In this economy, where lay-offs are an unfortunate reality, the remaining employees must pick up the slack for those who have departed.

Proper cross-training is crucial to make this happen. With the right guidance, your employees can increase their value to your company as they learn new skills. Without it, chaos will ensue as staffers try to learn on the fly.

Here, experts provide tips for teaching your employees to perform new tasks.

  • Choose a proper mentor.

The easiest, most effective way to teach a new skill is to have the employee shadow an expert. If you have more than one expert from which to choose, however, you shouldn’t automatically go with the one who does the job the best.
“Experts often know things without really knowing how they know it,” says Kim E. Ruyle, vice president of product development for Los Angeles-based executive search and training firm KORN/FERRY Leadership and Talent Consulting. “They have so much experience that tasks just come to them. So your experts are often not the best teachers.”

And some people just aren’t natural communicators. They may not be able to verbalize a given task, and when they do try to explain, they may not actually be accurate.

“If you really watch and study them, what they say isn’t actually what they do at all,” Ruyle says.

If there is more than one employee qualified to teach a job, it’s a good idea to choose the person who is most articulate and patient.

However, in cases where there is only one expert, and he or she is not the best instructor, it’s helpful to prepare both the teacher and the student.

“You want to encourage a lot of questioning on the part of the new learner, and a lot of tolerance and answering questions on the part of the expert,” Ruyle says.

Once the trainee is left on his or her own, make sure they have immediate access to the expert to call when questions arise.

  • Set and reinforce realistic expectations.

Depending on the new skill, an employee may need anywhere from a few days to a few months to become proficient.
Make this clear to both trainer and trainee, and explain exactly what you expect from them.

“Make sure that people understand what [a job] looks like when it’s done well, what it looks like when it’s not done well, and then hold people accountable with reinforcements and consequences in place,” Ruyle says.

Whether you choose to reward the employee financially, it’s important to take the time to acknowledge the accomplishment. And be specific: Tell the staff member exactly what was done well, and describe how the achievement will benefit the company. “It’s not enough for somebody to just feel like they did a good job or they messed up,” Ruyle says.

  • Consider regular classes.

Besides one-on-one training, it also helps to regularly hold company-wide meetings to address basic subjects or expose staff to new products.
Matt Gohlke, president of Gohlke Custom Pools in Denton, Texas, last year began offering weekly classes that employees must attend.

Managers take turns conducting the seminars, and the class is held twice a week — Tuesdays at 7:30 a.m. and Fridays at 1 p.m.

“Usually it’s the service techs who show up Tuesday morning, and the retail people on Friday,” Gohlke says. “You can go to whichever one you want. But it’s required.”

And at the following week’s training session, all employees are given a test. In the rare occurrence that someone doesn’t pass, he or she must sit down with a manager for some additional instruction.

  • Don’t wait until the last minute.

All too often, managers and company owners delay cross-training employees, viewing it as a luxury. At times like these, however, those who instituted a program long ago are reaping the benefits.
When pool construction started to slow down, yet service remained strong, Gohlke was happy to have a construction superintendent who could easily make the switch.

Besides adapting to a shrinking staff, cross-training prepares your company for sicknesses, extended leaves or sudden departures. It can even help with morale.

“Job enrichment is a primary way to get people engaged,” Ruyle says. “Not everybody is going to work this way, but for many people they’re going to find it very rewarding to get new challenges and learn new things.”