Cross-Training Versus COVID-19

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of Produce Business.

In a world where everyone is searching for the “new normal,” the innovative produce retailer must look at his operation objectively and truly think “out-of-the-box.” While strategic planning and calculating sales goals comes naturally, our new situation requires examination of all avenues to prepare our operations to survive and remain viable during this critical period.

While the virus does not look to be weakening — in fact it seems to be gaining steam in many areas — new and unorthodox methods of dealing with potential situations and challenges need to be examined no matter how unlikely the scenario might be. Management may consider this a waste of time, however, given the unique nature of this virus and its effects upon economies around the world, it is something that cannot be overlooked. So, once again, we see that upper management’s sometimes limited vision creates a lack of action showing that “they just don’t get it!”

Given the uncertainty of how the virus will spread across the globe in the next few months prior to the introduction of the promised vaccine, we in the produce world need to look at our operations to see how we can maintain the vital service that we are providing to consumers and keep our operations functioning. A key area is in the retention or continuation of adequate labor to supply, stock, and maintain our departments.

Our best defense in this area would be to look at the potential of cross-training everyone in your operation to step in at various levels to provide needed services to maintain operation.

In this area, we have had some experience in the past as there is always planning that goes into the need for allowing associates vacation time, and the need for sick days when they occur. However, during this pandemic, it is necessary to go far beyond the simple plans and make a strategic decision to plan for a catastrophic loss of labor due to virus infections and contact quarantines. Our best defense in this area would be to look at the potential of cross-training everyone in your operation to step in at various levels to provide needed services to maintain operation. This is an extensive action that would require a tremendous effort on everyone’s part to be willing to take on these additional responsibilities and learn new job functions.

Initially, the best way to start would be for each person in your operation to teach their responsibilities and job functions to their subordinates. In turn, their subordinates would then teach their responsibilities and job functions to those that they supervise and so on down through the complete organization. This now provides a larger pool of people that could step in should a widespread infection occur in your operation.

It might also be a strategic move to identify others within the operation that would benefit from this cross-training and have advancement potential. This would allow for additional flexibility in filling vacancies that could be caused by the virus itself or exposure to the virus and ultimate quarantines. Teaching one’s job functions and responsibilities to those who they supervise on down throughout the organization would provide a “safety net” in case of catastrophic losses in labor due to the pandemic.

Beyond just the operation of your merchandising and store operations, this strategy can be used to cross-train throughout your total supply chain. This would include having personnel in your operation learn the jobs and responsibilities of distribution and warehousing. This would provide additional support for those parts of the operation that are just as vulnerable as your own operation to this threat. It would also provide additional flexibility in the operation to maintain consistent supply to the consumer as well as develop additional skills and identify potential throughout your organization.

Additionally, these personnel could be cross-trained in the functions and responsibilities within your organization. While some may view this as an extreme measure to be undertaken that may never be needed, given the history of this pandemic, we cannot afford to not look at every possible way to protect the operation and continue the essential work of providing food to consumers. We must look at every contingency, no matter how remote, to anticipate unique challenges and threats to our operation and provide potential solutions.

Such action, while it may seem to be reactive and paranoid, needs to be examined and evaluated for the value that it could offer in combating the challenges presented by this worldwide virus. The use of cross-training across all disciplines to provide a larger pool of individuals that can step in, if necessary, to fill in potential holes in the supply chain within your produce organization, can instruct, create, and make available critical personnel to maintain the availability of healthful, fresh produce to the consumer.

While we recognize that this type of action will require substantial effort and commitment, it could be that one vital link that maintains the ability of our produce operations to continue providing needed food during a time of uncertainty. While we all hope and pray that these types of catastrophic situations do not occur, we cannot, in good conscience, ignore any solution or remedy available that would prevent or hinder our ability to perform this essential service.

Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry, with most of that time spent in retail. He worked in every aspect of the industry, from “field-to-fork” in both the conventional and organic arenas. Harris is presently consulting. Comments can be directed to