Build operational agility with rapid cross-training

Cross-training is far from a new topic in workplace learning. If employees can only complete limited tasks, you’re heavily restricted in how you run your business. However, if your employees can move seamlessly between roles, then you have considerably more agility in how you function day to day. 

This type of reskilling usually takes place as part of a structured talent strategy. Employees are often given opportunities to take on new tasks or move into new roles based on their long-term performance. Training is then scheduled to accommodate operational demands and takes place over time as the employee develops their knowledge and skill. 

Cross-training is not typically built for disruption. However, disruption is causing sudden changes in operational demand. To meet customer needs, organizations are rapidly changing frontline work assignments. Some people are being asked to take on new tasks, such as grocery associates who now take care of click-and-collect orders in addition to their everyday roles. Others are being moved into new (possibly) temporary positions, such as retail employees who are now working from home as contact center agents. 

The ability to put the right people in the right places at the right times is an important part of business resilience. Therefore, companies must have the right processes in place to rapidly reskill their frontline employees. Remember, cross-training is not the same as onboarding. While an employee may learn how to do an entirely new job, putting them through a lengthy onboarding program will probably be a waste of their time and slow their transition into the operation. 

Here are the pieces you need in place to rapidly cross-train your frontline workforce on demand.

Essential job requirements

When asking an employee to take on a new task or role, you can’t expect them to know everything right away. It can take someone months or years to demonstrate complete mastery of their job. This process can’t go faster just because your business is in the midst of disruption. Instead, break the role or task down to its basic components. Focus your cross-training on the minimum required knowledge/skill. Use other tactics, such as performance support, coaching and continued training, to fill in the rest as the employee learns through application on the job. 

Proof of knowledge/skill

Shifting a retail associate into a work-from-home contact center agent role may sound like a big transition. But what if the associate worked in a contact center two years ago and already has the foundational skills needed to make the transition quickly? Would you know? And would you have the ability to adapt their training plan accordingly? Compare the knowledge/skill requirements of the new role to available employee data to find the right people to shift and personalize their cross-training plans.

Performance support

Disruption will likely cause you to move people into new roles before they are “ready.” Cross-training will help them cover the basics, but they’ll also need a performance support crutch to improve their confidence and problem solving capabilities. Provide a simple, searchable knowledge base with easy-to-use jobs aids. Make sure they know where to go to get timely answers to questions as they arise.

Reinforcement

Changing jobs can be overwhelming. Changing jobs suddenly is even worse. Add disruption on top of that, and things can get pretty confusing pretty quickly. Employees have a lot going on as they cross-train. They’re not going to remember everything from their training. Reinforcement must be built into your strategy so employees are ready to apply critical information long-term. Simple activities, such as question-based learning, reflection and scenarios, can give employees quick opportunities to practice without adding more disruption into the operation. Managers can also reinforce important job behaviors with targeted coaching conversations. 

Cross-training is a critical process for navigating your business through disruption. It will also be an essential capability moving forward as your workplace adjusts to the next normal. Employees must continue to develop the skills needed to perform safely and productively. At the same time, organizations must maintain staffing agility so they can meet customer demands and leverage the full talents of their workforce. Fortunately, the mechanisms you must put into place to rapidly cross-training your employees will also help you execute your overall blueprint for building a resilience frontline workforce. How’s that for win-win?

Be safe. Be well. And be kind to the frontline.

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

Let’s work together to drive frontline performance in all the right ways.