September 7, 2018 - Published in Hotel Business – NATIONAL REPORT—At first glance, the term “cross-training” may seem like it’s unfamiliar territory to many, but after a closer look at its meaning, it’s clear hoteliers have been using this strategy in practice for a long time, especially at smaller properties. The benefits of cross-training programs are evident, and despite potential challenges with implementation efforts, the rewards outweigh the potential risks.
“Cross-training is a management strategy in which employees are utilized to work more than one job,” said Mark Heymann, co-founder and CEO of UniFocus, a Carrollton, TX-based smart performance tool solutions company. “In the hospitality industry, this would mean that employees work different jobs within a hotel or restaurant.”
Some examples of cross-training would be a housekeeper taking on similar roles in laundry, or a bellman exploring new responsibilities by delivering room service to guests.
“While it’s natural for all of our team members to have areas of focus (that are generally their strengths), all of the pieces of an operation are connected—which makes cross-training critical,” said Kevin Lillis, CEO of Hospitality Alliance, a full-service hospitality consultancy based in New York City. “Some might gravitate to hands-on operations, while others might focus on financial analysis.”
Cross-training programs could create cost savings for properties. “Hoteliers might only have 25-30 hours per week available for some employees, which still requires them to pay out benefits,” Heymann said. “With cross-training, fewer employees can work full-time and save on overhead costs, which in turn increases profitability and employee satisfaction. For smaller properties, this becomes even more important.” For instance, it’s not likely a limited-service property would need a full-time dishwasher on the books.
“The benefits of cross-training in the hospitality industry include the win-win of having staff available when you need them, but not too much staff when you don’t, and an overall strong competency and sensitivity of colleagues to what each job requires,” said Sara Oliver, director of labor management of North and Central America at AccorHotels.
It would behoove employees attentive to career advancement opportunities to become more proficient in roles outside their scopes. “Focusing on the financial side without the context of ‘boots on the ground’ does not provide a clear picture, and vice versa,” Lillis said. Employees with curious minds are the ones who could benefit most from cross-training, since they’d be more open to understanding numerous operational roles.
“Cross-utilized employees also better understand the impact their jobs have on other aspects of the operations,” Heymann said. “For example, when bussers work the dishwasher function, they obtain a better understanding of the time saved when dishes and glasses are better sorted. Similarly, when dishwashers are tasked to set tables, they see the importance of making dishes spotless. Employees gain a better understanding of how the operation works through cross-training, and the impact they have on one another.”
How should properties begin cross-training employees? “The first step is to determine which jobs may be natural for cross-training,” he said. “Once determined, the concept should be introduced and schedules put together, with certification testing to ensure adequate knowledge of the different jobs and roles to which a team member will contribute.”
Getting employees to be open-minded about cross-training starts at the top. “At the beginning of my career, I really appreciated when my superiors provided context for what I was being asked to do (as opposed to just telling me to do it),” Lillis said. “Learning the thinking behind my small role in the puzzle was great in helping to develop the ability to see the bigger picture.”
Cross-training isn’t only for low-level employees; managers can also benefit from the implementation of cross-training programs. “A manager who is given the opportunity to cross-train benefits in many ways,” Oliver said. “They have an opportunity to experience their hotel and the connection to the guest in different ways, gaining insight into how other departments impact the overall experience. They can experience and help to develop best practices, and bring those practices back to their home department, which improves the overall service to the guest. They get to experience internal communications and challenges from a different viewpoint, and then be uniquely qualified to help solve those challenges.”
These programs can also provide managers with opportunities to get to know their employees better, which, in return, brings managers closer to low-level employees, opening them up to more growth opportunities.
“Being a successful manager requires the ability to understand all of the moving pieces of their operation,” Lillis said. “In order to develop into a manager role, that individual has to understand all of those pieces well enough to be able to put the right things in motion, assess if they’re running as they should, and to see how all of them fit together. In our industry, this requires a lot of different skill sets. Without cross-training, the industry would have to wait for employees to figure it out themselves.”
It’s possible for properties of all sizes to benefit from cross-training; however, it’s at smaller properties where this management strategy becomes most visible. “For example, if a second front desk employee has nothing to do, he or she can simply walk over to the busy restaurant to help,” Heymann said. “Employees at smaller properties might already feel like one big team, while large hotels have distinct departments for catering, housekeeping, etc.” Larger properties require more coordination with teams.
With all the potential benefits resulting from implementing cross-training programs, hoteliers could still face challenges. “A potential risk with cross-training employees is diluting specialties, and thus, ending up with staff with some knowledge but few in-depth skills,” Oliver said. “However, this can be tempered with a good mix of fixed, full-time colleagues and a strong mix of more variable and cross-trained staff.”
Some industry leaders believe cross-training could stir up trouble with union leadership. “The only real challenges the hospitality industry may face with cross-training are union restrictions,” Heymann said. “In most union contracts, however, employees can work in different job classes as long as they are paid for the higher job class.”
Another potential downfall of cross-training employees is a low retention rate. “Investing in team members to help them to develop will make them more valuable to the company,” he said; however, acquiring these additional skills will also make hotel employees more appealing to competitors, but this is a “risk worth taking,” Lillis said.
While there are obstacles to implementing cross-training programs and potential risks to offering additional skill training to employees, the future of the practice is promising.
“In the future, we might see organizations enhance the concept with employees by instigating a pay-for-skill model, where an employee can train at any point to learn new skills that would result in a higher hourly wage,” Heymann said. “Employees who can carry out more than one job are frequently more valuable to businesses than employees with only one.” HB