How to hold effective one-on-one meetings

With the right format and agenda, one-on-one meetings increase employee engagement and bolster team success

Time is scarce in an office environment, and too often, one-on-one meetings get canceled or postponed to make room for other priorities. These regular check-ins between managers and their direct reports are more important than they seem, however.  

Prioritizing one-on-one meetings with your direct reports is essential for ensuring individual employee engagement and growth, as well as contributing to the overall success of the team and the wider business. Without them, you run the risk of losing good employees and creating a breakdown in communication.

The purpose of one-on-one meetings (and the risks of canceling them) 

One-on-one meetings are vital for keeping the lines of communication open with your direct reports. That communication is necessary to ensure your team has the resources and support to tackle challenges and obstacles in their work.  

Setting aside time for your employees also makes them feel valued, both as individuals and for their contributions to the team and organization. It also gives them an opportunity to discuss items they may not be comfortable bringing up in a daily stand-up meeting or other team setting.   

Harvard Business Review study analyzed the impact of one-on-ones and found the following: 

  • The average manager spends 30 minutes every three weeks with each of their employees. 
  • Employees who had twice the number of one-on-ones were 67 percent less likely to become disengaged. 
  • Employees who have no one-on-one meetings with their employers are four times more likely to be disengaged, and two times more likely to have an unfavorable view of their managers. 

Managers who regularly meet with team members individually have more engaged, happier employees. Those who don’t are more likely to have a flooded inbox, poor communication with their team, increased office gossip, and disillusioned staff. And managers who regularly cancel scheduled one-on-ones are sending their reports the message that their time and contributions aren’t valued.  

How often should you have one-on-one conversations? 

Ideally, one-on-one meetings should happen weekly or biweekly and be no more than 30 minutes. No matter the frequency, it’s important that both you and the members of your team commit to a regular time and adhere to it. 

If you find yourself wondering if you should cancel a one-on-one meeting to make time for tasks and discussions that you deem more important, remember that by having these check-ins, you are “making time to create time”—offering support to your team so they can excel at their tasks—which means less time-consuming and costly problems down the road. 

Setting a one-on-one meeting agenda 

Meeting overload is a real problem. The solution isn’t necessarily less meetings; it’s better meetings. Keeping meetings short, focused, and productive is key to making the best use of both your time and that of your team. That’s why establishing an agenda for one-on-one meetings is vital. 

In her book Radical Candor, CEO coach and former Google exec Kim Scott advocates letting your direct reports set the meeting agenda, an approach that many leaders have adopted. Other managers prefer to set the agenda themselves based on team priorities.  

For many managers, sharing the responsibility of setting a meeting agenda is the best tactic. While the supervisor is responsible for the overall meeting agenda, they should solicit input from direct reports before the meeting. No matter who sets the agenda, giving everyone a chance to review it prior to the meeting is key to having a productive discussion.  

One-on-one meeting template  

A successful one-on-one meeting should include some or all of the following agenda items: 

Task and project status 

A quick review of your team member’s progress on action items from your last one-on-one should be a part of your one-on-one meeting. If your team has a daily stand-up, there will likely be items that are too granular for that meeting format and are better discussed during your individual check-ins. 

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It’s also important for you as a manager to discuss the status of items that you’re working on that will impact your employees’ jobs. This will help ensure that you are working toward overall team and company goals together. 

Performance  

If you have any issues and concerns with an employee’s performance or output, one-on-one meetings are the place to discuss them. Putting your team members on the spot by highlighting problems during team meetings, or blindsiding them during employee reviews, will lead to disengagement and unhappiness at work.  

Challenges

Your team members likely address their challenges during stand-up or team meetings, but one-on-one meetings are a good venue for brainstorming potential solutions and figuring out how you can better support your employees as they navigate roadblocks. 

Employee goals  

Your team members probably have professional goals that extend beyond their next project due date. Setting career development goals, offering support, and regularly checking in on the progress of those objectives will make your employees feel valued. 

Culture check-in 

Your business’s culture has a huge impact on employee engagement, happiness, and productivity. Take some time to speak to each team member individually about whether or not the corporate culture is supporting or hindering their goals and satisfaction.  

Employee wins 

Celebrating employee successes is something that even good managers forget to do from time to time, and it can have a huge impact on how valued your employees feel. Recognize your team members for exceptional work, both in your one-on-ones and within the team and the company as a whole. 

Action items 

During your one-on-one meetings, agree on concrete action items to help address each of your discussion points, and—this is important—write them down. After the meeting, write up the tasks you both need to accomplish, along with due dates, then share the list, either over email or through a shared document or productivity app. It’s important to keep each other accountable for the items assigned to each of you in the days until you meet again.  

In general, you want to structure your 30-minute meeting with 10 minutes for your employee to share, 10 minutes for you to share, and 10 minutes to discuss what you each will do moving forward. Not every one-on-one meeting will necessitate all these agenda items, but they are a good starting point for a productive talk. 

Tips for managers in one-on-ones with employees 

Agendas are important, but so is how you conduct yourself during a one-on-one meeting. Remember these rules to keep your meeting focused and productive. 

Avoid distractions 

You want your employee to feel as though your time together is important, so close the laptop, put your smartphone out of reach, and make sure your colleagues know not to disturb you unless there’s an emergency. Keep the focus on your team member. 

Ask the right questions  

“How’s it going?” isn’t a question that’s likely to generate meaningful discussion. Ask detailed questions that require more than a yes or no in response, and make sure you are answering any question posed by your employee honestly and completely. Communication goes both ways—the more open you are, the more open your team is likely to be. 

Get out of the office 

This may not be possible with every one-on-one meeting, but when you can, consider a change of scenery. Your employees may open up more during a walk, while sitting outside, or while sipping lattes at a coffee shop than they would in your office or a conference room, where the impulse to focus solely on tasks or projects may be stronger.  

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Tips for employees in one-on-one meetings with managers 

Your manager may be running your one-on-one meetings, but it’s important for you to also be an active participant. Here are some ways to ensure these discussions are productive for you as well. 

Use your one-on-one meeting for clarification 

It can sometimes be intimidating to ask for clarification on items in team meetings, especially if no one else is raising questions. Utilize one-on-one meetings to gain clarity on tasks, deliverables, or overall team and company objectives. This will ensure that what you’re doing every day is aligned with larger goals.  

Give feedback to your manager 

Managers aren’t perfect, and most want to be a supportive resource for their team. If there’s anything you need from your manager that you aren’t getting—whether it’s positive feedback or help with a difficult colleague—use this space to ask for it. And while it might feel uncomfortable, there are constructive, positive ways to give feedback to your manager.

Come prepared 

If you have any supporting documents or data to back up the items on your one-on-one meeting agenda, compile them in an easy-to-digest format and bring them to the meeting. If possible, send them to your manager ahead of time so they can review prior to the discussion. This is especially important if you have any large asks of your manager—let them know that you’ve given a lot of thought to any requests you may have. 

Effective one-on-one meetings are crucial for employee engagement and collaboration 

Regular one-on-one meetings help keep employees and managers on the same page, ensure good channels of communication, and keep teams and organizations open and productive. WeWork’s collaborative workspaces offer teams meeting spaces that promote inspiration and meaningful discussion for meetings of any size.  

Jessica Hulett is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketing specialist based in Ossining, NY. She has previously written for CosmopolitanReal Simple, DealNews, and more.

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