Performance Management Essentials

How to make 1:1 meetings time well spent

Sitting together on a regular basis helps people stay informed and build a trusting relationship. That’s why more and more teams swear by 1:1 meetings (also spelled as one-on-one or 1-on-1). Want to start having 1:1s in your team or improve your existing ones? Here are some pointers to help you get the most out of them.

Aligning on the purpose of 1:1 meetings

In the course of a year, managers and team members sit together in different types of meetings. Among the most common ones are status update meetings, performance check-ins, and 1:1s. Ben Horowitz accurately describes 1:1 meetings as 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."

There’s broad consensus that the 1:1 is one of, if not the, most important meeting you can have. But what exactly can you accomplish through 1:1 meetings? We found that the most successful 1:1s aim to facilitate the following things:

  • Building a trusting relationship
  • Staying informed and aligned
  • Providing mutual feedback to help each other grow
  • Addressing topics prone to getting lost in the shuffle (e.g., career development)

The first point, building a trusting relationship, is a unique opportunity that 1:1 meetings offer. Regular personal conversations help both parties get to know each other better and build mutual trust. And that trust is what encourages open communication, honest feedback, and effective collaboration.

As an employee, 1:1 meetings are a great way to stay in the driver’s seat of your career. And as a manager, 1:1s help you improve retention and resolve issues before they become problems.

Don’t forget that you can also have 1:1s with coworkers other than your manager or report. If you frequently work with someone or have a mentor, consider sitting together once a month. 1:1s can help in many ways.

Regular personal conversations help team members get to know each other better and build mutual trust. — Small Improvements

1:1s are a joint responsibility

While managers are typically responsible for setting and sticking to the cadence of 1:1s, both participants should be able to contribute to the agenda. Business leaders like Ben Horowitz and Kim Scott even recommend that employees rather than managers should own and drive their 1:1s.

If you as a manager feel like the responsibility of driving the 1:1 would be daunting for your team members, get them started with sharing talking points beforehand as a first step. Team members can still take more ownership as your relationship grows and 1:1s become a no-brainer.

The agenda of a 1:1 depends on your needs and can change from meeting to meeting. But ask yourself, “What are the most important things we should discuss today? And are there any roadblocks or ways how we can better support each other?” For managers driving the meeting, here are some tips on what questions to ask.

Even when the team member drives the 1:1, the manager can of course still chime in and ask questions. After all, it’s just a conversation between two people. Just don’t focus your 1:1 on status updates or recent performance only. As a manager, you can ask your team members about their wellbeing, experience in the team, and career goals. And remember that 1:1s are to build a strong relationship. So if it feels natural to you, don’t hesitate to also chat about private things for a bit.

Being present matters

Being present in meetings is not just about physically being in the same room, and it’s even possible in a remote environment. When it comes to 1:1s, presence simply means giving the other person your full attention.

Managers and their team members should reduce distractions to a bare minimum. Coming prepared, turning off notifications on your devices, starting on time, listening actively – all these things help you be more present during a meeting.

Ideally, you have your 1:1 face to face – because that’s the richest form of communication. But that’s not always possible, and not being able to meet in person shouldn’t prevent a 1:1 from happening.

If some or all of the employees in your organizations work remotely, it’s important to get as close to a face-to-face conversation as possible. Take Zapier as an example. The 100% distributed team of around 150 always does 1:1s through video chat, as their CFO Jenny Bloom told us. Nonverbal cues are an essential part of communication, so meeting via video chat or in person is much better than having a call.

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Making 1:1 meetings a routine

Routine is key to making 1:1 meetings a powerful tool for creating alignment and establishing a trusting relationship. But how to fit that routine into your busy schedule? Former Google and Apple executive Kim Scott points out in her book Radical Candor: “1:1s should be a natural bottleneck that determines how many direct reports a boss can have.”

If you as a manager have five or fewer team members, you could aim for weekly one-hour 1:1s. But even if you have 20, there's no excuse not to have 1:1s. Just adjust the frequency and duration to make it work for you.

Depending on the needs and structure of your organization, biweekly or monthly 1:1s can be just as fine as weekly meetings, but it’s essential to develop a routine. That’s more likely to happen if you block out time in your calendar, keep those meetings sacred, and reschedule only if really necessary.

Getting into a routine can be hard. But once the manager and their team members see the value of regular 1:1 meetings, they become a natural part of the ongoing feedback and development conversation. And the more often you meet, the fewer surprises there will be at less regular performance check-ins.

Routine is key to making 1:1 meetings a powerful tool for establishing a trusting relationship. — Small Improvements

Write things down

The single most important thing about 1:1 meetings is sitting together on a regular basis. But taking some time to write down what you want to discuss and what the outcome of the meeting was can make your 1:1s even more valuable.

Coming prepared to a meeting makes the 1:1 go smoothly. It shows that you’re respecting the other person’s time and ensures that nothing falls through the cracks. Preparation also helps make 1:1s employee-driven. At Reddit, employees share their talking points with their manager prior to the meetings because “it allows the employee to guide the conversation in the way that they want,” as Katelin Holloway, VP of People and Culture at Reddit, highlighted at a panel discussion.

Once you’ve finished your meeting, summarizing the most important outcomes and sharing them with the other person helps eliminate misunderstandings. It also makes it easier to pick up the ball in the next 1:1 meeting. As a manager or employee, you can also just take private notes to keep track of how the 1:1s went and to capture key takeaways for future reference.

The rule of thumb for taking notes is: do whatever works best for you to get into a habit of having regular 1:1s. Having these conversations and not writing anything down is still better than not doing them at all or regularly.

Start now, and iterate later

Or how Sheryl Sandberg would put it, “Done is better than perfect.” The key to good 1:1 meetings is doing them. Don’t worry if you don’t nail it straight away. There are many things you will learn along the way that are specific to your company and the individual humans involved.

We encourage 1:1 participants to regularly share their thoughts with each other on how valuable they find the current meetings and what could be improved. Nothing is set in stone, and feedback is your most powerful tool for making great 1:1s happen.