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For small and medium-sized businesses, cross-training can be a lifesaver

An organization with dedicated departments and strictly delineated staff roles might be easy to manage when things are running smoothly, but what happens when someone gets sick, goes on vacation or abruptly leaves the company, and there’s no one else who can perform that person’s duties? Or what if all employees who can perform a certain duty are away from work at the same time? The last thing you want to be doing is scrambling to figure out how to do something at the last minute when you expected it to be done a week before, or training someone to do something entirely new while a deadline looms.

These situations, which are more likely to affect smaller businesses with fewer employees than big ones, call for flexibility and cross-training.

What is cross-training? Essentially, it means training an employee to perform tasks that are outside of her direct domain of responsibility.

For example, as a writer and editor at First Reference and HRinfodesk, my domain is writing, researching, editing and copy editing for our various publications. However, my training extends to the various modes of production we use, including print production, web production and quality control, among other things. With this additional knowledge, I can take over from colleagues who do these things regularly, when necessary.

If that sounds obvious, then you probably already cross-train your staff to some extent, but you might want to take a moment and consider: are there any positions at your workplace that only one person has the knowledge to perform? If the answer is yes, and that position involves critical functions, you might be waiting for trouble. What would you do if that person couldn’t work at a time when you needed the work he was responsible for?

Besides this fundamental function of cross-training, there are other advantages, for both employers and their employees.

Employers gain the benefits of a more skilled and flexible staff. This mean that, when a shift occurs at the organization, employees are more likely to be prepared and maybe even willing to move into new roles. Moreover, employees with diversified training can look at situations and problems from different angles. Cross-training also exposes staff to other workers’ responsibilities, increasing communication, understanding and (hopefully!) respect among colleagues. Further, employees with diversified roles are less likely to become bored of their jobs. All of these things can help improve productivity, morale, team spirit and co-operation, and reduce absenteeism, presenteeism and other workplace maladies.

Cross-training might even form the basis of a strong succession planning program. By training staff members in the duties of managers, an employer will discover which employees have the requisite skills and which need more training to move up, and the employer can plan accordingly, perhaps while giving a manager or two time for a much-needed vacation!

I know I’m forgetting advantages (and maybe some disadvantages), so please tell me about your adventures in cross-training. Have you been “stuck” without that critical person at the wring time? Have you successfully used cross-training to promote skilled employees?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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3 thoughts on “For small and medium-sized businesses, cross-training can be a lifesaver
  • Adam Gorley says:

    Speaking of forgetting, I forgot that Yosie wrote a post on cross-training late last year!

    She offers a good detailed look at the topic, including many more advantages:

    http://blog.firstreference.com/2009/12/16/the-importance-of-cross-training/

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Thanks Sujata—I want to laugh at your comment, because I actually cut from my final post a comment related to what you’re saying:
    “Of course, it’s important not to overwork cross-trained employees. Just because they know how to do more, doesn’t mean that they’ve all of a sudden got more time to work.”

    But you’re serious and I’m sure you’re right, too!

    Still, an employer that does that might find itself facing a charge of constructive dismissal, or significant claims for overtime pay…

  • Sujata says:

    I agree fully with Adam that there are great advantages to cross-training (or building redundancy as I call it).
    But the disadvantage? Be prepared for the day when the boss discovers you can do the work of two and abolishes one of the roles. You end up with two jobs for one paycheque.