Introduction to 1:1s

One-on-Ones (or 1:1s) are a regularly scheduled time for managers to check-in with direct reports.

1:1s help companies understand how employees are feeling about their day-to-day work, their professional development and the company. In his blog, Ben Horowitz describes 1:1s as, “the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting. This is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.” These manager-employee meetings are an essential part of a company’s communication architecture.

1:1s at a glance:

  • Employees own the agenda and dictate the conversation
  • Agenda is a cross between day-to-day challenges, career development, job satisfaction and anything else on the employee’s mind. 1:1s are not a status update meeting.
  • Management tool to increase output, track progress towards goals and stay in touch with employees’ happiness
  • Ongoing feedback mechanism to help employees grow skills and overcome challenges. 1:1s make sure performance conversations happen more than once a year.
  • Status conversations (if they must happen) should be kept short (5min or less)

Why 1:1s are important

One-on-ones help employees, managers and companies in different ways.

For employees

One-on-ones are a sacred time where employees get a manager’s undivided attention. It’s an opportunity to:

Clear roadblocks

Managers are managers for a reason; they have the experience, the smarts and the context to help steer employees down the right path. 1:1s give employees an opportunity to get advice from managers to overcome challenges in the day-to-day work.

Gather feedback

There’s nothing worse than doing a bunch of work and not knowing if it’s good or bad. 1:1s provide an opportunity for employees to talk with their managers about their work product to understand how they can improve and get recognition (and peace of mind) when they did a good job.

Discuss career

Employees are always thinking about their career - How can I be a better developer? Should I switch from visual designer to UX? Am I getting a promotion to Account Director? - and 1:1s are the appropriate forum for employees to raise these questions with managers. This conversation can range from company specific (how can I become a product manager) to personal advice (go to business school or stay in the industry).

Share feelings and ideas

Employees spend so much time at work that they become deeply invested in the company, their team and their role. Good employees really care and have opinions and ideas around every facet of the company from the product to how the team can best work together. 1:1s are the appropriate private forum for employees to share feelings (good or bad) and bounce ideas off their manager.

For managers

Managers are measured by the performance of their team; the greater the team output, the more successful the manager. It’s the job of the manager to provide advice and help their team cross the finish line. The challenge for managers is that time is scarce; managers are responsible for so much work that they have to delegate to the team. This dynamic means managers must engage in high-leverage activities; actions that have an exponential rate of return on investment. These types of activities can range from a well focused brief at the start of a project to stand up meetings that set the priorities for the coming week. In his book, High Output Management, Andy Grove describes 1:1s as an essential high-leverage activity that all managers need to invest in, “ninety minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate’s work for two weeks, or for some eighty plus hours.”

By having frequent 1:1s, managers are able to help employees overcome challenges, steer employees down the right path, uncover new problems and ideas. The end result is that managers are not seen as micromanaging their team, but rather providing valuable guidance around how to approach day-to-day challenges and, ultimately, achieve the team’s objectives.

1:1s also provide managers a forum to build rapport with their employees and better understand how their team feels about their work life. During these conversations, managers have an opportunity to make employees feel valued and make sure their concerns about the workplace are addressed. This helps the manager keep their team happy, which means they will retain top talent and, ultimately, increase productivity.

For companies

One-on-Ones are the essential building blocks of your company communications. They help managers of all levels keep pulse of what’s happening at the company and encourage a productive dialogue - What challenges are people facing? What opportunities does the team see? Are people happy? - according to Ben Horowitz, “without a well-designed communication architecture, information and ideas will stagnate and your company will generate into a bad place to work.” This free flow of ideas helps keep your company moving forward and makes employees feel empowered.

The employee-centric nature of 1:1s is also a major value add for companies. 1:1s help make employees feel like their company cares about them. The company cares about their career goals, employees get the training they need to overcome work challenges, receive recognition for significant achievements and they get the support they need when dealing with personal issues. These ongoing conversations help to retain talent because it shows that the company values the employees, and ultimately decrease company expenses caused by losing talent and onboarding new people.

How to run a successful 1:1

A few things to keep in mind when having a 1:1 with your employee.

