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One-on-one meetings: Guide for managers (with real-world examples and free template)
Managing employees is hard.
And the recent shift to remote work hasn't exactly made it easier.
Moreover, expectations from managers have increased in the last few years:
Companies need them more than ever to improve on things like
- Employee engagement
- Strategic people development
- ...and much more
And what about first-time managers or entrepreneurs with no experience leading a team at all?
Result: A study indicates managers' jobs are 10 times harder than before the pandemic.
What happens when managers or leaders fail to deliver?
➡️ Team output decreases, affecting the organization's goals and the managers' ratings.
As a manager, your life doesn't need to be this way. Things can be much easier if you know how to get the best out of your employees.
And how do you do that?
By having systems and tools that allow you to know employees beyond their job titles, skills, or years of experience.
Regular one-on-one meetings with employees are one such way to understand and resolve their workplace challenges and increase output.
This data-backed guide, created based on insights from HR experts and experienced leaders, managers, or anyone leading a team, will learn
- what one-on-one meetings are,
- why they are important,
- and how to conduct them.
People Ops and HR professionals can use this blog as a manual to share with managers at their organizations.
👥 What is a one-on-one meeting?
A one-on-one meeting (also called a one-to-one meeting, 1-on-1, or 1:1 meeting) is a check-in between an employee and their supervisor or manager. It is used to understand each other's concerns, resolve issues, and share feedback.
The meeting is also a chance to get a feeling for their team members' lives beyond work. In addition, employees can use this meeting to discuss career growth.
There has been a 500% spike in one-to-one meetings since the pandemic, implying employees need them more than ever.
❗️ Why are one-on-one meetings important?
Mark Zuckerberg and founders of companies like Airbnb and Shopify have a net worth of billions.
Know what else these successful entrepreneurs have in common?
A book that massively influenced their management style: "High Output Management" by Andy Grove.
"Ninety minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate's work for two weeks, or for some eighty-plus hours, and also upgrade your understanding of what he's doing." Andy Grove in High Output Management.
Grove was Intel's CEO and chairman. He was a big proponent of one-on-one meetings and found them vital to increase employee output while making them feel valued.
Here are five reasons why one-on-one meetings are important:
- Improves employee engagement
- Helps in retention
- Improves the feedback process
- Fosters innovation and Increases team output
- Strengthens professional relationship
Improves employee engagement
Most managers have to attend meetings with different stakeholders — clients, senior executives, or internal project teams. Employees feel respected when they take time from their busy schedules to have one-on-one sessions.
A Gallup study says employees who meet regularly with their managers are almost three times more likely to be engaged in their jobs than employees who don't.
Also, people in leadership positions better understand an organization's goals and vision. During the meeting, they can explain to employees why and how their work (how insignificant it may seem) plays a vital role in the company's success. Engagement at work increases when people find their work meaningful.
Helps in retention
Managers play a crucial role in ensuring a good company culture. A one-on-one meeting allows them to empathize with employees' issues and suggest a solution.
For example, a top-performing employee might feel stuck in their career and sees no career progression at your company. Scheduling a call with the manager to discuss their concern makes them uncomfortable. Moreover, your organization has no systems to tackle such issues.
At last, the employee accepts an offer from a competing company.
A scheduled one-on-one can come to a manager's rescue in such cases. It allows you, as a manager, to address your teammates' apprehensions and could make them stay.
Research by Hypercontext implies the same; managers who had 1:1s were 1.5X more likely to retain their entire team than those who didn't.
Improves the feedback process
Employees at many organizations receive feedback only at the end of the appraisal cycle.
So what's the catch?
An under-performing employee won't know that his work wasn't up to mark until the end of the review process.
Substandard work and results.
Regular one-on-ones can break this cycle and allow a manager to share feedback frequently, enabling faster decision-making and improving effectiveness. Employees are open to feedback in such sessions because there is no risk of being ridiculed by other employees.
Fosters innovation and increases team output
Many employees are hesitant to ask questions or share their opinions in a group meeting. And when most of the team works remotely, it becomes even more complicated; suggesting ideas to a colleague or manager sitting in the adjacent cubicle is much easier.
During a one-on-one, managers can ask employees to discuss the challenges hampering the team output. People feel more confident sharing their ideas because they don't fear judgments from their colleagues.
Also, when you regularly share specific feedback and suggest actionable steps to improve performance, employee productivity increases.
Strengthens professional relationship
Knowing about each project member's day-to-day work can become difficult for a large team manager. One-on-one meetings allow them to give individual attention to a project member and understand any roadblocks.
