Cross-training is a powerful tool that lab managers can use to build a ready reserve of skilled team members to resolve future challenges around staffing issues. It also provides many intangible benefits that extend beyond the bench to improve employee engagement and collaborative efforts. Successful implementation of cross-training in the lab requires a forward-looking approach to account for the time investment, cultivate group buy-in and support, and establish it as an integrated component of ongoing training and development efforts.
Resolving staffing issues and saving on costs
A cross-trained lab team that is available to fill in staffing gaps leads to increased flexibility during planned and unplanned absences, continued operations during staffing shortages, and reduced labor costs by limiting overtime use. Additionally, Don Newton, a clinical laboratory consultant, says lab managers are constantly playing the scheduling game, and cross-coverage ensures there are skilled professionals to cover every shift.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further underscored the need for cross-trained staff, according to Tonja M. Henze, an independent consultant and retired laboratory animal care coordinator at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. “These times are a valid reminder to maintain fluidity in our resources, and having personnel trained to perform duties which are normally outside their assigned areas allows for rapid coverage on short notice,” she says.
“Cross-training is a win-win for both management and staff members in terms of professional growth.”
Further, cross-training can help labs avoid financial catastrophes like closing a bench or lab section, notes Allison Chambliss, director of clinical chemistry at the LAC + USC Medical Center. For example, she says cross-trained staff can be shifted to other departments to address sample backlogs after downtime. And, as Newton pointed out in a previous Lab Manager article, staff trained in areas outside the lab may lead to identifying new lines of services that could be offered to improve financial outcomes and avoid staff reductions.
There are other hidden cost savings that can be actualized from cross-training efforts. Paris Grey, a research lab manager at the University of Florida and co-founder of the website Undergrad in the Lab, emphasizes properly cross-training staff on seemingly straightforward but critical tasks (e.g., equipment preventive maintenance) to avoid lab disasters. In the end, this saves on repair bills, potential loss of research samples, and much frustration.
Reaping benefits that extend beyond the bench
Cross-training can lead to increased team cohesion and improved operations. As described in an article published in The Journal of Applied Laboratory Medicine, Chambliss and co-authors advocate for the use of multidisciplinary training to encourage collaborations and problem-solving across laboratory science disciplines. The end goal is not to develop expertise, but rather a shared understanding and appreciation of other colleagues’ work. She says this can “foster better teamwork, cooperation, and empathy.” One related outcome is enhanced troubleshooting of technical issues using a team approach.
Likewise, Henze and colleagues concluded in a case report that cross-training efforts led to enhanced operations across facilities with increased communications, a more comprehensive understanding of system-wide operations, and further process improvements. For example, they said of trainees, “Their questions regarding why something is done in a certain way encourage us to reflect on our procedures and to further standardize our practices.”
Cross-training is a win-win for both management and staff members in terms of professional growth. It is an effective mechanism for upskilling staff to take on extra responsibilities and prepare them for upcoming promotions. In turn, individual staff members benefit from more flexibility at work, an expanded skill set, and increased career marketability.
In addition, cross-training can create a more inclusive lab environment and balanced workloads. Grey encourages training every lab member on routine lab chores to ensure a more equitable distribution of work. She also suggests using a train-the-trainer model to ensure staff aren’t overtasked with training duties and subsequently penalized for their cooperative efforts through lost productivity. Thus, when lab members become proficient at a skill, they in turn should become trainers, which also helps early-career scientists gain invaluable mentoring skills.
Investing in a skilled team for future needs
When considering how to implement a cross-training program in the lab, it’s important to take a forward-looking approach to the process. “Lab managers should keep in mind that we are building up a skill set for our future needs and consider the training effort as an investment in maintaining a skilled team,” Henze says. Cross-training requires advanced planning, and Chambliss notes that lab managers need to account for the necessary time investment, which includes both the initial training time and continuing competency assessment.
To help balance training time with ongoing workloads, Newton recommends using recurrent downtimes in the day to shift a technician to another department for training. Further, Henze suggests deploying a “buddy system” to pair up trainees with more senior personnel, where they can gain hands-on experience practicing the new skills. This system also enables immediate feedback and regular evaluation, plus relieves the lab manager from being solely responsible for all the training duties.
“Lab managers should keep in mind that we are building up a skill set for our future needs and consider the training effort as an investment in maintaining a skilled team.”
In terms of assessing competency, there needs to be set evaluation criteria, regular checkpoints, and a clear definition of what constitutes fully cross-trained. While strong documentation of cross-training signoff is essential, Newton says it’s imperative to ask the trainee to perform a self-assessment. He explains, “You are also relying on the person being cross-trained to be honest with their level of comfort learning new skills. They need to tell you when they are ready to work in the new area.”
It’s also beneficial to find ways for staff members to transfer their newly learned knowledge back to the lab bench and practice these skills. If too much time has passed since initial training and a cross-training assignment, refresher training may be required. One useful tool used by Henze and her team is a cross-training skills matrix, which enables visualization of cross-coverage across units and tracks when staff may be due for refresher training.
Applying change management to cross-training efforts
Like any new process introduced to a lab team, cross-training requires careful consideration in leading staff through the change to build support for the initiative. In following best practices for change management, it is critical for lab managers to establish and communicate clear training objectives, create a shared vision and group ownership of efforts, and alleviate any perceived fears of the change.
While Henze notes there can be initial resistance to change, she suggests rolling out cross-training gradually and focusing first on staff who demonstrate the most enthusiasm for the program. Newton agrees, “You always want folks with a positive, can-do attitude who put the needs of the patients and the lab above all else.”
Another key criterion for selecting staff for cross-training, Henze says, is competency in following set lab procedures. As such, a good approach is to cross-train staff in areas where they can follow a standard operating procedure (SOP), which frees up experienced staff for more complex tasks. Moreover, Henze’s team found that following an SOP helped to alleviate staff fears in “messing up” and was cited by staff as having the most impact on the success of the cross-training program.
Implementing components of cross-training in the lab
Even if there are initial barriers to a more widespread effort, lab managers can still implement components of cross-training within their laboratory at the local level. Grey says it’s common for labs to informally incorporate cross-training by encouraging group members to share their expertise with each other on a regular basis and promote it as good lab courtesy.
Lab managers can further integrate cross-training experiences into other touchpoints throughout the employee life cycle. Ideas include adding lab rotations during the staff onboarding process or hosting topical presentations at scheduled lab meetings. Another way to promote interdisciplinary cross-training, suggested by Chambliss and colleagues, is to periodically invite other departments to standing meetings (e.g., quality improvement) and discuss technical issues and workflows that cross multiple areas.
Finally, Henze reminds lab managers to take a personalized approach to any training and development efforts: “It is important to remember that each staff member is an individual with individual strengths and weakness, and to be clear that staff are not interchangeable.” She continues, “Appreciate what each staff member can bring to the unit and build on their strengths.” This approach includes providing accommodations (e.g., flexibility in scheduling to account for extra travel time to another site) as needed to ensure the cross-training assignment doesn’t introduce undue stress or work-life imbalances.