Sahil leads Business Development at Bonusly. He's passionate about making work better. Before Bonusly, he was part of the People Operations team at Google, and a Human Capital Consultant with Mercer. He received his BS in Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences from Northwestern University.
6 Techniques to Improve One-on-One Meetings (+ Template)
Managers are one of the most powerful tools for boosting employee engagement! 🎉 And what better place to engage your employees than in a one-on-one? These meetings offer valuable time to build stronger connections with employees and discuss successes, challenges, goals, feedback, and more.
However, a meeting that almost every manager could improve is, you guessed it, the one-on-one. When I started having one-on-ones for the first time as a manager, I felt blindsided. I never thought having these meetings would be a challenge. After all—I had been in so many as a direct report in the past. In reality, I had no idea how to make these meetings valuable for myself and my team.
Now that I've gained more experience as a manager over the years, I've picked up some techniques that I hope you'll find helpful. Below are six thoughtful ways to get the most out of your one-on-one meetings.
Download our free one-on-one meeting agenda template to start getting the most out of your 1:1s!
Manager and employee one-on-one meetings
If you're under the notion that one-on-one meetings are only for employees and not managers, that's your first mistake. Communication should go both ways and one-on-ones are most valuable when each person feels comfortable being candid and open.
Managers and employees should both take ownership of setting the meeting agenda and sharing updates. As a manager, you should feel comfortable sharing the challenges you're having with your direct reports. More often than not, they will want to help you! Also, if you set the example, your employees will become more comfortable sharing challenges they're having too, whether that's balancing workload or managing burnout.
Thoughtful managers can be powerful catalysts for growth
Personal and professional growth takes a lot, but there’s an underutilized weapon: the manager-employee one-on-one.
This consistent meeting is the best place to develop a culture of regular positive and constructive feedback and constant improvement, but it is often misused, underutilized, or not used at all.
If both the manager and employee have an understanding that their one-on-one meeting is a place for both parties to celebrate success, but also learn and grow through constructive feedback, amazing things can happen! This means that feedback should come from the manager for the employee but also from the employee to their manager. This way, trust is built.
Providing constructive feedback can be difficult. However, if there's a shared expectation that both managers and employees will provide positive and constructive feedback about one another, the process becomes a lot easier.
Now that we're on the same page, let's dive into the practical ways you can improve your one-on-one meetings! ⬇️
1. Preparation: set an agenda
Many one-on-one meetings don't have an agenda and sometimes that's ok if you need a spontaneous, light conversation.
However, meetings are most effective with a bit of intentional planning beforehand. Taking time to prepare thoughtful one-on-one meeting questions and discussion topics to reflect on is better than stumbling through nonsequiturs, or staring at each other silently for 30 minutes when neither person has anything to say.
You can start with a helpful one-on-one meeting template and adapt it to your needs. Before the meeting, each person should spend about 10-15 minutes adding notes to the agenda and thinking through specific recognition and constructive feedback they'd like to share.
Get our free, customizable one-on-one meeting agenda template that includes a proven structure for effective and productive one-on-ones.
2. Alternate between short-term and long-term discussions
Meeting weekly is important, but chatting about the same topics each week can lead to stale and repetitive conversations.
One way to keep discussion fresh is to alternate topics weekly between the short-term progress on projects or initiatives and long-term progress towards career goals, learning, and development.
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3. Technology: no unnecessary distractions
Despite what we tell ourselves, it’s impossible to have a thoughtful in-person conversation while looking at your phone or the 25 browser tabs you have open. Make sure you and your direct reports minimize distractions as much as possible.
If you're in person, you might consider sitting outside or having a walking meeting. Leaving the office on busy days can help free up headspace for better introspection and conversation.
If you're meeting remotely, make sure you clear your space of distractions, close out unused browser windows and be ready to provide your undivided attention.
4. Consistency: don't skip; reschedule
Things happen. If either person is too busy or has too many distractions to thoughtfully engage in the one-on-one, just reschedule.
A late conversation is better than an unfocused or canceled one.
5. Listen first
One sure way to make people unhappy at work is to deny them a chance to provide their take on what could be better. So take the time to ask for your employees' feedback in each one-on-one. This feedback might cover your management, processes used on your team, product features, or even the overall company culture or strategy.
While your company should be encouraging feedback from all employees through surveys and focus groups, why wait? As a manager, you can gain better insight from your employees while also encouraging them to proactively look for ways you and the company can improve.
One easy way managers can help is by asking questions during one-on-ones, both specifically for the employee (i.e. “What can I do to better support you in your role?”) and for more general, company-level insights (i.e., “What opportunities are we missing out on as an organization?”).
Once you've solicited feedback, you're not done yet! Let them know that you've heard their viewpoints and that their opinions are valuable. Then, it's important to then act on the feedback you receive. You can become an advocate on behalf of your employees to voice company concerns or product ideas and make improvements as a manager based on the input you receive.