The employee feels more comfortable discussing the issues like:
- Office politics
- Lack of support by seniors
- Knowledge gap
The manager can then make suggestions or directly address such issues.
The meeting also gives employees and managers a chance to discuss their life outside work. Doing this solidifies your professional bond because you associate better with another person. It allows you to empathize with an employee's life problems and how it affects their performance.
💬 Topics to cover in a one-on-one meeting
It's common to see people excited for one-on-one meetings initially but eventually lose the momentum to attend them. As a manager, it is your biggest challenge to keep these sessions exciting for the employees to stick around.
While being flexible about the meeting topics allows free flow of ideas, Julie Zhuo, author of The Making of a Manager and former VP of Design at Facebook, says preparation is key to having stellar one-on-ones.
"1:1s should be focused on your report and what would help him be more successful, not on you and what you need. If you're looking for a status update, use another channel. Rare one-on-one face time is better spent on topics that are harder to discuss in a group or over email." Julie Zhuo.
She suggests one-on-one meetings should focus on these four pillars broadly:
- Calibrate what "great" looks like
- Discuss top priorities
- Reflect on how things are going
- Share feedback
We will discuss the one-on-one meeting agenda and questions in the following sections.
⚙️ How to conduct one-on-one meetings with your employees? (incl. real-world examples from experienced leaders)
- 📅 Set a schedule
- 🗒️ Create a meeting agenda
- 💺 Make the employee feel comfortable
- 👂 Listen more than you talk
- ❓ Ask relevant questions
- 🔄 Share and ask for feedback
1. 📅 Set a schedule
"Regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings allow you to find out how your direct reports are doing, where they're succeeding or struggling, and what they need from you," says Marla Cormier, an L&D professional with over two decades of experience and the founder of Emerging Leader Training.
But how do you show up consistently when hundreds of things demand your attention?
Ask the employee to schedule a recurring meeting.
Seeing a one-on-one invite in your calendar would make you treat it like other important meetings. A schedule will also allow you to plan your other commitments.
While you can ask the employee to schedule the recurring meeting, it is the manager's responsibility to:
- Schedule the first one-on-one
- Foster a culture of meeting regularly
- Increase or decrease the meeting frequency based on the employee's needs
How often should a manager have one-on-one meetings?
Most experienced leaders suggest you have weekly one-on-one with your direct reports, but the meeting frequency should be need-based.
Cormier says, "The frequency of these meetings is dependent on your team structure and the work you do. In some cases, weekly meetings make the most sense, while monthly is more reasonable in others."
Start with weekly meetings
During the first one-on-one, identify the areas where the employee requires help. Next, decide the meeting frequency to address those needs.
"I've discovered that starting with a more frequent cadence is beneficial early on, such as a weekly call. You can modify the time to bi-weekly or monthly as employees become more familiar with their new role, team, project, and stakeholders," says Gerrid Smith, Chief Marketing Officer at Joy Organics.
But no matter how busy your schedule is, have one-on-one meetings with your employees at least once a month for 30 to 60 minutes. You can have these meetings in your office, at a restaurant, or virtually if your team works remotely.
2. 🗒️ Create a meeting agenda
Once you've agreed on a schedule, it's time for some prep work.
A one-on-one agenda will help you stay on track and ensure that attendees get what they need out of the discussion — whether performance feedback or the solution to their challenges.
Who is responsible for defining a one-on-one meeting agenda?
Employees are primarily responsible for creating the agenda because the meeting is supposed to resolve their issues. However, that doesn't mean that you should have no say in deciding the meeting theme.
Maintain a shared document
Both parties can maintain a shared document where they can add the discussion points.
For example, Smith lets his direct reports set the agenda because he believes "the gathering is for them." But he also maintains a shared OneNote notebook for each meeting attendee and expects them to:
- Rank job satisfaction (on a scale of 1-5)
- Rank present workload (1-5)
- Share top three work priorities: He asks employees about any potential hurdles and if he can assist in overcoming them.
- Open spot: To discuss miscellaneous topics.
What should be on the agenda of a one-on-one meeting?
Here are some points you can cover in a one-on-one meeting agenda:
- Meeting duration
- Workplace challenges or concerns
- Progression on goals
- New ideas/feedback
Add relevant one-on-one questions
Cormier believes sharing questions ahead of time ensures that even your most timid employee will come in ready to share.
She says to add questions that allow employees to share their feelings about:
- Workplace challenges
- Successes or wins
- New ideas or opinions
Doing this will make the meeting valuable for both.
