Being able to staff critical positions is important to maintaining an IT departments level of service. Vacations, sick days, family emergencies and medical leaves are but a few of the normal threats to staffing critical positions.
How are these normal absences a threat to an IT department? In the same manner that retirements are a threat by having all of those skills walk out the door, see “IT Departments Are Graying and It Is Starting To Show”, absences create gaps in critical skills and positions.
The best way you can overcome these challenges is by cross training important staff positions. Consider it a disaster recovery plan for your employees. First you need to identify the positions you need to cross train in. Depending on how large your organization is you may want to divide these tasks up among managers or department heads.
Identify Staff Positions
Create a spreadsheet listing the name of the employee, their position, their responsibilities and the skills sets needed to do the job. Divide them up by the various departments and teams. Highlight with color the tier level that employee is in.
Tier 1 Employees
Your tier 1 employees fill positions that are critical to maintaining the level of service the organization requires to maintain the business. They will be key staff in infrastructure, operations, the data center and other critical areas.
Tier 2 Employees
Your tier 2 employees fill positions that may not be critical, but they are important enough that a absence of 2 days or more would require someone to fill that position.
Tier 3 Employees
Even though they are the lowest tier there are many tier 3 positions that are important to keep IT running. You may have some positions where a week long absence will not affect the department, but if an issue comes up that they would normally handle you need to have someone with the skills needed to take care of it.
Create a Skill Set Matrix
Now that you have identified all of the positions add another sheet to your spreadsheet. This will be a skill set matrix. Take each department or team and enter the list of employees in the rows and their skills in the columns.
Rank the proficiency of each employee for each skill as 0 = not trained, 1 = some training, 2 = fully trained. Put a sum field at the end of each employee to add all of the numbers that represent their total level of training. The higher their sum, the more valuable they are. This information is useful for evaluations, consideration for promotion and other uses.
The main purpose for a skill set matrix is so you can identify the skills someone needs to improve on in order to cover a certain position. It also helps you identify areas where someone may need skill development in the job they do now. It is an excellent tool for training.
Develop a Training Plan
By highlighting with color the tier level you can easily indentify the first positions you need to provide three deep coverage in. With each department or team determine which two employees that are the best candidates to be the 1st and 2nd backup for a tier 1 position.
You may not have enough staff to have two employees to cover each position. If this is the case you will need to give more training to the candidates you select so they are capable of providing coverage in multiple positions.
Take the employees you have identified to be the 1st and 2nd backups and examine their skill set matrix. Determine what training they need to becoming fully trained backups in the position you need coverage in.
Next create a training schedule where they can train with the person they will be backing up or someone who can give them similar skills. Training will take some time, but delaying only puts you at risk longer. Pick a day and a time each week you can set aside for training for a specific position. As their training progresses update their skill level in the skill set matrix.
Employee Disaster Recovery Plan
As with any IT disaster recovery plan you need to have everything documented and planned. The same can be said for this type of plan. Add another sheet to your spreadsheet and list the tier 1 positions in the first row.
Now list the primary who is the employee who normally fills this position in the 2nd row. Then list the 1st backup in the 3rd row and the 2nd backup in the 4th row. Include contact information if these are on-call positions. This list will serve as the guide should the primary employee not be available to fill that position.
As with any DR plan you must test it. At least once a month pull the primary employee from the position and put the 1st backup into that position. See how they perform and if they need additional training. The next month put the 2nd backup into that position for the same purpose.
Rotate each month and if a primary, 1st backup or 2nd backup is promoted or leaves the company find a replacement and get them trained. The good news is if your primary leaves the 1st backup is fully trained and ready to step into that role should it be suited for them.
It is far better to find out beforehand if additional training is needed or if the designated backup is unable to handle the position so a replacement can be found. It is one thing to have the training, quite another to put it to practical use.
Cross Train Tier 2 and Tier 3 Employees
You also need to perform these steps with the tier 2 and tier 3 positions you have identified as needing a backup. You may not need coverage to be so deep and they may require less training. At the least you need to know who will fill in the position should the primary employee not be available or if something needs to be done while they are away.
Do not underestimate the value of tier 2 and tier 3 employees. You do not want to have someone get in a car accident and be out for 3 months and then find out they possessed critical skills that nobody else knows how to do. I have seen this happen and it is not pretty.
Expanding The Skills of Your Employees
An employee who is trained in multiple positions is a highly valued asset to the organization. Cross training allows your employees to build their professional, technical and soft skills. They will be better at their regular job in addition to being able to stand in for an absent staff member.
The employee also benefits from a better sense of their worth to the organization. By building their skill sets they feel more confident and therefore more productive. The added skills will also make them excellent candidates for positions that open up within the organization.
Cross training shows the employee not only is the organization investing in them, but through internal promotions they have a career with the organization. This gives the employee a sense of job security which during times like these is a big moral booster.
When it comes to keeping your IT department running and meeting the needs of the business it is best to take a proactive approach to management. Employee absences will happen and you need to be prepared for them.
Do not take any position lightly. You do not want to be in the position where only one or two people have the vital skills and knowledge for any position. Other than absences they may leave the organization or retire before you thought they would and take all of those skills and knowledge with them.
Be proactive in regards to staffing all of your positions. Try and have 3 deep coverage with all tier 1 positions and at least one backup for all tier 2 and tier 3 positions. A side benefit is the positive aspects of improving your employees and increasing their morale.