Anyone who runs on a regular basis is likely already familiar with the benefits of cross-training. In running, cross-training is promoted as a way to improve over all fitness and strength, increase power, add flexibility, and even increase one’s motivation. Cross-training recognizes that over indulging in a single activity (in this case, running) is never beneficial, even if one’s goal is to become the fastest runner on the planet.

Cross-Training - Not Just for Athletes

As a runner, adding weight training, yoga, swimming or cycling to a fitness routine may not turn you into a yogi or track cycling champion, but it will positively impact your running and reduce your risk of developing running related injuries. But cross-training is no longer just for athletes.

In today’s economy, the most competitive organizations are staffed by workers able to fill many roles, and this is promoted by cross-training. Employees who cross-train gain knowledge and skills that exceed the usual parameters of their positions. Moreover, when workers are given opportunities to cross-train, they typically take it as a sign that their employers are committed to making a long-term investment in them. For this reason, cross-trained employees often report higher levels of job satisfaction and higher levels of employer loyalty. Of course, they also benefit by increasing their marketability outside their current workplace. For organizations, cross-training also holds many advantages. Cross-training programs prepare employees to step into new positions as required, ensuring employees can effectively cover for people on leave, even with short notice, or assume new positions with increased responsibilities as they become available. Because employees’ job satisfaction typically increases with cross-training, organizations also benefit by improving employee morale, reducing turnover, and increasing productivity over time.

Developing a Cross-Training Program in the Workplace

Cross-training workers is about making a long-term commitment to one’s employees. For this reason, effective cross-training requires advance planning and a sustained budget line. Ideally, cross-training is not used in response to a specific crisis but rather in an anticipatory way (in other words, it is about the future more than the present). It is also important to bear in mind that the cost effectiveness of cross-training programs in the workplace is directly impacted by the length of time employees choose to stay with an organization. Fortunately, effective cross-training initiatives also tend to increase employee retention. To set up a cross-training program, organizations need to have a clear picture of what roles already exist across departments. Once one has a clear picture of an organization’s existing key roles, tasks can be grouped and prioritized to create a cross-training mandate. However, it is equally important to ask existing employees to prioritize their own training needs and desires and to draw attention to knowledges and skills they may already have that are currently being under utilized in the context of the workplace. In other words, while cross-training is primarily designed to build new knowledge and skills, it may also be a way to identify and tap into knowledges and skills that are present but not visible in a workplace and create a way for these untapped resources to be put to work.

Models for Success

If cross-training programs sometimes backfire, it is because they focus on training one employee to do another employee’s job. While by no means inherently flawed, this approach can create unnecessary competition in the workplace and even paranoia, as workers fear that their jobs may be threatened. For this reason, the best cross-training programs provide workers with an opportunity to gain entire skill sets that may or may not be connected to a single existing position in the organization. Another reason cross-training programs sometimes fail is because they do not actually lead to new opportunities. Indeed, employees who participate in cross-training programs without real opportunities to expand their current roles in an organization may even become suspicious of the motives underlying a cross-training program. After all, the point is not to ask employees to do more in an existing position but rather to support them as they grow in and with the organization. Like any workplace training initiative, cross-training programs work best when they have clear support from all levels of management and leadership. In short, cross-training programs work when they are promoted as part of an organization’s broader workplace culture.