How to Cross-Train Every Employee — and Why You Should


Upskilling and reskilling have been hot topics in HR and recruiting recently. There is a common conception that rapid technological transformation will soon force organizations across every industry to focus on retraining employees to develop high-tech and scientific skills to stay afloat.

In my opinion, however, that’s not necessarily the case. It really depends on the specific company and its specific needs. Sure, firms in fields that are already tech-heavy (like engineering) and in professional services fields (like accounting) have a mandate to keep up with the latest technology in order to remain competitive. But if you work in retail, restaurants, or other customer-service-oriented fields, new technology may not necessitate a full-scale reskilling.

But I don’t mean to suggest upskilling and reskilling aren’t important — just that it’s not always about keeping up with technology. When organizations put training programs in place, they need to be tailored to the company’s specific needs at that specific time, not based simply on general trends in the workforce.

A Better Approach to Training

Upskilling and reskilling are tricky, but they ultimately come down to this: For training to be meaningful, it needs to focus on what a particular company in a particular industry needs now.

Filling skills gaps is a critical priority for any HR and recruiting leader, but the tactics we’ve used so far — namely, relying on sourcing new talent — have been insufficient.

It is much easier — and less time-intensive — to train an existing employee instead of hiring a new one. It can take anywhere from 1-2 years for a new employee to reach full productivity because, in addition to learning new skills, they’re also learning the processes and procedures of a new workplace. Existing employees, on the other hand, already understand the company. All they need to learn are the skills.

How We Cross-Train Everyone

Currently, I help recruit and handle HR for a major accounting firm. At our firm, we believe in teaching all employees how to do all jobs — not just because it helps us promote continuous training and development among employees, but also because it has immediate practical benefits. In case anyone is out for any reason, someone on staff can ensure their crucial job duties are still carried out.

Cross-training also helps us easily ramp up productivity when we need to. For example, all our bookkeepers are cross-trained on relevant systems and procedures to assist the staff accountants during the busy tax season.

We have a training coordinator who looks over all our current systems and determines which employees will most benefit from being cross-trained on certain systems. There are a lot of systems to juggle — Accounting CS, CCH Software Delivery Manager, Checkpoint, Creative Solutions for Accounting, CS Quickbooks, and UltraTax, to name a few — so it’s really useful to have someone who’s job is to stay on top of training for all of them.

Of course, your organization may be set up a little differently. You may not have a dedicated training coordinator, and even if you do, they may benefit from learning some best practices. Here are some things I’ve learned from how our firm handles training:

1. Employees May Not Automatically Be on Board

When the subject of upskilling, reskilling, or cross-training comes up, some employees may be resistant. They may not want to do the jobs of others, feeling that this is not their responsibility.

In that case, it’s best to have an honest conversation with the employee about the benefit of learning additional skill sets. Talk in terms of both how their new knowledge will help the firm and how it will help them, personally and professionally. This will get more buy-in.

2. Keep It Bite-Sized

Rather than lengthy training sessions, it’s best to deliver content in bite-sized pieces. If you give your employees too much to digest at once, it’s easy for them to become overwhelmed. Instead, space training out over a period of time, and have employees engage in small lessons one by one.

3. Cater to Different Types of Learners

Some employees will really take to self-training options, but other employees need a more hands-on experience with guidance. It’s a good idea to offer your workers both types of training, depending on their preferences.

Make sure employees have mentors they can turn to whenever they have questions. Mentors will be helpful for all employees, no matter their preferred learning styles, but they’ll be especially beneficial to those employees who need a little more handholding.

It can be very difficult preparing for the future — especially at a time of great social and technological change. The world is moving at a faster pace than ever, and organizations will need to commit to reskilling and upskilling if they want to keep up. Just make sure your training programs are focused on what your workers and company really need.

Dr. Kanya D. Hubbard is owner and operator of Dee Jones, Inc.

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