The metaphorical image of a well-oiled machine is commonly associated with successful business models. Each cog in place, the company runs smoothly, churning out its intended product without so much as a squeak.

This comparison, however, may be misguided. Many modern companies are more akin to a living, breathing thing – a tree, for example – than a cold piece of machinery. Not to mention, treating employees like cogs may lead to feelings of resentment, disillusionment and – perhaps worst of all – a general sense of stuck-ness.

Letting team members branch out and explore roles in a more fluid fashion may be wise for companies who want to retain top talent.

Instead, letting team members branch out and explore roles in a more fluid fashion may be wise for companies who want to retain top talent, particularly in today’s competitive hiring landscape.

Below, we explore how and why your company can actively encourage lateral moves among top performers in order to boost retention.

Multifaceted Benefits

The term “talent war” is frequently tossed around in today’s HR world. A recent Forbes article details the “seismic shift” taking place within today’s modern workforce: It appears to be a job seeker’s market as we launch into 2017.

It’s also well documented that today’s employees value flexibility to a greater degree than any previous generation of workers. While the term is vague – “flexibility” can mean anything from allowing employees to work remotely to offering enticing perks like a dog-friendly office – it’s evident that taking a more malleable approach to “traditional” models of company structure can have lasting benefits.

Refreshing a team and offering new challenges is a key strategy to retain great employees and to grow talent.

Theresa Kretzschmar, global head of human resources at Spreadshirt, a customized apparel ecommerce company, touts the benefits of encouraging lateral moves among employees: “We believe that cross training provides the stimulation to keep an employee engaged, and also fosters a great team culture and deeper organizational knowledge.”

For example, at Spreadshirt, Kretzschmar explains that the product management teams deliberately switch topics and responsibilities to expand product knowledge and keep their roles fresh.

“Refreshing a team and offering new challenges is a key strategy to retain great employees and to grow talent,” she adds.

It’s essentially a win-win approach: When employees feel as if their needs and long-term goals are being met, they’re more inclined to stick around, which in turn boosts morale, improves overall retention, and positively impacts the bottom line.

Nurturing Budding Branches

There are a few ways lateral moves can be implemented. For example, employees may simply tweak their role while staying on the same team – switching from marketing to sales, for example. Or, they may stay in their role and move to another office or geographic location. Lastly, they may cycle through several departments in order to pick up new skills before returning to their original duties.

One example of a successful lateral move within Spreadshirt is Marie-Luise Wendt, the company’s global customer service director. Wendt started out as a team leader in customer service before joining the HR team for 18 months, where she fine-tuned her knowledge of employee engagement, recruiting, leadership, and development. She eventually moved back to customer service to assume a manager role, and was soon thereafter promoted to director.

It’s important to have structure in mind when encouraging role swaps within an organization Click To Tweet

Through this type of role-swapping, Wendt honed her leadership and communication skills, and ultimately became an even more valuable organizational asset, explains Kretzschmar.

In some cases, a lateral move may even provide an employee who is headed toward the door with fresh perspective, and perhaps even salvage their tenure at the company. Such a move may open doors that neither manager nor team member knew needed opening.

All this said, it’s important to have some structure in mind when encouraging role swaps within an organization. There is a yin and a yang to the best interests of both employees and companies, and it can be easily thrown out of whack. After all, while there’s a chance that Tom from accounting may be surprisingly adept at copywriting, your company still needs somebody to man the numbers element of the business.

Oxymoronic as it may seem, “structured flexibility” may be the key to nurturing a work environment in which lateral moves work for all parties involved. Heather Carter, COO of Helpr, an on-demand babysitting app, says the onus for success with such role experiments falls to both employer and employee equally.

An employee’s success in their new role is contingent in equal measure to their efforts and the transitional support offered by the company. It is important to set the new standard of expectation to the employee in clear terms.

“An employee’s success in their new role is contingent in equal measure to their efforts and the transitional support offered by the company. It is important to set the new standard of expectation to the employee in clear terms so they understand that the new role is not without discernment,” she says, adding that at Helpr, the company implements at 60-day trial for such lateral moves. “It’s almost like a short internship that we evaluate at the end of the trial period,” she explains.

At the end of the day, nurturing branches – as opposed to fixating on gears – just may be what sets your company on the path to long-term success.