Nimisha Kunnath Chatterjee, an experienced HR professional, also believes one-on-ones are equally crucial for managers. She says managers can structure the agenda through these open-ended questions:
- What's on your mind this week?
- How happy were you this past week?
- How productive were you this past week?
- What feedback do you have for me?
You'll learn more about the meeting questions in the subsequent sections.
💺 3. Make the employee feel comfortable
One-on-ones don't have to be intimidating, and it is an opportunity to build rapport with your team members. Don't rush the meeting or solely focus on negative feedback.
Start the meeting on a positive note
Begin each meeting by sharing a win or asking open-ended questions about the employee's life outside work. Create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their opinions without fear of judgment or retaliation.
"Use icebreakers to get employees talking about their lives outside work.
This will give you a better understanding of them as a person and will help create a stronger bond between you and your employees." Gergo Vari, CEO of Lensa.
What are some good one-on-one questions to start the meeting?
- How are things going with you in the office and at home?
Note: Just asking 'How are you?' may attract vague answers like 'Fine,' 'All great,' which may or may not help lead the conversation ahead.
- I remember you sharing your love for [employee's hobby]. Have you had the time to do it lately?
- If meeting around a holiday season: How are you planning to spend your time off during [the holiday]? Planning to visit your parents this time?
- If they have just come back from a family trip or vacation: How was [Name of the place]? Did your kids like it?
Once you spend the initial moments exchanging life updates, you can slowly dive into the core agenda of the session.
Note: Be genuinely interested in your direct reports' lives. Being superficial or asking questions as a to-do item is a waste of time.
👂 4. Listen to solve problems
"Remember, you're not simply listening to be polite; you're also listening to ensure that your direct report receives the best possible support."
Effective listening in action
Here's a little case study of how effective listening during one-on-ones can help managers.
Roselin Minj, a Program Head at the World Resources Institute, talks about how a direct report opened up to her during the weekly one-on-one.
Minj calls the employee "very smart and usually bright-eyed." Still, the teammate didn't find her work meaningful as she was just making PPTs. "This is not what I thought I would be doing when I wanted to work in social impact," she told Minj.
The program head addressed the employee's concern by being empathetic and explaining how her work played a more prominent role.
If such issues are not addressed, employee output decreases, or people start looking for jobs where they "think" they will make an impact.
❓ 5. Ask questions and discuss key points
While making the employee comfortable and heard is vital, managers need to be able to ask questions that get their employees talking.
"While it's not the manager's job to set the agenda or do the talking, the manager should try to draw the key issues out of the employee.
The more introverted the employee, the more important this becomes. If you manage engineers, drawing out issues will be an important skill to master." Ben Horowitz.
Ask open-ended questions
Ask questions during the meeting that require more than a yes or no answer. It will help you better understand the employee's views and make them think about what they want from their career path. Clarity is beneficial for both parties in the long run.
Right questions lead to better solutions
Gergo Vari suggests that managers ask each employee to share their opinions on a topic.
"This will give them an opportunity to speak up and lead to potential solutions being suggested," he adds.
For example, Vari once had an extremely shy salesperson who was very quiet during one-on-one. At the next meeting, he asked employees to share their opinions on a topic.
Guess what happened?
The shy salesperson suggested something so amazing that completely improved Vari's company's customer satisfaction rate.
If you've set goals for each team member, it's essential to check in from time to time to see how they're doing. If someone's falling behind or struggling with a task, it's better to address the issue before it becomes a big problem for the whole team.
What are good questions to ask employees in one-on-one meetings?
According to Ben Horowitz, venture capitalist and author of the bestseller The Hard Thing About Hard Things, these are the effective one-on-one questions:
- If we could improve in any way, how would we do it?
- What's the No.1 problem with our organization? Why?
- What's not fun about working here?
- Who is really kicking ass in the company? Who do you admire?
- If you were me, what changes would you make?
- What don't you like about the product?
- What's the biggest opportunity that we're missing out on?
- What are we not doing that we should be doing?
- Are you happy working here?
Noelle Pittock, Director, Onboarding Operations at Remote, says the following one-on-one questions are her favorite:
- What was the one thing you've done recently, where you surprised yourself? What did you learn from that moment?
- What is the scariest thing or the thing you're most nervous about tackling in the next week? Let's break it down and get ahead of it now!
- What became clear (or clearer) to you this week in your role, and on the opposite side of that....what remains the most confusing?
- Do you ever feel nervous talking to me about certain things? How can I create an environment that allows you to feel open to sharing with me? What does that look like for us?
🔄 6. Share and ask for feedback
"Include feedback in every conversation. Be sure to make recognition part of the conversation, pointing out the report's specific behaviors and impact on customers, the team, or your department goals." says Cormier.
