In normal times, having regular 1-on-1 meetings with your direct reports is important. In this socially distant era, these connection points are essential.
As a manager, you are the most vital link between your direct reports and the organization. When we’re all remote, you need to replace the passive communication you once used to keep track of their work. You also need to continue investing time in those you are managing. Regular 1-on-1 meetings with your direct reports will accomplish all of these vital things.
What Is a 1-on-1?
A 1-on-1 (or 1:1) is a face-to-face meeting between you and someone you manage directly. It isn’t a group meeting, and it isn’t a team meeting. It’s just you and your direct report.
Every 1:1 should be about them, not you. Let them bring the agenda. If they don’t bring an agenda, ask them how they’re doing. As they share, look for different areas of inquiry to dig into. Practice mindful listening. Avoid jumping into problem-solving. Instead, ask more questions.
What to Expect
I’ve been doing 1:1s for years, and I have yet to improve on Michael Lopp’s analysis of 1:1 content. As Lopp says, there are generally three types of 1:1s.
This is a surface-level status update about a project or “how the work is going.” It doesn’t mean everything is okay; it just means this person isn’t ready to share what’s going on. They might not have prepared, or they might be avoiding telling you something you need to know. More prompting might be in order. Listen hard for anything to grab on to so you can start to uncover what’s going on at a deeper level.
Building custom software is a hard, stressful job. Everyone needs to vent sometimes. If someone I’m managing comes to a 1:1 ready to vent, I come ready to listen. This is a good opportunity for me to practice mindful listening and empathy. I don’t try to problem-solve or explain away the frustration. Expressing strong emotions is important.
Once it’s done and we feel better, we can take a look at the issue and try to gain some perspective together. Almost always, the person I’m managing already knows what they need to do to make the situation better.
A Disaster is a Vent that’s no longer about the project. It’s about you or the organization. It’s usually very emotional.
Defending yourself or the organization is a waste of time in this context. The best option is to let your report have their moment and then sort through the information later. Thank them for the information, and let them know that you’ll follow up with them later. When you’re feeling calm, you can strategize a good way to respond in a separate meeting. You should initiate that meeting as soon as you possibly can.
In all of these, I try to avoid turning a 1:1 into a feedback session. Feedback is a great managerial tool, but in a 1:1, I want to focus on investing time and energy in the relationship rather than improving the direct report’s performance.
How to Have a 1:1
I try to meet with each direct report for a thirty-minute 1:1 at least monthly, with the explicit understanding that they can always come to me if they need more time. At different times, when a direct report has been having a rough patch, I’ve upped the cadence to every other week or even weekly.
As a manager, you owe this time to your direct reports. 1:1s are the people management version of eating your spinach — it’s good for you, and you need to do it. Get it on your calendar, or you won’t do it. Timebox it; stick to it. Regularity communicates importance.
1:1s are one of the most important tasks of a people manager. Do your very best not to miss or reschedule them. You can tend to reprioritize them because, if you miss them, there is no immediate effect. However, every time you miss a 1:1 meeting, you are implicitly telling your direct report that they aren’t important. People who don’t believe they’re important check out and become disengaged.
Agree on a Method
Obviously, during a pandemic, a face-to-face meeting isn’t advisable. But we are lucky to live in an era when we can have a synchronous conversation with high-quality audio and video capabilities. If you are so inclined, leverage one of the many services out there. You can also do a 1:1 phone call. I usually ask my direct report what they’d prefer. I’ve also gone on some socially distant in-person walks. Where there’s a will to maintain a connection, you’ll find a way. Get creative.
I keep a loose journal of key points. If I need to follow up, I do it at a later date. I check my notes prior to every 1:1 to make sure themes from the last meeting are top of mind.
It’s an Investment
Having 1:1s in a consultancy is complicated. We make money when we’re working on client projects; we don’t make money when we are in a 1:1. Nevertheless, it’s important that managers stay connected with their people.
As a manager, you’re like the captain of a ship. If you aren’t spending 1:1 time with people on your team, you’re like a captain who has a map but no clue if they’re actually on track. 1:1s are invaluable little touch points that let you see whether you’re on course. You can’t afford not to have them.
What Will You Do?
I’m interested to hear your experience. How have you stayed connected with your direct reports during this pandemic? What do you do in a 1:1 meeting? If you aren’t doing 1:1 meetings with your direct reports now, what’s your plan to get started?