Make it about them

It’s important to remember that the meeting is about the employee -- how they’re feeling about work, what challenges they’re facing, what ideas they have for improving the workplace, what personal problems they are experiencing, how they want to grow their career and develop new skills. The entire conversation should be focused on the employee with the goal of showing the employee that you’re hearing what they’re saying, giving them the feedback (and recognition) that they deserve, and showing that the company values their contributions.

The conversation should start by asking what’s on the employee's mind; the employee should own the agenda and generally dictate the flow of the conversation. When the discussion starts to slow down, it’s on the manager to start asking employee-centric questions that draw key issues out of the employee. This is especially important for introverted employees who are hesitant to open up.

Create a schedule and stick to it

In the day-to-day shuffle, it’s easy to think about 1:1s as non-essential meetings, especially when they’re not directly related to the bottom line or client work. But this is the absolutely wrong way to think about 1:1s. Remembering the advice of Andy Grove, managers must engage in high-leverage activities and 1:1s are an essential tool to increase leverage. A 30min conversation with your employee can go a long way in making sure they're on track and happy with their job.

Most 1:1s last between 30 and 60 minutes. Put the time on your calendar and do your best to not cancel. If for some reason you can’t make it, always reschedule. Not only will this show employees that they’re a top priority but will also improve the work product and efficiency of the team.

Ask for an agenda

Productive meetings take preparation and 1:1s are no exception. Since it’s the employees meeting, it’s on them to own the agenda and prepare ahead of time. The employee should decide how they want to use the time with their manager.

At Lattice, we’ve found it helpful to have consistent opening questions each week to get the conversation flowing --

  • What did you focus on this week?
  • What are your plans and priorities for next week?
  • What challenges or roadblocks do you need help with?
  • Is there anything else on your mind?

Ahead of the meeting, the employee should answer a few questions to help get them thinking about what they want to talk about.

Get them to open up

Often times the conversation during a 1:1 stagnates -- it was a slow week, so there was no big roadblocks or the employee is an introvert who is hesitant to open up. This is where it’s time for the manager to start asking questions to draw out the key issues from employees. Some questions we’ve found effective:

Short and Long Term Goals

  • How can we help improve your day-to-day work?
  • How are you feeling about the project?
  • What do you want to work on next quarter?
  • A year from now, what do you want to have accomplished?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?

Company Improvement

  • What’s the biggest opportunity that we’re not thinking about?
  • How can the team work better together? Where are we failing? Where are we succeeding?
  • What’s your least favorite thing about the product?
  • How are you feeling about the company’s future? Why do you say that?
  • If you were the CEO, what changes would you make?

Career Development

  • Do you feel like we’re helping to advance your career? What else can I be doing to help grow your career?
  • Do you feel like you’re learning at work?
  • What projects are you most proud of? What do you want to work on next?
  • If you were not a [position], what do you want to be?
  • What’s a professional development project you’d like to pursue?

Manager Suggestions

  • How can I be a better manager?
  • How can I make your work easier?
  • What areas of your work do you want more/less direction from me?
  • What additional resources do you need?
  • How can we improve these 1:1s?

Job Satisfaction

  • Are you happy?
  • What’s not fun about working here?
  • Do you feel like you have a good work-life balance?
  • I’ve noticed you’re a little (adjective) than usual. Is there anything you want to talk about?
  • What do you want to do but don’t feel like you have the time for?

Besides asking leading questions, another good tactic to get employees to open up is a change in scenery -- go for a walk, get a cup of coffee, walk around an art museum. This change of pace will help managers build rapport, which will make the employees comfortable enough to open up.

Take Notes and Follow up

If you’re running a successful 1:1, then each week the manager will uncover different challenges and opportunities about the employee. This can range from a desire to grow a new skill to a problem they’re experiencing on a particular project. It’s essential to follow up on any issues in subsequent 1:1s. This shows the employees that you truly care about their concerns because you took the time (and remembered) to address their needs.

Take notes during a 1:1, so you remember the issues raised and appropriate action items. At Lattice, we use our Check-in tool to add some structure to 1:1s and help managers follow up, but a running Google doc also works. Either way - make sure you follow up.