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Optimize One-on-Ones for Maximum Value and Efficiency

Optimize One-on-Ones for Maximum Value and Efficiency

Free Resource

No matter the company size, one-on-ones are one of the most efficient ways for managers to boost their team's productivity, engagement, morale. When done right, they help show employees you care about them and value their personal and professional development, providing a tangible boost to performance, happiness, and retention.

There’s an endless variety of topics you can cover in a one-on-one, many of which you rarely have a chance to cover but can have an enormous impact on whether you achieve your business goals. Unfortunately, many companies miss out on these opportunities. One-on-ones are often rushed, disorganized, or forgotten about in favor of more immediate and direct priorities.

Source: PWC "Why Millennials Matter"

Though most communication between employees has gone digital, nothing tops an in-person check-in. So how do you make one-on-one meetings more effective and time-efficient? In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to make your one-on-ones coherent, concise, and rewarding for you and your direct reports.

Have a plan

Simple preparation is the easiest way to show your direct report these one-on-ones (and their development) matter to you. Agree on a setting that is away from everyone’s desk, such as a conference room, a walk outside, a nearby coffee shop, or an off-site lunch. If you plan on using a room, make sure it’s reserved ahead of time.

If a meeting is important enough to take, it should come with an agenda. One-on-ones are no different. At the least, you should define future priorities, gauge professional growth, foster a personal connection, and solicit feedback.

Before the meeting, write down a few areas your direct report has been excelling, and a few areas where there’s still room to improve. Ask your direct report to do the same, and compare notes to see if there’s any significant disconnect that will cause problems in the future.

Specificity shows thoughtfulness and care that won’t go unnoticed or unappreciated and can soften the blow of any critical or negative feedback you need to bring up

When giving feedback, be as specific as possible. Identify individual actions that warranted the positive or constructive feedback, and how that action ties into the larger team goals. This level of specificity shows thoughtfulness and care that won’t go unnoticed or unappreciated and can soften the blow of any critical or negative feedback you need to bring up. It also ensures your team will understand how their actions tie into the business’ objectives, not just what makes you happy.

Learn about your team

One-on-ones are an opportunity for managers to connect with direct reports on a more personal level, and use those learnings to improve office culture. Take time to learn your direct reports’ ideal work schedule and environment, identify stumbling blocks, and ways to make them happier and more effective at their jobs.

  • What parts of the day do you have the least and most energy and focus?
  • What changes can be implemented to help you be more productive?
  • How do you feel your work/life balance is right now?
  • Are you happy with your current team dynamic? What could be improved?
  • How can I make your work easier?

Gauge personal happiness and professional fulfillment

Managers should leave each one-on-one with some inkling of whether their reports are happy in their roles, feel appropriately challenged, and are interested in their work.

Don’t expect direct reports to candidly respond straightforward questions such as “Are you happy working in the company?” especially if you haven’t established a trusting rapport. However, by framing similar questions within the scope of “and what can I do to help?” you may have more luck getting honest answers.

It’s unlikely an employee will open up to a manager they don’t trust, so if you continue to get opaque answers from your team, it may be time to review your effectiveness as a manager and identify areas for self-improvement.

Be fully present

You’re going to have a hard time building trust or a personal connection while intermittently staring into your phone or laptop. Don’t think of one-on-ones as another meeting, but as an invaluable opportunity to connect with your team on a personal level. Or if you prefer to focus on the business side of things, an investment in developing very expensive company assets that are costly to replace.

Don’t think of one-on-ones as another meeting, but as an invaluable opportunity to connect with your team on a personal level

Turn off your devices (or leave them at your desk) and always listen carefully to what your direct reports have to say, not just to be polite. Peeking at a device can be interpreted as not caring, and whatever is on your phone being more important. If there is a real emergency, it’s best to reschedule rather than being distracted and detached.

Ask questions whenever you need clarifications and find an appropriate level of eye contact, ideally somewhere between avoidant and uninterrupted, so to reaffirm that you are listening sincerely.

Solicit feedback

One-on-one meetings are an invaluable opportunity for managers to see how they’re performing at their job. Yes, it could be challenging to get candid feedback face-to-face, but by setting the right tone and asking the right questions, you will be able to gather some crucial information.

  • What have your past managers done that you’d like me to do or not do?
  • How can I better support you?
  • How can I make your work easier or more enjoyable?
  • Would you like more or less direction from me on your work?
  • What is one inexpensive thing we can do to improve our team and company culture?

Take notes to create clarity of purpose, plan, and responsibility

Document each one-on-one, and send a copy of your notes to your direct report. Keeping track of what was discussed during the meeting, how your direct report is feeling and performing, and any progress toward goals or milestones you had previously discussed helps provide clarity and purpose and builds momentum, trust, and transparency. When taking notes, be sure to do the following:

  • Make it clear how the direct report’s work fits into broader individual and company goals
  • Document what the direct report has been doing well, and what you’d like to see them continue to work on
  • Identify who is accountable for what deliverables, and who is waiting for whom
  • Record any agreed upon deadlines or initiatives to start or finish before the next one-on-one

While notes on a computer or phone can be quickly shared, taking notes on pen and paper has the added benefit of showing you’re definitely not surfing the web during the conversation. You can quickly type up your notes or share a photo after the meeting.

Keep a regular cadence

Everyone is busy and has too many meetings - this is an unfortunate symptom of business we’ve yet to figure out. It can be hugely frustrating and disruptive to enter a meeting without a clear agenda and takeaways, but don’t conflate one-on-ones for the unproductive, aimless meetings you dread.

The progress made in a single 30-minute meeting is going to be minimal, but if your employees are truly your most valuable asset you’ll make sure to continue investing in their growth and developing a trusting, personal relationship.

One of the least effective workarounds to freeing up your schedule is substituting one-on-ones with “office hours.” This may free up a few extra 30 minute windows on your calendar but often leads to direct reports having less clarity and direction, which will only cause more headaches (and time commitments) down the road. You’re also more likely to have employees only approach you during these office hours when they’re nearing or past a breaking point. One-on-ones allow you to address problems while still in their infancy.

Source: HBR, "Millennials Want to Be Coached at Work"

You’ll need to determine the frequency of one-on-ones for yourself, depending on the size, experience level, and skill set of your team. What’s more important is you make a point to maintain a consistent cadence. This helps direct reports not feel like they're being pulled aside and are “in trouble.” Once you’ve got the structure and contents of the meeting down, you can then test the frequency to find what works for you.