Cross training by athletes happens when they participate in multiple types of exercise to improve performance in their main sport. While the focus of cross training employees is different when it comes to the workplace, the aim is very similar — to improve performance.
By cross training employees, you can distribute certain key skills across your team. It means team members become more well-rounded and can take on a wider range of tasks. This gives your team greater flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
However, cross training employees brings other key benefits that perhaps aren’t so obvious.
Cross training employees reduces key person dependencies
One of the primary benefits of cross training employees is to reduce risk. Many teams rely on a single person’s knowledge or expertise for certain tasks. This is a sure fire way to set yourself up for a crisis. What happens when this team member gets hit by a metaphorical bus?
If one of your team members has critical skills or information that nobody else does, you have few options except to hope that nothing happens to them. Instead of relying so heavily on one person, why not cross train other people in your team?
Giving other team members the opportunity to work with the key team member will give them a chance to absorb key knowledge and develop their skills. Arranging to spread tasks to other team members some of the time can also help. Appointing a backup to cover the key team member can also reduce the risk of single person dependency.
When you do have a key person risk, take note of how this person receives work requests. Sometimes they become the go to person for other people in your organisation. Not only can this result in significant distractions for this team member, it means the work they are doing may not be monitored properly.
Ensure that people submit these key person tasks through proper request methods, that are monitored. If you are able to monitor these requests, you will be able to spread them out more effectively amongst your team. This will help with cross training employees because you can control distribution of work, funnelling it to team members that need to learn most.
Cross training employees improves skill variety
Skill variety is important in job design to improve job satisfaction. It refers to an employee requiring multiple skills to perform their job effectively. This can reduce boredom and improve motivation by providing variety in the work that an employee does.
However, you need to be careful with adding tasks to an employee’s role. It only really works if the new tasks are relevant to, or provide benefit for the role being performed. If you tell an Accountant that her role also includes managing the company Twitter account, she may see this as a hindrance, rather than something that adds to her key skills or ability to perform the role.
If you told an Accountant that you’d like him to undertake research into accounting methods in other industries and present them to the team, he may see this as a favourable addition to his role.
This perceived skill improvement can be motivational for employees that are keen to develop their careers.
Cross training employees reduces their bargaining power
This seems an unusual point for a Thoughtful Leader article. Isn’t Thoughtful Leader all about treating your team members well and empowering them? Well yes…and no.
This point relates to the key person dependency addressed earlier. The last thing you want is a situation where one team member holds you to ransom for high salaries or other perks because of key skills that nobody else possesses. This results in these critical employees being overpaid for their roles, disadvantaging other team members.
Once a team member has too much bargaining power because of their special status, they may never want to leave. If this favoured employee eventually becomes a problem, they aren’t going to leave easily and you may be stuck with them in your team for the long term.
Cross training employees helps with this issue, because it reduces the chance of key people being able to hold you over a barrel with regard to aspects of their employment. It is never a good idea to be reliant on one employee so much that you can’t afford to have them leave.
The drawbacks of cross training employees
We’ve seen some of the advantages of cross training employees. Unfortunately, there are also some issues with doing this. They aren’t insurmountable, but you should remain aware of them.
- Your team members may become distracted more easily. The more skills your team members have, the greater chance of distraction. They may become interested in performing work that shouldn’t be their key focus. You need to make sure they are focusing on the important tasks.
- Cross training employees can reduce efficiency temporarily. When cross training team members, they will take longer to perform the new work as they develop their skills. This problem will disappear once they become familiar with the new tasks. However, sometimes there is a tendency to take the easy way out and give the work to the most skilled team member. This is the person you are trying *not* to be dependent on! You need to persist with the cross training effort and ensure that you reduce these key person dependencies.
- Cross training employees can threaten your staff. Kylie has been administering the Sales system for years. She knows all about how to configure key aspects of the system. Now all of a sudden, you want her to teach somebody else how to do it. Suddenly, Kylie wonders what she’s done wrong. Are you going to get rid of her? Bear in mind that cross training may cause your employees to become fearful of being less valuable to the team. You need to address this by explaining your reasons for cross training and trying not to make it seem like your team member has been demoted or put at risk.
There is no excuse for failing to cross train your team members. It does require some forward-thinking, but you need to be aware of single person dependencies as well as ensuring that your team remains motivated.
The last thing you want is for a crisis to hit because Kylie called in sick. Spread the key skills and experience amongst your team so that this doesn’t happen to you, or your team. Why wait for a disaster when you might be able to prevent it instead?
Originally published at www.thoughtfulleader.com on May 15, 2017.