in the long run. Cross-training your staff is a great way to:

  • Build future managers. Before moving anyone into a management role, you get a chance to see what their skill set is and if they’re ready. This also motivates employees who can see cross-training as a path to promotion.
  • Create a better work culture. Cross-training creates a culture where employees are better able to collaborate. They understand a variety of tasks, have a big-picture view of how things work together, and can offer real input as a team. Without cross-training, employees don’t see how others’ work matters to their own.
  • Build confidence in employees. Instead of finding themselves helpless in a situation, cross-trained employees have the knowledge and skills to do what needs to be done. This is especially important when businesses are short staffed and there isn’t always someone around who can help. 
  • Retain your employees. Being part of a team where you know you can depend on others to adequately help out (and that you can do the same for them) is attractive to employees. Not everything rides on them being present, which is a lot of pressure. There’s freedom to use vacation days, and to stay home when sick when they need to. They know others can pitch in. Part of retaining employees has to do with relieving pain points, and feeling pressured to not use time off because they’re “too important to be absent” is a real pain point.
  • Prepare for changes in seasons. Not every season has the same demand. When it gets busy, having cross-trained employees makes it easier to shift the workload around as needed. Otherwise, you have bottlenecks as employees wait for someone else to send their specific task their way.
  • Prepare for emergencies. Cross-training a desk clerk on how to handle an emergency at a hospital might seem odd, but when the time comes, you’ll be glad they understand which patients need to be seen first. The same can go for other industries where an emergency situation flips regular operation on its head and behind-the-scenes workers are suddenly on the front line.
  • Make scheduling easier. Filling shifts with employees who can do multiple tasks is much easier than trying to shuffle around employees with singular skills. When someone is absent, it’s also easier to find a fill in. Cross-training can solve many of the most common scheduling headaches.
  • Become more efficient. Instead of a “that’s not my job mentality” that can grind production to a halt, cross-trained employees can seamlessly move work along and are more productive. It’s like running ahead to pass the baton instead of waiting for someone to come back and get it.
  • Force yourself to define what gets done. As you’ll see in a bit, setting up a cross-training program will force you to think about tasks and the employees who do them. You might discover some areas where you can make changes and save time, money, or even change the structure of your labor force. You might also find out where unskilled workers have attempted to fix problems and made things worse. Defining what needs to be done, and by whom, is must-know information.

That’s a huge list of positive outcomes, all from cross-training your team. Surely there are a few negatives, right?

The biggest pushback you might see from employees is that some will see being cross-trained as being expected to do more work without a pay increase. Resist the urge to overload employees and have them pick up the slack if you’re short staffed—this is crucial. Pay attention to any talk or attitudes on the job where employees express frustration at “having to do everything.”

You may also end up with a “jack of all trades, master of nothing” problem if everyone on your team knows a little about a lot. In some cases, you want experts who know a lot about a little. There’s no sense wasting time training an engineer on running the cash register.

And finally, cross-training has to be purposeful. Some tasks are better suited to cross-training than others. 

Ideally, one skill set naturally leads to another, kind of like a prerequisite class in college. When you take a hodge-podge approach and toss any and all training on an employee, whether it makes sense for them to be learning it or not, you not only frustrate your employee, but also open the door to employee burnout. The employee who knows how to do everything sometimes ends up actually doing everything.

The benefits of cross-training are powerful, but to avoid the negatives you have to set up your program well.

How to get started with a cross-training program

With cross-training, some industries benefit from it more than others. For example, healthcare is an obvious choice.

Identify key tasks

A cross-training program starts by identifying the key tasks or jobs necessary for each area of your business. 

For employees on a particular shift or responsible for work with a specific outcome ask yourself this question. What is necessary for them to know so they can fully function in that position?

One way to identify key tasks is to find bottlenecks. Look at your production or other data; when have problems popped up? Could it be that someone was absent or busy, and their missing task threw sand in the gears?

Choose the employees you’ll cross-train

From there, you’ll need to decide which employees to cross-train. Not all are a good fit, or even make sense. 

Look for employees a base level of skill or understanding, particularly those who seem adept at doing related tasks. The best cross-trained employees will naturally be high performers.

Keep in mind if an employee is really good at a specific thing, you need to weigh whether or not cross-training would be a disruption or distraction. Would adding more training hurt their contribution to your business in the long run? It’s especially important to avoid cross-training an employee who has a job dealing with compliance (e.g. financial, fiduciary). When there are legal oversight requirements, that employee must focus specifically and only on that work.

Create your training program

After identifying areas where cross-training makes sense, and you know the employees you’ll cross-train, the next step would be to reduce their workload. This way employees will have the proper time for training. 

Depending on the level of certification or requirements of the task, supplementing your on-the-job training program might work fine. In other situations, you may need to use outside instruction, particularly if promotion to management is a potential outcome and leadership training is necessary.

There’s a time cost up front if you do it right. 

And, you may need a mentor or continued education or training in the future to make sure the employee is truly capable of handling the task when needed. Keep an eye on employees who, through cross-training, would be a good manager.

Integrate the cross-training in your current tools

Finally, integrate your cross-training approach into the tools you’re already using. 

Make sure to include your cross-training in your HR or training tool that you use to make sure employees are current or certified for specific skills. A refresher course every year is easy to forget, but still important.

For example, scheduling software like When I Work makes it easy to add tags so you know what an employee is qualified to do. When you plug this into the software, automatic scheduling will take full advantage of that information. Otherwise, it’s easy to forget which employees can actually help out in other areas.

While we like to joke about people “staying in their lane,” that can create weakness and a workforce unable to be flexible to what’s coming over the horizon. Cross-training your team is like weaving a piece of cloth. The individual strands are nice on their spool, but when you weave them together you get something much stronger and useful. 

If you have difficulty making the scheduling, adequately filling a shift, or are dealing with production delays, consider the benefits of cross-training, and implement the tools that would expand its benefits.