An estimated 42 million employees will leave their jobs in 2018, according to a Work Institute’s 2018 Retention Report released in 2018. The top reason employees gave for leaving was lack of opportunity to learn or develop skills (21%).
Whether they have a formal development program or not, cross-training can be one solution to improving retention, says Jason O’Neill, head of global training services at Princeton, New Jersey training and consulting firm Kepner-Tregoe. Training employees to take on new roles within the company helps employee career development while delivering important benefits to the employer, including better retention, he says.
Benefits to the employee
When employees are trained to take on different roles, the workforce flexibility relieves the pressure some employees may feel to ignore work/life balance, says employee resilience coach Faun Zarge. Because employees can cover roles for each other, they can more easily take time off for vacation or leave, which can benefit both employee and employer.
In addition, cross-training in various roles can help employees see the company’s bigger picture. “Employees get burned out and leave because they don’t see the connection between the role that they play and the larger corporate strategy. And so cross training is really a ‘boots on the ground’ approach for addressing that, because once an employee leaves their cubicle or leaves the corner office, they quickly begin to connect those dots between their role and the role of their colleagues,” she says.
When Sarah Perry managed a small nonprofit—The Second Step, a Newtonville, Massachusetts-based organization that assists survivors of domestic violence—she worried about employee burnout. Her 25-person staff routinely assisted more than 800 adults and children who had survived domestic violence. Retaining employees was critical not just because of how small the staff was, but also because of the relationships they had built with survivors, she says. When she began cross-training employees, they felt like they were growing and learning, even in this small organization that couldn’t offer regular promotions, she says. And the practice broke down silos.
“There is the whole like operations side of the organization, which is the bookkeeping and the development staff, and me,” she says. “And then there was all the program people, and even they were siloed between the people without worked in our shelters versus the people who worked in our community-based program.” People were able to see more side of the organization and how their roles fit into its work. While the occasional employee left to go back to school, she says she didn’t lose employees to burnout, achieving her goal.
Benefits to the Company
The team at Kepner-Tregoe is known for its longevity, O’Neill says, with some employees having been with the company for decades. And while it’s rare that someone there has been doing the same job for that long, even those who are in similar roles find the nature of their work changes over time. O’Neill says the firm’s cross-training helps team members learn the skills they need to develop and evolve with their jobs.
“You’ve got to give people the diversity of work that’s going to keep them engaged and interested as times change,” he says. “Someone that knows that the company’s looking out for them because they’re on a career path, or they know that there’s other opportunities, is going to be more willing to stay versus trying to find that promotion opportunity outside of the company.”
Cross-training also holds a variety of other advantages for companies, says Daniel McCraine, founder of McCrain Associates, a Des Moines-based corporate training program. First, it helps them maximize resources because employees’ skills can be deployed where they’re needed instead of being confined to one area. “You can handle more business, and you can retain the current staff that you have. It’s also good when different types of work within the organization is cyclical or seasonal. If some business is down in a certain season then you just shift your workforce over to the other business,” he says.
When employees understand various aspects of the business, they also make better decisions and can be more innovative, Zarge says. “You develop skills outside your core competency and you bring the skills that you have and suddenly you’re marrying them these new skills that you’re developing. This new understanding of what’s happening in other teams, in other departments how jobs get done. And that’s really where new ideas happen, so one can create a lot of innovation for an organization,” she says. Zarge says morale and collaboration also increase with cross-training because employees have a better understanding of other areas of the company.
Training employees in new skill sets can take different forms, depending on the organization and its goals, O’Neill says. Seminars and classes only go so far. Long-lasting change requires a hands-on component, he says. Whether you choose to develop skills that are related to the role the employees has or those that are of particular interest to the employee, regardless of whether they’ll help in a particular role, will be dictated by what you hope to accomplish, he says. At Kepner-Tregoe, O’Neill says cross-training is not part of a formal program, but is accomplished by learning about the employee’s growth preferences and finding training programs and stretch assignments that will help them develop, taking care to not overwhelm them.
Even in a small office, Perry’s team had a sharp focus on professional development, she says. In addition to traditional seminars and classes, she also allowed employees to spend 20% of their time on the job working on something that interested them within the organization, whether it related to their job or not.
McCrain warns that clear communication is also effective or else employees may think that the additional training is motivated by job insecurity or a desire to unfairly increase their workload. These concerns can siphon the benefit from cross-training programs, he says. Zarge suggests creating a formal employee development plan and including a cross-training component to eliminate any employee concern about the training or reasons behind it.
Finally, be sure to measure how cross-training is benefiting your company, McCrain says. Gather the information you need to determine its impact on retention and review productivity metrics. These can help you see how your cross-training investment is paying off—or help you adjust it if you wish to see more dramatic results.