One on ones are scheduled blocks of time designed to work on your employees’ career and give them the opportunity to discuss important things to them. It can be used to talk about big topics like career options or smaller ones like side projects. In short, the purpose one on ones is to care for the wellbeing of your employees and their careers, short and long term.
Why they’re important
Everyone’s busy. Everyone’s trying to do their work, meet deadlines, and hopefully do their best. But inertia is a powerful thing. So, without a scheduled time to talk about issues, people will continue doing what they’re doing (not discussing or taking care about their problems). Oftentimes there’s something to improve or correct.
Silence is how problems fester. Instead of waiting for an employee to be bothered enough to come to you with their problems, you can create a system that encourages them to openly talk about their problems, big and small. It’s one thing to have an environment where people feel safe to speak and another to have a system that encourages them to do so. It would be wishful thinking to expect people to talk about their problems in a timely manner before the problems grow bigger. Even introverts will let their feelings be known and you can pick up on the signs and warnings to prevent an employee from crossing the line that will make them decide to look for a job somewhere else.
Sometimes employees are better suited for another area of the company. Maybe they’ve identified an area of interest, or an endeavor for which they have aptitude. It’s better to build on employees’ strengths than trying to fortify their weaknesses. That’s not to say you should give up on people, but your employees will do better if they’re matched by their skills, proficiencies, and interests.
Regardless of someone doing well or not, except for the proactive ones, most people wouldn’t come forth with their thoughts and opinions. So, it’s crucial to provide employees with a safe environment to explore ideas. Maybe they’ve identified an area where they’re able to excel, maybe they’ve been working on a project that will benefit the company. Whatever it is, it’s in the company’s best interest to give them the opportunity to brainstorm possibilities.
One on ones can be that safe space for employees to step out of their comfort zones and talk about what matters most to them and the company. At the beginning the meetings can feel a bit weird if you or your employees don’t have experience with it, but they quickly become an essential tool to build trust with your employees, coach them, give and receive feedback.
When done properly, one on ones become a tool to improve communication between you and you and your employees, between teams and even the company at large. It can be used to motivate people and teams, improve productivity and morale, and increase employee retention.
Scheduling time to talk with your employees ensures these important conversations will happen. It reduces the friction of trying to approach the other person and becomes something you and your company simply do. Your company and your employees stand to gain so much from a relatively small time and effort investment.
Plan with your team
Honesty is the best policy. Be open and transparent with your team. If one on ones are new to your company, remember it can be uneasy to be called by a manager to have a private conversation out of the blue. One can be forgiven to think there’s something wrong. So, let your teams know in advance about the new plan, how 1-1s work, what they can expect, and that they’ll be receiving the meeting invitations soon.
Your counselees should be equally invested in the process because it ultimately affects them. They should have examples of what topics they’re expected to discuss. You should encourage them to think about the issues in advance, so they come better prepared. Generally, if they don’t have an agenda, you haven’t explained the process well enough to them.
Put it on the calendar
A good place to start is meeting with your employees every two weeks. You can’t go wrong with this schedule. It’s spaced enough to allow the person to reflect and act on recommendations, but it isn’t long enough for the issues to stale and be forgotten.
Every team operates differently and even individuals within a team have different needs. Some people work exceptionally well by themselves and only need a regular checkup. Others need more hand holding. The situation may even change for the same person as they face different challenges.
As time passes and you get more one on ones under your belt, you’ll be able to assess the needs of everyone. Maybe someone just joined the company or is new to the team; in that case it is better to meet with the person every other day. Or maybe someone is getting out of their comfort zones and is trying something different which needs regular guidance; in that case you probably want to meet with them every week.
The pendulum doesn’t swing in the opposite directions though. You don’t want to space out the conversations with your employees too much. Even with those who are self-driven and require minimal guidance and direction, it’s still a good idea to meet with them every two weeks, even if it’s just to say everything is alright. Most of the time things will be alright, but you want to be there for the times when they’re not.
As part of your weekly personal retrospectives, you should review the time you spend with each person and adjust accordingly. Not having anything to talk about may not be an indicator that personal meetings should happen less often. It may mean you’re not giving your employee the guidance they need.
The schedule should make sense for you and your employees. It should be on the calendar as a recurring meeting to protect that time. The first few meetings will probably take one hour while the rest will be around 30mins as you both get into the cadence of things. As with any conversation there will be times when you want to extend it for an hour, maybe even more, and there will be times when you just need a quick chat because everything has been taken care of.
These meetings will give you a pulse on how your employees and teams are doing, so avoid canceling them. Even if you don’t have anything to talk about, your employee might have something they need to discuss. Sometimes you’ve been in touch with the person and already had a quasi-one-on-one a day or two before the formal one; in that case you should still have the personal meeting, if only to confirm the current situation and next steps. If you can’t make it to a one on one, be sure to give your employee a heads up and reschedule it as soon as possible.
It’s best to have one on ones in person because a lot of communication happens non-verbally. There are facial expressions, gestures, body language, posture, eye gaze, appearance, etc. All of these will cue you into the employee’s mood and what they’re going through. Since the topics are personal and most likely sensitive, you should have the conversations in a private and safe environment. That said, don’t skip these personal meetings because you’re on the road or working remotely. A phone call to give your employees the opportunity to discuss their grievances now is better than one that happens in person every other month.
Have an agenda
You can start the conversation with small talk about inconsequential things. You’ll probably want to lead and share something that’s happening in your life, this will encourage them to share their thoughts. This has a couple of benefits. First, it will relax the person by making the conversation mundane rather than starting with a heavy subject like life goals. Second, it will get them accustomed to talking with you in this setting. Finally, it increases the rapport between you and your employee.
