Scientists working together in lab

Cross-Training in a Lab

Do the benefits outweigh the cost?

Olena Shynkaruk, PhD

Olena Shynkaruk, PhD, is a freelance science writer and editor with a love for languages. She is a Ukrainian Canadian who has studied, worked, and presented internationally. Her experience as...

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Cross-training might sound like an unfamiliar and intimidating term. My first experience with cross-training was in a gym rather than in a lab. But in a lab, it is more common than you think. Moreover, there is a 99.99 percent chance you either have already been cross-trained or cross-trained one of your employees.

Cross-training is the development of complementary skills to perform job tasks that are additional to those found in one’s job description. Cross-training helps achieve and maintain a higher level of overall performance while utilizing supplementary training. In the vernacular, cross-training means wearing many hats. Isn’t this a part of every job in a lab? Albeit, this is more common in a start-up or small business than large corporations. If you ever operated more than one instrument, provided a customer with a quote for a product you synthesized, or simply answered an inquiry email, you have performed cross-trained duties. However, cross-training does not necessarily mean hectic or random. Like its athletic cousin, it has strategies that can be used to make sure you get the most out of it.

Five strategies in cross-training of lab personnel

Identify and bridge skill gaps

There are a great number of resources on how to improve your business operations, where cross-training can be used to optimize the existing workforce performance by continuously identifying skill gaps, followed by making a corresponding plan to bridge them. If you are not sure where to start, a good rule of thumb is to look at skills that would be lost if your senior employees retire. This also can be a stepping stone toward succession planning.

Establish complementary activities

Cross-training opportunity arises when we can identify synergistic complementary activities that enhance employee’s skills. For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, these activities can be analytical chemistry and quality assurance. When Dr. Azeret Zuniga, quality assurance (QA) manager at Metabolomic Technologies Inc. and former QA manager at Gilead Sciences, started her QA manager position at Gilead, she was the first person to undergo the cross-training: over the first three months, she spent half of her days in the analytical lab where she learned analytical techniques for product analysis, gained knowledge of good manufacturing practices, and built relationships with people outside of her department. This training later facilitated her in her QA role by giving a complete understanding of analytical lab reports.

Another possible synergistic pair is customer support and product synthesis, found in contract research labs or small businesses. Interaction with customers can give a scientist an idea of how to improve current offerings, from the product’s properties to the provided supplemental information.

Cover your critical lab positions

Do you have lab positions with higher than usual turnover? Do any of your lab operation units get busier than others? These critical positions can benefit from cross-training as your staff becomes more flexible, and the negative impact of staff shortage is avoided by having a trained backup. It is worthwhile to note that one critical position doesn’t need to necessarily equal one cross-trained employee.1 Breaking down this position into tasks and training multiple employees in each of these tasks would create a sustainable collaborative network.

Account for your industry standards

Each industry has its performance standards and regulations. Some industries, like medicine and pharmaceuticals, are more regulated than others. The cross-training program outcome needs to account for these regulations, (e.g., the job performed by cross-trained personnel needs to meet them).

Select appropriate trainers and methods

It is important to establish who administers the training. People that are the most efficient at cross-trained tasks might not be the right fit. Dr. Zuniga remembers that upper management specifically selected their “cross-training champions,” which were usually highly patient employees with excellent communication skills.

Moreover, your industry specifics will dictate what forms the training takes. For example, in pharmaceutical and medical fields, Dr. Zuniga and Dr. Franklin S. Carman III, professor of biophysical sciences at Western Nevada Community College (Carson City, NV), both independently recall that learning the foundations and supplementing them with visual learning and hands-on instrument training worked the best, especially for the long-term memory of a skill that might not be practiced every day.

As you are getting a clearer picture of cross-training strategies that can be used to optimize your lab operations, let’s define some of the cross-training benefits.

Five benefits of cross-training in a lab

Deepening employee engagement and job satisfaction

Cross-training programs provide an opportunity for continuous learning and personal growth. Both of these factors deepen employees’ motivation and engagement in the workplace, decreasing employee turnover. Thus, cross-training programs ultimately save the total cost of employee replacement, which can be 1.5-2X their annual salary, providing financial gains for your lab in the long-term. As the saying goes, happy employees, profitable business.

Fostering the collaborative workplace culture built on a resilient and agile workforce

Having a flexible schedule is one of the most important factors for today’s sustainable workforce. Planned and unforeseen absences happen, and existing cross-trained employees can bridge the gaps, reduce the workload for units with staff shortage, and promote collaborative, resilient workplace culture.

Promoting knowledge transfer

Let’s take a synthetic chemistry lab as an example. Does only one person know how to make a product, and by “know,” I mean all the nitty-gritty details of synthesis—knowledge accumulated over 1,000 trials? What if they went on vacation? Or even worse, quit. Cross-training would help avoid the loss of experience and associated time/cost to regain it.

Developing future leaders

Participating in a cross-training program means going out of your comfort zone. Trainees build new skills and develop critical competencies. Cross-training programs help highlight employees that are curious, driven, proactive, and reliable with a can-do attitude. These people have great potential of being excellent future leaders in your organization.

Increasing overall business efficiency due to the universal nature of cross-training

Cross-training strategies and plans can be transferred to different areas of lab operations, as well as beyond them. “Cross-training works in all businesses to a degree. It makes the unexpected easier to deal with and keeps the daily flow running smoothly,” says Kelly Lynch, fellow of the American Association of Dental Office Management and founder and CEO of Platinum Practice Solutions, a dental practice management consulting firm that specializes in team cross-training.

At first glance, cross-training is beneficial for the optimization of workplace performance and culture. However, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2019 employee benefits report, while 87 percent of organizations offer professional development benefits, only 45 percent of them provide their employees with cross-training, only a one percent increase compared to 2017. Why would that be? Let’s look at the challenges associated with cross-training lab personnel.

Three challenges of cross-training in a lab and how to overcome them

Three main challenges of any cross-training program are cost, timelines, and maintaining the company’s standards. To address these challenges, we require a systematic approach—the development and continuous revision of a cross-training plan. Here are some of its components:

Establish the budget

The cost of the program would depend on the scale of operations and the source of cross-training (internal/external). Besides, gaining additional critical skills through a cross-training program would need to be reflected in an employee’s compensation.

Create a schedule and proper documentation

Finding time to cross-train an employee might be a challenge, but do not leave it to the moment of crisis. Think of this as building a gym routine—creating a schedule of activities and adhering to it over time would give the abovementioned benefits. Because, as in a gym, you won’t see the results overnight.

Moreover, having documentation for cross-training might first look like a new bureaucratic burden. Yet, if it includes program goals, protocols for cross-trained activities, expected outcomes, and assigned personnel, it will help you to adhere to your training timelines and facilitate the implementation.

Incorporate collective input into the program development

The development of a cross-training plan needs to have continuous input from employees at all levels. Agile feedback from both trainers and trainees, as well as HR and upper management outlook (potentially based on established success metrics), could be a great starting point.

So, do the benefits outweigh the cost?

The bottom line is that cross-training could be a valuable tool to improve the efficiency of your lab operations, foster collaborative culture, and deepen employee engagement and satisfaction, assuming the proper cross-training system is in place. Remember, even a small step in this direction can make a positive shift in your workplace. As Henry Ford once said, “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”