One on one meetings
How to Get More Value From One on One Meetings: A Guide for Managers
One on one meetings

How to Get More Value From One on One Meetings: A Guide for Managers

Do the members of your team feel supported? Are they happy in their jobs and in their lives? Do they know exactly what steps they need to take to grow in their roles and careers? If you can’t answer any of these questions with a resounding yes, you’re probably not taking full advantage of your one on one meetings.

One on ones can bring a huge amount of value to an employee, a manager, and an entire organization. They’re an opportunity to set your employees up for success, increase their happiness, and improve the overall performance of your team. 

Here’s more on why one on one meetings are important and how to run them effectively.

Why one on one meetings are important

If you manage a team, especially a large team, one on ones can require a significant time and resource investment. You need to regularly spend 30 minutes to an hour meeting with every single report, and potentially even more time doing prep for and follow-up from those meetings. 

There’s no doubt that one on one meetings take time and effort, but the dividends more than make up for the investment.  

One hour of your time might unblock or motivate someone from your team for the whole week. If you become a force multiplier for your team, one on ones become a return on your time investment that is hard to beat. 

Fixing a problem early is a lot less costly than waiting to fix it down the line. Having frequent touch points with your team members also allows you to quickly identify and address problems or bad habits before they become much more serious.

Done right, one on ones also help you build trust. They show your employees that you value their thoughts, feelings, and contributions. If you are open to their comments, show them support, and provide them with opportunities to grow, you can earn their trust for life. That trust is invaluable when you need them to follow your lead, buy-in to key initiatives, and respond well to your feedback. 

Finally, one on ones are an opportunity for managers to make sure employees are happy — both inside and outside of work. Beyond simply caring about the well-being of your employees, there are a number of studies which prove that happy workers are also more productive. And when employees are happy, they stick around longer. One on one meetings provide your best opportunity to make sure team happiness levels are in the green.

Preparing for your one on one meeting

To have genuinely valuable one on ones, you can’t just show up to the meeting unprepared. Here’s how to get ready and ensure you’re making the most of this dedicated time.

Find the right frequency and length

Frequency and length of one on one meetings really depend on your team members. Some people like to have frequent check-ins, others prefer to space them out. The length of a one on one will also usually be inversely proportional to its frequency. 

For example, with new employees you might need more regular check-ins. So you may want to meet every week for 15 minutes to make sure everything is running smoothly. You can then transition to 30-minute one on ones every two weeks, while running one hour sessions every month for more established employees. 

As a rule, try to meet with your team members at least once a month, keeping your agenda open for more spontaneous one on ones as needed. An hour-long meeting is usually the sweet spot: it gives you plenty of time to talk with your coworker about multiple subjects, without anyone feeling rushed. And if you don’t need the full hour, you can always end it early. The important thing is that your team feels that you respect them enough to give them the time that they need.

Review your meeting notes

The best way to prepare for one on ones is to review the notes from your previous meetings:

  • Were there any follow-ups tasks for you? Have you completed them?
  • Are there activities, events, or personal milestones that should be highlighted or that you can ask about? Anniversaries, vacations, their latest hike, their favorite sports team’s big game?
  • Was there a big launch or important work that they had been working on recently? How did it go?
  • Is there anything in their growth or career plans you need to discuss? Are there new opportunities for you to help them achieve those goals? 

Looking back on your notes and on the activities of that team member will help you give them your full attention and make the call more beneficial for both parties. 

Set an agenda

Every meeting should have an agenda. It’s the easiest way to guarantee that attendees know what to expect and make valuable use of that time. 

Your agenda will vary from meeting to meeting, person to person, but there’s a few core topics  that each one on one should cover. 

  • Personal check-in: How are they doing? What’s new in their life? This might also cover current events and how they’re feeling about them (COVID, for example). This helps get things started and builds empathy.
  • Follow ups: Anything from your last meeting that required follow up. These show that you’re paying attention and that you are there to actually provide support.
  • Personal growth items: Where can you help them grow and improve? Are there conferences or courses they could attend? New projects they might lead? A mentor you  could connect them with? This is your opportunity to provide guidance and set them on the right path.

Give up control

Even though you’re setting an agenda, it’s essential that the employee owns this meeting. They should be contributing to the agenda and should also feel free to modify what you’ve put down. 

I actually use a Trello board to craft collaborative one on one meeting agendas. I encourage my team to add cards to the agenda and add comments to my suggested discussion points ahead of time. This ensures that they never feel ambushed and that they have the time to prepare for our one on ones. Additionally, you could start each meeting by asking your team member if they have specific points they want to add to the agenda.

A one-on-one meeting agenda template (with example questions)

Here’s an example of what a one on one meeting agenda might look like in practice.

One on one with [name] – [date]

1. General check-in (15 mins): 

  • What do you want to talk about?
  • How are things outside of work?

2. Reflection on previous week (15 mins): 

  • How did you feel about that marketing launch you were leading? How did it go?
  • What blockers did you face? Anything I can help with for next time?

3. Update on week ahead (10 mins): 

  • Are you feeling good about next week’s event?
  • What can I do to help?

4. Manager feedback (10 mins): 

  • Do you want or need feedback on anything?

5. Career goals and objectives check-in (10 mins): 

  • How are you progressing on your goals?
  • Is there anything you need to help you succeed?

6. Action items: 

  • (To fill in)

Access a downloadable google doc version of this template.

6 tips for one on one meetings

Here are a few additional tips which, in my experience, have made a positive impact on my one on ones with the team.

  1. Never cancel, always reschedule: Cancelling a one on one is a signal to your employees that they’re not at the top of your list. That might be true, if work is piling up, there’s an emergency, or you’re out of the office. But you still shouldn’t cancel, you should reschedule. This signals that the meeting is still important and you value that employee’s well-being, you just need to reprioritize for today.
  2. It’s ok to ditch the agenda. In one on one meetings, the agenda helps you make sure that important topics get covered. But if a specific topic of conversation comes to dominate your meeting, there’s a good chance it’s particularly important to your team member. Let them pilot the meeting and don’t fret if your agenda gets pushed to the side.
  3. Listen more than you talk. As a manager, you probably spend most of your day in meetings. But this meeting is for your employees. Allow them to share and talk. In the end, you’ll probably learn a lot more from listening than you would from speaking anyways.
  4. Don’t make one on one meetings a status report. The goal of these conversations is assuredly not tracking their tasks. It isn’t checking up on project progress. A one on one is a chance for them to share, vent, learn and grow. Keep the status updates to your project meetings (or better yet, your project management tool). 
  5. Switch up the setting! While one on ones should be recurring, the setting doesn’t have to be. If you aren’t a remote organization, try going outside or doing a walking meeting. People might be more willing to open up outside of the office environment. And changing things up can also keep them interested in the meeting long-term.
  6. Document the general tone of the one on one. At Unito, we love to use emojis. They can tell you a lot very quickly. When it comes to one on one meetings, we document the overall tone using food emojis. A green apple means everything is ok. A yellow lemon means things are a little sour and improvement is suggested. And a red pepper means things are a bit hot. After every meeting, we drop one of these emojis into the task with our notes (we use Asana for this process). This allows upper management to get a general idea of the mood of their employees without having to read the full meeting notes. And it helps you as a manager notice trends. Several weeks in the month with a lemon or a pepper should prompt you to take action. 

Don’t take one on ones for granted

Every manager probably takes part in more meetings each week than they’d like. But one on ones are critical to team performance and employee retention. With the right approach, these might just be your most valuable meetings. So give them — and your team — the attention they deserve.