In the uncertain times that the coronavirus produced, business leaders were forced to face the fact that employees might not be available every day to do their jobs – either because of their own health concerns or because they were scrambling to make childcare arrangements because of school closings.
And, as the economy takes a hit, some businesses may even need to downsize, leaving the remaining workers to take on duties they are unprepared for and weren’t hired to carry out.
That’s one reason why it’s always a good idea to cross-train employees, allowing someone else to step in when circumstances necessitate it, says Bill Higgs, an authority on corporate culture and the ForbesBooks author of the Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in Your Business (www.culturecodechampions.com/training).
“Ultimately, you want everyone who works for you to broaden their knowledge and expand the scope of what they normally do,” says Higgs, a founder and former CEO of Mustang Engineering who recently launched the Culture Code Champions podcast.
“The result is a more efficient and productive workplace.”
In his younger days, Higgs was an Army Ranger, where the need to cross-train was inescapable.
“If you are on a critical military mission and someone goes down, another Ranger needs to take over that person’s duties,” Higgs says. “Otherwise, the mission would be scrapped.”
The average business day may not be as severely distressing as a military mission, but just as in the military, cross-training comes with benefits, he says. It prevents mistakes. It improves accuracy. It saves time. It saves money.
And each additional duty an employee can take on during uncertain times could make the difference on whether a project or order is completed on time, and whether missed deadlines leave customers unhappy, costing the business money – or even leading to it going out of business.
“Some business leaders may say they just can’t work in the time for cross-training because they and their employees are too busy,” Higgs says. “They probably are busy, but it needs to be a priority and they need to figure out a way to find the time. We’re probably seeing right now just how important it can be.”
A few suggestions he has for working cross-training in to harried schedules include:
- Make use of downtime. Few people are busy every minute, so take advantage of any downtime to slip in cross-training, Higgs says. “That way no one is just sitting around waiting for the next project,” he says. “At Mustang, for example, if an instrument engineer’s work slowed down, then we moved him or her over to automation or some other functional area that was related to, but slightly different from, the person’s regular job.”
- Schedule time. “I’m skeptical when people tell me they don’t have any downtime, but let’s assume that’s so,” Higgs says. “Then I recommend you set aside time specifically dedicated to cross-training. It’s that important.” Figure out who you need to cross-train, he says, and find the areas of your business where cross-training will pay off the most.
- Implement “lunch-and-learns.” Nearly everyone eats lunch or takes a break at mid-day, and that’s a great time to set up some lunch-and-learn times when someone in the company can teach others about what they do, Higgs says. “At Mustang, we even had vendors come in and talk about their products and services,” he says.
“An added bonus to cross-training is people who don’t normally interact are brought together and develop a better appreciation for what others do,” Higgs says. “That helps to create an even greater sense of team throughout the organization, which is especially important during difficult times like these when everyone needs to pull together.”