One-on-ones are a great way for managers to improve their personal relationships with team members. These meetings are an amazing opportunity to create a space to focus on a single person and help them become as productive and successful in the business as possible.
However, they're also time-consuming, and can quickly fill up a manager's calendar, killing productivity, and slowing growth instead of accelerating it.
That's why the frequency of one-on-one meetings can be a tricky thing to get right.
A quick definition of one-on-one meeting
These individual conversations between a manager and a team member can potentially cover everything from working relationships, career goals, expectations, to providing resources.
For the purpose of figuring out the right cadence for this meeting, there are a few types of manager + direct report meetings that don't qualify.
To avoid confusion, the following meetings are not "one-on-ones" for the purposes of this article:
- Performance reviews. Although both of these meeting types focus on career development, performance reviews are a formal, well-documented, and less frequent type of meeting
- Discussions between two people. Having only two attendees in a meeting is great, but sometimes that's just a discussion.
Why one-on-ones should be regularly scheduled
These meetings should be a recurring meeting on the calendar, not an ad-hoc event that you decide to do when you have enough time. By making one-on-ones a regular occurrence, managers send a signal to their direct reports that their contributions at work matter..
Think of one-on-one meetings like going to the gym (or building another habit). Through repetition, you grow stronger, more successful, and better at having one-on-ones.
Common frequencies for one-on-ones
- Bi-Weekly (every other week)
- Annually (As in the case of skip-level one-on-ones)
Common durations for one-on-ones
- 30 minutes
- 1 hour
- 15 minutes
How to evaluate:
As you can see, meeting weekly for 30 minutes or bi-weekly for an hour results in a similar amount of facetime. Teams that choose the longer meeting will allow you to explore topics in more depth, while the more frequent meeting cadence will help address challenges more quickly.
Types of 1:1s
One-on-one meetings can be a great way to build rapport with team members at your company. These regular check-ins can also be a huge time-waster that everyone comes to dread.
When determining your one-on-one meeting cadence (how frequently you meet with your direct reports 1:1), first you need to take into account what kind of one-on-ones you are having.
Updating - Informational one-on-ones
This is the most common 1:1 meeting. It is generally a check-in that involves going over a meeting agenda that consists of a list of projects or tasks, with managers and their reports quickly running through the status of each.
Coaching - Growth-focused one-on-ones
The coaching one-on-one is focused on long-term career growth, sorting out workplace issues, setting expectations, and making sure the employee has adequate support and resources. Many experts argue that constructive feedback between a manager and their director report happens way too infrequently, which is why it’s good to have a recurring one-on-one meeting on the books.
The meeting agenda for this type of one-on-ones might feature questions like:
- How can I help keep you accountable for achieving goals and results?
- What could help you bounce back quicker?
- How do you think your role contributes to the company's success?
- Have any of your goals changed since the last time we talked about them?
- What other areas of the company do you want to learn about?
- Do you think leadership upholds policies fairly for all employees?
- Is your team an inspiration for you to do your best at work?
- Is your current role helping you grow in your career at the pace you want?
- What do you think about the relationship between our team and other teams at the company?
And my personal favorite...
- Anything else?
Venting - Problem-correcting one-on-ones
Sometimes tension needs to be released from the workplace. A conflict has happened. A mistake has been made. Something went wrong. Some feedback needs to be given.
It's okay to have 1:1 meetings where managers don't cover a formal agenda, rather you work out a specific issue.
These conversations aren't comfortable for managers or employees either. Feedback isn't always fun. But usually, as soon as they're done, everyone feels better now that whatever problem was lurking beneath the surface has been released above ground.
You may have a combination of the above types of 1:1s, or even blend the above objectives in some of your conversations. Most people have all three at some point, with their needed frequency in descending order.
- Updating --> Frequent (e.g. Weekly)
- Coaching --> Semi-Frequent (e.g. Monthly)
- Venting --> As the situation arises (e.g. 2-4x a year)
Factors to consider for how often to have one-on-one meetings
Team size. The cadence is going to be based first on manager bandwidth. If a manager has a team of 8, and spends an hour preparing for, attending, and debriefing from one-on-one meetings, that’s 8 hours, or an entire day of their workweek just spent in one-on-ones.
Worker autonomy. Depending on the experience level, skillset, and complexity of their projects, some employees can work more autonomously than others.
Communication effectiveness outside of meetings. In our organization, we make heavy use of a lot of collaboration tools. Thanks to tools like Slack, Asana, Hugo, and Loom, we have many different channels of communication outside of meetings.
The best one-on-one meeting cadence: My personal experience
In my career, I’ve found weekly one-on-ones to be too frequent for the level of autonomy I’ve been given. We use a lot of collaboration tools to communicate, so the content of my meetings only needs to be discussed again a week later if we're not doing a good job using our other tools: our project software, chat (Slack), sending Loom videos, etc.
Bi-weekly one-on-ones seem to strike the best balance in terms of making good use of time.
However, if a manager is busy, or if there's too much going on to keep track of across various tools and threads, having a time slot carved out each week to shoot through a number of issues and questions can be an incredibly efficient use of time.
If you use your one-on-ones to talk through updates like this, make sure to schedule a different kind of one-on-one every month or so, whether you also take time to talk about the bigger picture and provide feedback on employee performance.
Should you sometimes skip your one-on-one?
Here's a tip if you have weekly one-on-ones. Especially on a short week (such as when there has been a holiday or someone out sick), be willing to skip the discussion.
Look at it this way.
It's okay to schedule weekly one-on-ones. It's also okay that, on some weeks, you don’t have a lot to discuss, and you decide to share updates and feedback in a different way.
Quick tips for better one-on-ones
Choose a private setting
Don't hold one-on-one meetings within earshot of others. Certain employees may fear giving the most honest feedback because other people on the team can hear them. If you manage a remote team, you should use a private meeting link, not a group room or recurring link where others might accidentally join.
Set an agenda
One-on-ones can be scary for direct reports. Having an agenda provides structure to the meeting, helping your direct report prepare for anything they need to review or cover.
One-on-ones aren't a performance review, but instead, it’s a time to talk, ask questions, listen, and coach.
We recommend having the manager do most of the asking, and the direct report does most of the answering. This helps the employee take a more active role in the discussion. Often the best way to provide feedback on behavior or career development isn't a strict performance review, it's having someone talk through their own issue. They'll provide feedback to themself.
Being present in meetings is not just about physically being in the same room. Nonverbal cues are an essential part of communication, so if you're having your one-on-one remotely, meeting via video chat is much better than having a call.
Zapier, a company that has a 100% distributed team of 150+, always does 1:1s through video chat.
Don't take being face-to-face too literally though. For example, sitting in a conference room on opposing sides of a table can be a naturally confrontational position, and may not be the best setting if you're going to have a difficult conversation.
Take notes, but be brief
Taking notes also is a signal to others that you’re focusing on them and it implies a commitment. While you shouldn't be writing throughout the meeting, taking the occasional note shows you care.
This gives off an active signal that you are interested in what they have to say. Plus, saving these notes will help you keep track of what was discussed, and helps you track and action items or next steps that came from the conversation.