How (and Why) to Have Regular One-on-One Employee Meetings

I know, I know... the last thing in the world anyone wants is more meetings.  Most people spend their time and energy trying to get rid of meetings, not add more.  There are even calculators that can tell you precisely how wasteful a meeting is, in dollars and cents.  It's true: poorly run meetings are one of the biggest sources of inefficiency and low morale in many organizations.  So why am I about to tell you to add a bunch of regular meetings to your already-overfull calendar?  Well, it turns out that not having meetings can cause inefficiencies and poor morale, too.  And the person whose productivity is affected the most by not having crucial meetings is you, the manager.  I don't know you, but I'm guessing you're not really looking for additional interruptions and unexpected sidetracks.  That's what you'll get, though, if you don't have regular one-to-one meetings with each of your direct reports.  Think of these meetings as a time management and employee engagement tool, rather than yet another obligation on your calendar. 

First, though, get rid of a few assumptions.  Here is the truth about regular one-to-ones:

  • Length  Regular one-to-one meetings don't have to take a full hour.  In fact, it might be effective to schedule them for just thirty minutes, as that will help you both stay focused.
  • Location  Regular one-to-one meetings don't have to take place in the office.  The nice thing about a meeting that involves only two people is that there is a lot of flexibility.  Go grab a coffee together or take a walk around the building, or better yet - outside.  It can be conducted over the phone, although that's probably not a great ongoing strategy.  For remote employees, video chats will help you pick up on body language cues you might otherwise miss. 
  • Agenda Regular one-to-one meetings don't have to be super-formal.  It's a good idea to create a rough outline of what will be discussed ever time, but other than that there isn't a lot of preparation that will need to be done each time.  

Why you need to have regular one-to-one meetings with your direct reports

The purpose of meeting with each of your direct reports on a regular, somewhat predictable basis is multi-fold:

  • It helps you to stay on top of what they're working on and intervene if needed so that they're not spinning their wheels or going off in the wrong direction. 
  • It helps you to get a sense of how they're doing morale-wise and gives you the opportunity to identify potential issues.  
  • The regular meetings become a collection device for all of the non-urgent questions or ideas that come up for both of you during the week, so that you're not interrupting each other with non-critical things just because you don't know when else you'd talk about them.  
  • These meetings also give you a relatively informal opportunity to provide feedback to the employee.  
  • Regular communication builds trust, and trust makes it much easier to have candid conversations.

Managers sometimes mistakenly think they're saving tons of time by not having regular one-to-ones, only to have to devote hundreds of hours later on to dealing with the fallout of a performance issue that could have been easily caught and addressed in a one-to-one.

How to set up regular one-to-ones with each of your direct reports

Note: these meetings can be implemented at any point.  Even if you've had your team for years and haven't done regular one-to-ones, you can still start now.  Don't keep putting it off- it will come back to haunt you!  

This process should take less than an hour to carry out.

Identify a (relatively) reliable day and time.

Review your schedule for the past few weeks and determine which days/times would be easiest to protect if you scheduled a regular meeting on those days.  Piggybacking on other standing meetings can sometimes be helpful, as can using days that tend to be quieter such as Monday mornings or Friday afternoons.  It will be key to keep to the schedule as much as you possibly can, so choose the day carefully.

Determine how frequently it makes sense to meet.

Decide whether to have the meetings every week or every other week.  Monthly is not frequent enough, although that's better than nothing, but bimonthly can sometimes work well.  If you have the meetings every other week, you should schedule them for an hour.  If they are every week, you can decide what makes the most sense based on the employee and what he or she needs from you right now.  These should not be project or problem-solving meetings, so there is no need for them to be longer than an hour.

Establish a high-level agenda.

Determine what you would like to cover each week.  Suggested topics:  

  • What progress have you made?  
  • Have any issues or obstacles come up?  
  • What are your next steps? (repeat for the questions above for each major project)
  • What can I help you with?
  • How things are going generally?
  • Here are some of the key things going on at higher levels for you to be aware of...
  • Here's what I've noticed about your work lately... (opportunity to provide feedback)
  • Thanks for... (something they've done or said that has contributed to the team's success in some way)

Put the meeting and agenda on your calendar as a recurring appointment.

Schedule the meetings with each of your direct reports, and share the agenda outline with them so that they can come prepared.  Put these meetings in your calendar as repeating events and do everything you can to keep to them.  If you find that you're frequently having to move the meeting day or time, find a better slot that will be easier to protect.

Caution: Don't cancel the meetings!  
You may think there isn't anything to discuss in a particular week and that may in fact be true, but it is still important to maintain the connection.  Remember, these are trust-building as well as progress-checking meetings, so when you keep moving them or cancel them altogether, you are diminishing trust between you and your employee.  Shorten them, make them every other week instead of every week, do them over the phone, or anything else that will help them happen, but don't forgo them altogether.  

It's okay to have short meetings if there truly isn't much to check in on, but you still need to check in.   A meeting in a no-progress-to-report week might be a perfect time to have a big-picture conversation with the employee about his or her longer-term career growth.  

Here's the thing: you probably don't feel like you have time to do regular one-to-ones, and maybe it's something you'll implement...later, when things have quieted down.  However, you don't have time to *not* have regular meetings.  Your number one job is to facilitate your team's success, so ensuring that each member of the team is making regular progress and getting what he or she needs is a core job responsibility.  It will make managing your employees easier and more enjoyable in the long run, and you can use it as an excuse to get out of the office for a coffee or a walk - after all, it's work!

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