Discuss areas for improvement and brainstorm alternatives for any task that didn't go as planned. But the chain of feedback should always be two-way. Share your observations with employees and seek their input on the processes, systems, and projects.
It gives you an idea of where you both need better cooperation or if either of you is falling short on efforts anywhere. Keep this part at the end to conclude the meeting with an actionable step.
Be transparent during the meeting by sharing any information that can help your employee do his job better (such as new policies/procedures at work). This will allow them to understand your decisions better and improve their performance.
❌ Common mistakes to avoid during one-on-one meetings
One-on-one meetings are a staple of the manager's toolkit. But they can be a waste of time and stressful if you don't approach them the right way.
Here are common mistakes managers make while conducting one-on-one meetings:
Frequent rescheduling or cancellation
A one-on-one meeting is an opportunity to show employees you care about them.
Frequently rescheduling or, worse, canceling the meeting will convey to your employees the opposite. Only cancel the session if you're on vacation or busy with another unplanned urgent work in the office.
Not having a clear goal or agenda
It's essential to have a clear goal before beginning a meeting. If you don't know why you're meeting someone, it can feel unproductive and awkward.
Suppose you have multiple one-on-ones throughout the day with different people. In that case, it's easy to get confused about what's being discussed and how it relates to other conversations without structure or agenda.
Not following up
Don't wait till the next meeting to follow up on the critical tasks discussed during the session. It might not affect much if you've weekly check-ins, but it would be problematic if you have monthly one-on-ones.
This allows you to reaffirm what was discussed during the meeting and ensure that both parties clearly understand what needs to happen next.
Being too authoritative
While It's important to give positive feedback and constructive criticism, the meetings are not meant to be dictating sessions. Empathetically listen to your employees' opinions and suggest multiple solutions wherever possible. Following such practices makes the attendee more comfortable.
Not taking notes
"A lot can happen between 1:1 meetings, so take notes to document the conversation. This allows you to review them before the next meeting and follow up on goals or requests. Taking notes also shows that you're listening and that what employees are sharing is important enough to write down," says Cormier.
Keeping the meeting strictly professional
While it's important to be respectful during the meeting, sharing your learnings and experiences can make the employee feel more connected.
"By sharing your personal experience, you can provide guidance and support to the individual to help them more effectively.
Get personal with your direct reports, and you'll encourage them to open up and share any problems they're having that they're not sure how to solve."
📩 Email template for your first one-on-one with an employee
Subject: First one-on-one meeting
Hey [employee name],
I'm glad to have you on my team and am keen to know all the project members' career goals and aspirations.
I have regular one-on-one meetings with all of my direct reports as part of this process, and this is the invite for our first one. We will decide the meeting frequency after understanding the areas that need focus.
To give you more context, here is what I think about and run one-on-one meetings:
You're the session's focus: The meeting is scheduled to understand your concerns, career aspirations, or anything that hampers your performance. I won't treat it like a status update meeting.
Agenda: You're primarily responsible for creating the meeting agenda because I want to focus on resolving your issues. We will maintain a shared agenda document where I'll add in advance the topics I'll be discussing during the meeting.
The shared document will include the core meeting theme/purpose, questions, and the issues we need to address.
Feedback: I'll share feedback after setting the performance standards and expect you to correct me when I'm wrong. The goal here is to help you do your job better.
Let's connect for one hour for the first one-on-one, and then we can decide the frequency and duration of the subsequent meetings.
Please schedule the meeting sometime in the next week. Here is the URL of my [meeting booking app].
I am looking forward to our conversation. Please let me know if you've any questions.
❓ FAQs about one-on-one meetings
What is the purpose of having a one-on-one meeting with employees?
One-on-one meetings help managers to understand their employees better, give feedback on performance, and discuss issues that could affect their work. The sessions make the employee-manager relationship stronger and increase employee engagement.
What should you discuss during the first one-on-one with your employee?
During this initial meeting, ask the employee what they want out of their career and what they want out of their current role. This will help you understand what employees currently value most in their job and what they're hoping to achieve in their career path. You can also discuss any concerns they have during this time; this will help you better understand what motivates or discourages them from doing well at work.
After this initial meeting, create an action plan with specific goals that you and your direct report can work towards over time (e.g., improve communication skills).
How does a manager prepare for a one-on-one?
Managers can prepare for one-on-one meetings by confirming their availability for recurring meetings and collaborating on the agenda. They can also come up with one-on-one questions based on the previous check-in and employee's performance since the last meeting.