Article main image
Jan 25, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

These days, roles in most white-collar teams have become so specialized that no single person can learn everything needed to keep the team’s work processes running smoothly.

Usually, the team lead has a good idea of the overall structure, but leaders have their own roles to play.

A good leader hires for at least a slight overlap of skill sets so the team can survive if a crucial team member falls ill, goes on vacation, or abruptly quits.

Of course, leaders don’t always have full say on whom HR hires, or may inherit a team lacking sufficient overlap. Or, they may simply suffer when an executive mandates a head-count reduction. In some circumstances, the team itself becomes aware of its lack of overlap, and may have no choice but to take the matter into its own hands.

Whatever the case, the additional training need not prove difficult if the team uses the simple but effective on-the-job method known as job shadowing.

Many business people dismiss job shadowing as something only interns or students do. But some professions use it extensively for cross-training, including the military and customer service. It also serves as an effective way to ensure a “leaky” team remains seaworthy, even when one of its integral members is out of the picture.

Taking the initiative

Though most of us don’t think of it as training, that’s precisely what good job shadowing is.

The inexperienced worker follows the veteran around as they go through a typical work day — watching closely, taking notes, and sometimes helping. Unlike standard intern/student shadowing, team job shadowing may last for a while. Think of the way a teaching hospital has a gaggle of medical students follow doctors as they make their rounds, with the physicians providing relevant information on each patient and the details of their treatment.

In a corporate environment, the shadowing employee usually can’t spend all of his or her time shadowing, unless someone covers for them. This would be the ideal situation, but conditions are rarely ideal even in the best companies.

This is especially true if the team implements the shadowing on its own, because the leader is either absentee or ineffectual. But even just a few hours of shadowing per day can prove useful.

Grooming an employee for more

Shadowing also provides an excellent way to groom an employee for a higher position, or in my case recently, when one member of the organization departs to go back to school or take maternity leave … or just leaves.

Smart organizations actively practice succession planning: that is, they have someone waiting in the wings to fill each critical position if the principal becomes incapacitated, dies, or quits unexpectedly. Even when that doesn’t happen, the shadower can learn how to assist the principal, cover for him or her during vacation time, or use the shadowing to increase their knowledge of the team’s crucial functions.

Aside from filling the gaps in your team, you can use shadowing as a means of cross-training on someone else’s job and having them do the same for you, so you can cover for each other when you go on vacation.

You can arrange this informally between you, coordinating vacation schedules and helping each other out while the other’s away. Then neither of you will have to play as much “catch-up” as usual when you return. Each position in our organization keeps a “white notebook” (named after what it was originally and now mostly electronic) with all the policies, procedures, and checklists for that particular role.

The procedures must be kept up-to-date, so that when someone leaves, the job shadowing training will come back to them quickly when referenced.

Finding the time

Assuming you have permission, or your supervisor has arranged the shadowing, treat it as normal training. This can take place during regular office hours either while someone else handles your ordinary duties, or you yourself handle them for a few hours a day.

If the arrangement is informal, then you may have to shadow your partner during your breaks and possibly your lunch period. That way, you can still get your normal work done.

The downside here is, you don’t get the time to rest and recharge you need. However, it may come down to a matter of just doing what needs done and getting rest when you can, especially if you’re motivated by a pressing need to learn the other person’s duties — just in case.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!