6. Positive and constructive feedback for employees
One-on-ones are the perfect place to celebrate successes and provide positive feedback to your direct reports. There are many benefits of frequent recognition including increased employee engagement, reduced voluntary turnover, and improved performance. If you're having a weekly one-on-one where recognition is prioritized, you'll be able to realize these benefits! However, it needs to go beyond "You're doing a great job!" every meeting. Recognition should be timely, specific, frequent, and values-based. For ideas on ways to provide meaningful recognition, here are some employee recognition tips for managers.
When it comes to providing constructive feedback, you may not have it every time you have a one-on-one and that's ok. However, the important thing is to make sure you leave the opportunity (this could just be as simple as a placeholder in your meeting agenda) for both yourself and your direct reports to share constructive feedback.
When you do have constructive feedback to share with your employees, these steps from Shari Harley in How to Say Anything to Anyone can help:
- Begin with empathy, humility, and appreciation.
- Use specific examples of undesirable behavior.
- Focus on the impact of those behaviors.
- State any potential consequences.
- Allow the person to determine the next steps.
- Praise any and all improvements.
Are you getting the most out of your one-on-ones?
We hope this list of tips helps you improve your one-on-one meetings. For a resource that helps you put these tips into practice, download our one-on-one meeting agenda template! ⬇️
Download our PDF, Google, or Word Doc one-on-one meeting agenda templates to take these meetings to the next level.
The templates include:
🗒️ A proven structure for effective and productive one-on-ones.
✅ Fillable form fields to record agenda and action items.
📄 Customizable Word and Google doc templates to fit your needs.
💡 One-on-one meeting best practices.
📘 Additional resources to help you improve your one-on-ones.
We recently discussed HR’s failure to keep pace with a changing workplace and market for talent. If you missed that first piece, I recommend you start there.
Although it sounds like a dire situation, there is a way forward.
Companies need talent, and HR has the ability to meet this need if they adapt.
It is unacceptable for HR to lack well-thought-out answers to questions about how companies will find, reward, and retain talent. Hours burned on manual administration of payroll, PTO, and other employee record keeping are a common source of HR’s failure to provide those answers.
Even for non-administrative tasks, like compensation design, performance management, and recognition, it’s hard to iterate, improve, or learn anything from these programs if all of your time is spent keeping spreadsheets in order.
Software is eating the world — including HR
So, what does the “way forward” look like? There’s been an explosion of investment and development in a marketplace of modern technologies that belong in every HR pro’s toolkit.
These technologies are set up to work together and with the communication and project management tools your company already uses on a day-to-day basis.
With these technologies, HR can shift its focus from the manual and repetitive processes of administering programs to focus on what is working, what isn’t working, and what needs to happen in order for your company to find and retain the necessary talent to succeed.
If management wants HR to contribute, they need to invest.
It's well worth the initial investment of time and money to thoughtfully consider the types of tools that will be impactful within your organization. Once these technologies are in place, HR jobs can begin adding value.
It can be dizzying to analyze all the available tools at once—there are often overlapping features, integrations, and full suites of products that claim to offer a one-size-fits-all “Swiss Army Knife” approach. You’re better off thoughtfully choosing those which will best work in your organization.
Introducing the “People Operations Stack”
What is a stack? It’s a complementary set of tools and technologies that offer a superior solution for a given functional area.
This concept originated with software developers, but in recent years it has spread to the marketing and sales side of business operations. It’s well past time for HR to introduce this concept into their world.
There should be at least four layers focused on the following tasks:
- Recruit: Get them in the door!
- Maintain: Prioritize painless recordkeeping
- Engage: Recognize, reward, and retain
- Perform: Measure, learn, and grow
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Do it, measure it, and make it better
Any major investment should be held accountable with metrics—what gets measured, gets improved. HR should not be exempt from this. You can’t know if you’re getting better if you don’t know how you’re doing now.
To measure the effectiveness of your stack, we propose tying a metric that balances quality and effectiveness to each of the layers that we proposed above.
Metric: Hiring Effectiveness Ratio
Measurement: average tenure of new hire (days) / average time to hire (days)
Goal: increase over time
Metric: People Operations Leverage
Measurement: # of HR employees / total # of employees
Goal: maintain as company grows
Metric: E-churn (read a great post about this one by Tomer Tagrin here)
Measurement: # of employees who quit / total # of employees
Metric: Opportunity Ratio
Measurement: # of job openings filled internally / # of job openings
These metrics are just a start—there are numerous others that can be used to measure how effective HR is at finding, retaining, and growing talent at scale. It’s a waste of time and resources to adopt the best tools in the marketplace without measuring how much impact they’re having.
As you measure your effectiveness, you can iterate on both which tools you use, as well as how you use them day-to-day.