Cross-Training Should Take a Central Role as Organizations Welcome Back Workers

Many companies will need to consider a “corporate reserve” model where front-line employees and managers are reskilled so they can dynamically shift their job roles in response to a changing business environment as employees go back to work post-COVID-19. To achieve this, training will take a starring role.

As organizations begin turning their attention to staff returning to the workplace, it is important to acknowledge the workforce is going through an unprecedented remixing. Millions of workers were furloughed or laid off; top talent has been exposed to an avalanche of different ways to help thriving businesses pave the way for the next “normal”; and C-suites are deep in conversations about “right-sizing” the workforce through some mix of offshoring, insourcing, and crowdsourcing talent.

Few people, however, are discussing the training strategies that will enable employees to become adaptable, cross-functional, and resilient, which will be the difference between companies that struggle to revive and those that translate their talent into a new way to get work done. After all, no company can hire and train new employees fast enough for the “day one productivity” that is needed for businesses to begin recovering, especially when the average time for a new employee to hit full productivity is eight months. Returning employees will have to be retrained.

The employees who return to the workplace will arguably have more work than before as they help businesses get back on track, and they likely will have different work because not every employee is returning to his or her old job—and certainly not all at once. These talent waves will force many companies to consider a “corporate reserve” model where front-line employees and managers are reskilled so they can dynamically shift their job roles in response to a changing business environment. To achieve this, training will take a starring role.

3 Critical Steps

There are three critical steps to make this adaptive workforce model a reality.

1. Identify and address gaps for job reassignment.

Achieving an on-demand workforce first requires organizations to define the work, especially where there are concentrations of a certain type or volume of work. Once they understand the work at hand—and this is likely to shift over time as America reopens—they can match employees from a less busy part of the business to support demand in another. Bank of America, for example, recently redeployed 3,000 of its branch employees to help handle call center demand instead. Training plans had to fill the knowledge gaps between the branch teller role and call center support duties.

Building a workforce with training across multiple job functions will not only help companies adapt now as COVID-19 unfolds and (hopefully) concludes, but it also should become a mainstay of company cultures in order to embed business continuity into the organization. This type of structure puts employees to work where they are most needed, prioritizes training areas that drive business value, and maintains existing workers who have crossover institutional knowledge that new hires would not.

2. Provide real-time, on-the-job training support.

Deskside and on-the-job learning formats will become more critical because employees won’t have time for traditional onboarding into new roles. Facebook, for example, has new employees doing their jobs within 45 minutes of starting work. Real-time training methods such as microlearning modules, chatbot support, and subject matter expert (SME) observation/feedback must be implemented to help employees learn while they are doing the job—especially if it is a new role for them. Real-time, bite-sized, and scenario-based training will be the most effective way for people to acquire the breadth and depth of skills they need while simultaneously delivering on productivity mandates. The days of classroom learning are gone for the foreseeable future.

This approach allows for people to be productive while learning takes shape. In addition, learning is directly relevant to the work being performed, so there is higher knowledge retention.

3. Focus on manager training.

The role of manager has been, and will continue to be, disrupted as the who, what, and where of their teams are impacted. At the same time the manager role is being disrupted, these leaders also will continue to be the key influencers over employee engagement, productivity, and burnout—for better or worse.

Training strategies must ensure managers have what they need to deal with a variety of critical challenges, such as remote management and employee engagement, compliance topics, employee wellness, expanding teams, and elevated productivity expectations. Weekly group sessions to share and work through challenges, engaging a coach for your manager teams, and even setting aside an office hour for spot-training on specific topics can provide low effort—but high reward—investments to get managers what they need quickly. Preparing and supporting managers will be a force multiplier for broader business impact.

Investing in managers has positive ripple effects throughout an organization’s overall engagement, productivity, and employee wellness. The better managers deal with the needs of the workforce, the more Human Resources and other Learning functions can focus on other areas.

With many employees still working from home or furloughed, the need for training may not seem readily apparent. However, the companies that will thrive in the “next normal” are the ones that take this moment to map out the work that needs to be done, the skills and knowledge required for that work, and the best way to create access to those skills and knowledge across a series of waves of return. Accessible learning strategies that “sit” next to employees will help them navigate the changes to their role and aid businesses as they adapt in real-time to the post-pandemic world of work.   

Joni Roylance is head of Workforce Readiness, Design, and Adoption at North Highland, a global consulting firm.

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