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The Importance of Cross-Training Employees

Happy group of people at the gym

Cross-training in the workplace: Why should you do it? What does it look like for your team? How do you do it successfully?

Before we answer those questions, let’s clarify what cross-training is. In the world of sports and fitness, an athlete cross-trains when they pursue activities or exercises outside their traditional specialty, with the goal of increased performance in their main sport.

Studio owners and dance teachers already use cross-training to supplement regular technique classes for their dancers. Equipment like balls, bands, and balance boards abound as teachers seek additional curricula to strengthen students’ bodies, maintain condition, and prevent injury. Outside the dance bubble, there is no shortage of examples of pro football players taking Pilates to improve their flexibility and control, competitive swimmers lifting weights for strength and stability, and elite runners maintaining their cardiovascular fitness with biking. In fact, Runner’s World magazine lists injury prevention, greater fitness, and enhanced motivation among the many benefits of cross-training for athletes.

If you’re thinking, “Hang on, I’m dealing with staff burnout and low productivity, not preparing for a decathlon,” stay with me—the management advice here may surprise you. Employees, just like athletes, can be cross-trained—building their “muscles” in different areas of your business. A social media manager can cross-train with an enrollment coordinator to better understand advertising needs. A teacher can build customer service skills by cross-training with a receptionist. An office manager could cross-train with a teacher in order to understand classroom management. To the benefit of your studio, cross-trained employees are more versatile, empathetic, and confident in their work.

“Injury” prevention

Think about cross-training in the context of injury prevention. In the workplace, “injury” might look like burnout for one or two individuals, poor team morale, or an underperforming department. Preventing those injuries takes proactive work and cross-training is key, offering people a way to get out of a rut and become more agile. Cross-training gives each of your employees a chance to be the expert—to use their leadership skills with each other. It can also give them opportunities to be a beginner, putting aside their own to-do lists for a moment and allowing themselves to learn something new.

These benefits can strengthen work relationships and increase engagement, as employees let down their guard and open themselves to new aspects of work. During the process you might even identify a team member who has a particular talent for something you might not have discovered otherwise—HR buried treasure. In this way cross-training is like “auditioning” your own staff for future growth. Who was excited (or not) about the work? Who was a surprise rockstar (or the opposite)? Where did you identify opportunities to give more to the people who truly want it?

TIP: Be sure to give everyone equal opportunity to be the teacher and the student.

TRY THIS: Your office manager teaches the competitive team director how to run a report in your database; the team director teaches the office manager how to put together a spirit swag bag for the pep rally.

ADJUST FOR FIT: Consider where sharing work might not be appropriate (for example, high-level financial information or in senior-level roles). The goal is to build confidence while creating a baseline of flexibility and bench strength among your employees.

Increased fitness

Cross-training can also raise your entire team to a greater “fitness” level through something called the protégé effect. The protégé effect is a psychological phenomenon where teaching, pretending to teach, or preparing to teach information to others helps a person learn that information. Many dancers can relate to the effectiveness of teaching choreography to someone else as a tactic for learning it themselves, and entrepreneurs know to practice giving the “elevator pitch” about their business hundreds of times as a way of crystallizing their mission, vision, and values. It is in the repetition that the refinement comes, and no matter how many times we have repeated a task, we see it with fresh eyes when we explain it to someone else. 

Think about where your team’s skills could use refining—would they benefit from greater fitness in communication? Collaboration? Asking your team to cross-train someone else on a task or a job duty will make them better at the very thing they are teaching. As a bonus, the expectation of ongoing education normalizes learning and offers opportunities for you to mine the gold within your people all season long.

TIP: Use the protégé effect to build confidence in your employees.

TRY THIS: Have your team members prepare a simple, instructional presentation on a job-related topic of their choosing (or raise the stakes by choosing the topic for them), to be delivered to their co-workers during a staff meeting.

ADJUST FOR FIT: Reward effort over success—remember that the goal is to encourage people, not make them afraid of public humiliation. Remember how nervous you used to get—or still do—before leading staff meetings? Let everyone get out their leadership nerves with an icebreaker or two and then applaud their willingness with tons of recognition and high fives.

Inspire more

Finally, cross-training can enhance motivation, and the promise of more motivated employees seems like a leadership no-brainer. Let’s face it, doing the same job duties week after week can become stale, even in the most dynamic and energetic studio environment. Running weekly attendance reports, teaching pliés and tendus, or replacing janitorial supplies doesn’t seem to hold quite the same magic on the 74th day as it did on the first. 

Cross-training on new tasks and responsibilities can help break up monotony and provide much-needed fresh perspectives, even using new parts of the brain. Artistic, right-brained types who make creative decisions on merchandise or design every graphic could walk a less-experienced co-worker through their process, sharing their enthusiasm for searching hundreds of fonts, or detailing why that dance bag was a must-have item for the elementary school set. The reverse is true, too: logical, left-brained types can expound upon the virtues of a simple spreadsheet or a clear budget, revealing the beauty of data-driven decisions to co-workers who might not have seen the world through this lens before.

The best part of these exchanges is that once the information is shared, at least some part of it will stick; even if the trainee is not at the ability level of the trainer, they certainly have acquired enough knowledge to perform a basic version of the job. Taking a day off of running attendance reports in order to make simple Canva graphics about an upcoming studio event can provide a needed brain break for your office manager, as well as lend a much-appreciated hand to the overworked creative team, and it may just foster a fresh perspective on that attendance data when it’s time to return to the original scope of work.

TIP: Focus on clear communication when cross-training employees.

TRY THIS: To avoid misunderstandings about what is knowledge for knowledge’s sake and what is job duty, don’t be afraid to explicitly state “I’d like you to learn this for your own education and as support for the team” versus “I’d like you to learn this so you can take it over.”

ADJUST FOR FIT: If you do desire a transfer of responsibilities, make sure to specify the timeline for the shift so there are no mixed signals or disappointment. We want to use cross-training to increase motivation, not destroy it—clear expectations are key to preserving morale.

If you are not currently cross-training employees at your studio, it might seem like one more thing to add to your to-do list. But savvy small business owners know it can work magic to create more competencies and connections. Start down the path of cross-training and watch the opportunities reveal themselves! 

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