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Trading places: cross-training can improve function

February 15, 2012

The office opens in a half hour, the appointment schedule is filled to the max, and two employees have called in sick. This could be an office manager’s nightmare, or an opportunity for staff to unite and utilize all their abilities. Office managers need to prepare for times when planned or unexpected “under staffing” may occur.  

Cross-training is the practice of training employees to perform tasks and duties outside of their regular roles. The goal of cross-training is to enable staff to “step in and step up” in a variety of functions when the need arises. Utilizing the flexibility and versatility of cross-training when staff is on vacation, calls in sick, unexpectedly quits, or leaves for their lunch break is good practice management.

There are immediate and long-term benefits of cross-training for the practice, staff, and patients. It is a win-win situation for everyone.

Benefits of cross-training to the practice:

  • Fosters a team-oriented environment and encourages collaboration when staff shares their knowledge with each other
  • Improves productivity by keeping staff current with many job positions
  • Alleviates the need to hire temporary or part-time staff
  • Builds “intellectual capital” by combining the experience and knowledge of staff.

Benefits of cross-training for staff:

  • Improves individual efficiency by allowing staff to take a new look at their job responsibilities. They can analyze them with a “fresh pair of eyes” to assess if any changes for improvements are needed or processes streamlined
  • Heightens morale when staff is able to break out of their normal routine and perform tasks that break monotony, even if only for a short time
  • Relationships are built and strengthened when staff is allowed to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” They will gain an appreciation for what others do and have a better understanding of how their roles work interdependently.
  • Promotes new skills and valuable, diversified work experience
  • Discovers leadership skills by unearthing individual talents and interests that may not have been apparent in current roles.

Benefits of cross-training for patients:

  • Does not interrupt patient services. Tasks have continuity, services are performed in a timely manner, down time is reduced, and patient satisfaction is not compromised.
  • Keeps staff on the same page when there is an increased standardization of policies and procedures. Staff will improve consistency in how services are delivered and the quality of care given to patients. 

Developing a cross-training plan

Management should carefully develop a plan with specific goals in mind. There are many details to take into consideration before getting staff involved in the cross-training plan.

Make sure the plan includes sufficient time for cross-training. Determine when and where the training will be conducted. Evaluate how much of the annual budget should be used toward cross-training to ensure a good return on the investment.

Additional questions to be answered for a comprehensive plan include:

  • Will staff be paid extra for taking on new duties?
  • Who will pay for any necessary outside training –staff or the practice?
  • What are the positions that staff will be cross-trained to perform? Choose the easiest positions first.
  • Who will the trainers be? Are they capable? Not everyone is a good instructor.
  • Who will the trainees be? Choose those who demonstrate the desire to learn.
  • When will the training take place? It’s best to train during slow times.  Make sure to allow sufficient time for learning and avoid rushing.

It is important to communicate to staff the benefits of cross-training. Present cross-training as a learning opportunity and career booster. Explain how staff will be more valuable to the practice by increasing their skills and knowledge. Encourage input and feedback from them. 

After staff has been cross-trained, encourage them to share their stories about the process. Have them report on any staff observations and learning challenges. This will help build stronger teams and improve the understanding and appreciation for all the jobs among the staff.

Cross-training gives staff a clearer view of the “big picture” rather than just a small piece of it.

Staff will be able to quickly adapt to the needs of the practice when situations arise.

They will be better equipped to respond without a noticeable drop in service.

If cross-training has not been a part of the practice’s strategic plan, ask why not? Even if it is started very slowly, practitioners will soon reap the benefits of having well-rounded staff ready to “trade places” to keep things running smoothly.

The AOA Paraoptometric Section offers education materials that will assist practices in cross-training staff. 

Contact PS@aoa.org for more information.

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