Ideally, you’ll have an agenda for every employee but in the beginning, you can use a template with some the following topics:
- Career goals
- Where do they see themselves in 3-5 years?
- What do they gravitate towards?
- What options are available within the company?
- Growth goals
- What inspires and motivates them?
- How can they inspire and motivate others?
- How do they organize their work and life?
- Do they typically work when they feel most productive?
- What challenges them?
- Do they have short- and long-term goals?
- Growth areas
- Improve thought processes and self-talk
- Develop empathy
- Practice active listening
- Develop confidence
- Learn to manage stress
- Make decisions intentional
- Recognize blind spots
- Team improvement
- Are there interpersonal challenges within the team?
- How’s the communication within the team?
- What challenges is the team facing?
- Are all team members engaging with others?
- How can management support them better in their job?
- Are they honing their existing skills?
- Are they learning new skills?
- Are they pushing out of their comfort zone?
- Do they have personal challenges?
- What are the biggest time wasters?
- Personal topics
- What do they enjoy about working for the company?
- What are their least favorite aspects of working for the company?
- What keeps them engaged at work?
- Do they have any concerns?
- Is there anything else they want to talk about?
You won’t be able to cover all these topics in one sitting, not even close, so start with the items you feel are more relevant to the person. Create a small list of things to talk about and send it to the person at least a week in advance and ask them to think about it so they can come prepared for the meeting.
As with any meeting you should be diligent about staying on track with the agenda. Pleasant conversations are nice to have at the beginning but remember to focus on the purpose of the meeting. Otherwise instead of nudging the person in the right direction, you’ll be having a pleasant conversation with little progress to show for.
If you’re going to invest your time and effort, then make sure you stay on task. A great way to focus on the important things is to have an agenda. Another thing you can do is to ask your employees to think about the topics to discuss and to come prepared for them.
Avoid status updates
Your employee should be the focus of the conversation. The easiest thing to talk about are status updates (what they’ve been doing in the last few days, how the project is going, what they’re going to do in the next few days, etc.) One on ones aren’t the place for such updates, they’re better suited for daily standups, chat messages, or periodic status emails. In the context of one on ones, status updates fall under small talk before getting down to business. So, keep the updates to a minimum.
People are beacons of information, whether they’re talking or not. Keep in mind what people must share is typically the tip of the iceberg. They might be having issues with someone but don’t yet realize it or they might think it will just work itself out. Make the most out of your one on ones by having them at a time when you can fully engage with the person, not when you must split your attention.
It’s all too easy to get distracted when someone else is talking, getting lost in your own thoughts, opinions, and ideas, so be vigilant about your state of mind and the attention you’re paying to the person. Resist the temptation of thinking what to say next as the other person is talking. Keep an open mind and don’t dismiss their thoughts and opinions.
This is an area where active listening plays a crucial role. You want to give the person your undivided attention, look at them directly, show them you’re listening by nodding occasionally, make sure your posture is open, and encourage them to elaborate on issues. Make sure you understand what’s being said by summarizing it every now and then. You could say “Let me see if I understand correctly… “, “What I think I’m hearing is…”, “Sounds like what you’re saying is…”, etc. Don’t interrupt the person with counter arguments (there’s a time and place to interrupt objectionable things, one on ones isn’t one of them), so allow them to finish their points and then ask questions to clarify them.
Without feedback a one on one is just a conversation. Be specific about the good things they’re doing and give examples of things they can do to improve. Phrases like “You’re doing good” and “You should continue improving” don’t really provide the person with any new insight. Recognize their progress and praise them on a regular basis. Be candid about their mistakes but such a conversation should be framed as something to learn from and looking forward into the future.
Goals are nice but you want to have a system to help your employees achieve their goals. Making regular progress makes the work more meaningful and it will boost the person’s motivation as they go about their tasks. Long term goals can be intimidating and give the person a sense of not getting anywhere, that they’ll never make it there. Splitting big tasks into smaller ones allows you to give frequent feedback to the person and better guide them towards success.
As with any meeting, someone should be taking notes of what’s being discussed. As the person running the one on one, the note taking responsibility falls on you. That’s a good thing because you’ll be able to organize the information better in your head as well as on paper. Perhaps more importantly, it will give you a record of the things you’ve discussed with the person. Such a record can be used as objective evidence of the progress the person is making. Taking notes will also keep you and your employee honest about pending and agreed upon items. Be sure to review your notes with the person at the end of the session to verify and clarify anything which may have been misunderstood.
Call to action
Don’t accept maybes and “one of these days”, make sure the person has a clear plan ahead of them. The one on one should end with you saying, “The next time we meet you’ll have done X, do you agree?” The other person should be clear on what they need to do and why they should do it. If you have some action items, then accomplishing them and being ready for the next one on one will score you points with the other person. Keep your promises and your employees will go the extra mile to keep theirs.
Your one on ones should happen frequently enough they essentially become their own follow ups. Review your notes to prepare for the meeting and talk about the agreed upon issues. If the person needs extra attention, you should follow up with them to make sure everything is going according to plan or if anything needs to be clarified for them to continue making progress.
Consult third parties
When you meet with your employees on a regular basis, you’ll have a finger on the pulse of how the teams are running… most of the time. Every so often you’ll find that an employee’s perception of their work doesn’t match their team’s. It’s a good idea to check with others who work closely with your employees every 2-3 months. Who you should talk to will depend on the company, team composition, ceremonies, etc. but the usual suspects are scrum masters, QA people, business analysts, and product owners.
One on ones are a great tool to keep open lines of communication with your employees, help them work better, and grow their careers. It will be time well spent if you run them with a purpose in mind.