How Employers Can Rethink Training and Team Building

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Seth Harris and Jake Schwartz argue that competing for skilled workers is a mistake—that organizations would be better served by growing the talent they need from within. Employers are often reluctant, however, to invest in training programs, and it’s not hard to see why. Additional skills may make an employee more “marketable” to other employers, and if the employee takes a job elsewhere, the investment goes with them. 
The authors are well aware of this risk, but they note that investing in training and skill development benefits employers, even if some employees do leave the organization. For one thing, because employees prize educational opportunities at work, training and development programs can aid recruitment and retention efforts. 

Another barrier to developing talent internally, however, is that training usually tends to be role specific. We might expect someone in an entry-level sales job to receive some additional sales training so they can stop making cold calls and start going out to meet prospective clients. We would not typically expect that same individual to receive training that’s unrelated to their sales job or career path.

This barrier, too, is easy to understand. Budgets are limited, and it’s usually not in an employer’s interest to teach employees skills they don’t need for their job now or won’t need in the near future. Why would an engineering manager want their team members to learn about marketing techniques, sales processes, or customer service? That sounds like a waste of money, no? 

In a work culture where roles and career paths are specialized, it certainly does. But hiring individuals with specialized skill sets, and keeping those employees on predetermined paths, isn’t the only way to build a team. Imagine if every employee in a company received a basic level of training in other aspects of the business. Nora, for example, might be her company’s graphic designer, but she’s also been shown how to conduct a sales call, create a budget, write social media posts, calm a frustrated customer, create a pivot table and analyze its data, interview a job candidate, and facilitate the development of a new product. In turn, Nora has taught her colleagues some of the basics of graphic design.

This approach, called “cross training,” creates a versatile team of people who can move about within the organization outside of the routes originally dictated by their specialized skills sets. It establishes a work environment where people’s place in the organization isn’t limited by the skills they came in with or team they started on.  

Cross-training also has the benefit of exposing everyone to what their coworkers do in the organization. Cross-team collaboration is difficult for a lot of organizations because different teams have different ways of operating, different priorities, and different needs—and the people on those teams often don’t understand and appreciate those differences. Putting on someone else’s work shoes and hat can help us see another’s work world from their perspective.

In practice, cross-training is more common in smaller organizations where there aren’t enough employees for everyone to wear a separate hat. It’s much more difficult and less cost-effective for larger organizations where there are people with the same or similar specialized roles.

For organizations both large and small, some of the benefits of cross-training can be realized by taking a team-focused rather than task-focused approach to employment. In a task-focused workplace, people apply and get hired for a job—a set of tasks—and to the extent that they have to work with others, they’re part of a team. The team forms almost as more of a byproduct of individual people doing their work in tandem. In contrast, in a team-focused workplace, people join the company to be on a team, one that works together to complete the needed tasks. The difference here is subtle, but it can make a big difference in how employers and employees see one another.

When someone is hired merely to fill a position, their connection and loyalty to the organization may only be as strong as their interest in the job duties on a given day. If they grow tired of doing their assigned tasks, they’ll naturally look for a position that better suits their interests. They wanted to do a certain job, but that job isn’t motivating them anymore, so there’s no use sticking around if their employer has nothing else of interest to them. Conversely, if the tasks they do cease to be of value to the organization, and there’s no immediate position that matches their skill set in the organization, the employee will no doubt be let go. 

When someone is hired to be on a team, they’re part of something that extends beyond their current job duties. They’re attached not simply to a set of tasks, but to a community of people. There are tasks to perform, of course, but these assignments are seen not as belonging simply to individuals, but as the responsibility of the team to manage. Team-focused leaders aren’t just intent on keeping the positions they manage filled, but in creating a team, developing that team, preparing it for future needs, and keeping it together.

Regardless of training methods, people will continue to join and leave the team when it’s in their interest to do so. But a team-focused approach to employment creates both broader and deeper social bonds among team members and their leaders, and if leaders are thinking about the future and preparing people on their team to perform future tasks (e.g., throughupskilling and modern apprenticeships), the incentives for people stay with the organization long term are stronger.  





March Madness Is Upon Us

March Madness is upon us. While this annual event can impact productivity, employers may find that the positive effects it has on team engagement and camaraderie outweigh any negatives. Consider these facts from both sides of the coin:

  • An estimated $1.9 billion is lost in workplace productivity during a typical March Madness tournament. (Challenger, Gray & Christmas)
  • Employees will spend 25.5 minutes per workday on MarchMadness, for a total of 6 hours spread over the 15 workdays when games will be played. (OfficeTeam)
  • As much as $3 billion will be bet on workplace bracket pools during March Madness this year. (FordHarrison)
  • Nearly 9 in 10 employees who participated said participating in NCAA brackets at work helped build team camaraderie, and 73 percent said they look forward to going to work more when they are part of an office pool. (Randstad)

So how can an employer embrace the fun of March Madness while still enforcing the rules? Whether you view the tournament as a minor distraction that creates an opportunity to boost morale, or as a potential pitfall of legal liability, missed deadlines, and dissatisfied customers, the ball is in your court. Here are five ways to maximize the positive aspects of March Madness while minimizing disruptions.

  1. Have fun: Make it clear to your employees that you want them to enjoy work and March Madness while not letting the tournament put a full court press on their work. Encourage employees to wear their favorite team’s clothing and/or decorate their workspace in their team’s colors.
  2. Watch together: If you have TVs in your break room(s), turn them on to the games so that employees have somewhere to watch the games other than at their work station. That way productivity is not lost even for those not participating in the Madness activities. Provide snacks for the viewers.
  3. Be careful with brackets: Organize a company-wide pool with no entry fee to avoid ethical or legal issues surrounding office gambling. Keep the brackets posted and updated in the break room.
  4. Be flexible: Allow workers to arrive early so they can work a full shift and still leave in time to see big games that overlap the end of their shift. Conversely, allowing employees to delay their start time the morning after big games may help reduce absenteeism.
  5. Follow the rules: Review applicable company policies—such as gambling, use of personal electronics and company computers, and work and break hours—with your employees before engaging in any March Madness activities at work, so it will be clear to all what is considered acceptable.

Determine how March Madness fits with your business culture and customer deliverables. If employees are getting their work done, customers are happy, and the biggest problems are reduced internet bandwidth or a little more noise in the cubicles or lunchroom for a couple of days, it’s nothing but net. (See what we did there?) Decide how you’ll be playing this before the opening tipoff and the Madness begins!

Keep in mind, though, that basketball isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and if you accommodate this kind of recreation, you should accommodate others. If you’re going to be flexible for March Madness, you should also be flexible for things that interest other employees, whether that’s running a marathon, volunteering, attending Pride events, or chaperoning school field trips. 




HR Alerts

New Form I-9 Released



At the end of January, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a new Form I-9. The form is dated 10/21/2019 and should be used immediately. USCIS provided employers with a three-month grace period during which the old form (dated 07/17/2017) may be used. But by May 1, 2020, only the new form should be used. The new form can be downloaded on the HR Support Center; search for Form I-9 and be sure to follow the download instructions. You can also find the form on the USCIS website.

The following changes were made to the form and its instructions:

Revised the Country of Issuance field in Section 1 and the Issuing Authority field (when selecting a foreign passport) in Section 2 to add Eswatini and Macedonia, North per those countries’ recent name changes. This change is only visible when completing the fillable Form I-9 on a computer.


  • Clarified who can act as an authorized representative on behalf of an employer
  • Updated USCIS website addresses
  • Provided clarifications on acceptable documents for Form I-9
  • Updated the process for requesting paper Forms I-9
  • Updated the DHS Privacy Notice