How (And Why) to Cross-Train Employees

by Robert Lockard on November 5, 2010
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Managers are often guilty of compartmentalizing their staff into silos: Bob handles the phones, while Sally boxes the widgets. This can work well… until Sally gets sick and Bob gets bored. If one staff member is out for an extended absence, your business can suddenly be hamstrung because no one else knows how to do his or her job.

Cross-training is an effective and, for most small businesses, essential way to ensure business continuity, whether a key staff member breaks an arm or wins the lottery – either way taking them out of commission.

Here are five tips on how to cross-train employees effectively:

1) Incentivize specialists to train others. Sally might be hesitant to train Bob on how to box widgets because she has little time to spare and she feels threatened that he could replace her. To overcome these concerns, you can do several things. Offer Sally an incentive, like a bonus or vacation time, for training Bob. Explain how cross-training helps her because she doesn’t have to worry when she takes a vacation or sick day. Give Sally a chance to be cross-trained in other fields, so she won’t feel like she’s only giving, and not receiving, skills.

2) Build on employees’ knowledge. Adults learn best when a new lesson is related to something they’re familiar with. Since Bob is already good at using the phone, he could be trained to use a computer system to keep track of who he calls, what he talks to them about, how many sales he makes, and what customer service he offers. The more employees learn, the more efficient they become.

3) Cross-train a little at a time. You’re running a business, not a school. There’s no need to shut down for a week to cross-train every employee at the same time. Simply incorporate a mentality of employee improvement and cross-training into your business model. An hour here and there can go a long way to training your employees without curbing their productivity.

4) Do practice runs to build confidence. The training process should include trial runs. Have your employees apply what they’re learning in tests. For instance, if Sally is learning your inventory software, give her a practical situation in which she would need to update your product records. Then have her trainer critique the results and help her get comfortable using the software, so when a real-life situation comes, she’ll know what to do.

5) Start cross-training new hires early. A good way to keep employees from getting stuck in a routine of just doing one job is to cross-train them soon after they are hired. Again, cross-training doesn’t need to happen all at once for new employees. Introduce them to the idea that they will be learning new skills, and help them grow over time.

The phrase “That’s not my job” should have no place in your company. By effectively cross-training your employees, you can improve efficiency, cut down on idleness and improve employee morale. Try it!

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