Communicating with Your Team: 1-on-1s

In my last post, I wrote about communicating with your team through retrospectives. Today, I want to talk about 1-on-1s. What are they? How should they be implemented? What are the pros and cons of this communication method?

1-on-1s

What are they?

1-on-1s are really just that: a one-on-one meeting between an employee and their direct reporting manager. The goal of these meetings is to check in with your developers to ensure they are focusing on the proper tasks, that any roadblocks are made known, and to encourage open conversation about career growth and struggles.

How do they work?

How 1-on-1 meetings are specifically executed can vary based on team size, but here is a framework to work from:

  • Allow for up to an hour with each team member with the ideal length landing between 30 and 60 minutes. Too short and there may not be enough time for drawing out issues and fully sharing insights. Too long and attention wanes.
  • Most software teams should target a weekly 1-on-1 meeting with each member. This frequency prevents too much time from passing without the opportunity to share struggles and discuss growth steps. For larger teams (>10 devs per manager), a bi-weekly meeting may suffice and might be all your schedule can handle.
  • Keep the conversation informal. Is it easier to have candid, open dialog in a conference room or over a coffee? Try reducing the pressure by taking a walk together while you talk or using the kitchen or lobby. If you are a remote team, face-to-face meetings might not be an option, but I would strongly encourage using video conferencing to make it more personal and show employees they have your undivided attention. It’s essential to create an environment that doesn’t feel like every time a 1-on-1 comes around employees should start nervously sweating.
  • The role of the manager is to guide the conversation. The best 1-on-1 meetings take place when team members do the vast majority of the talking. Do your very best not to make the talk about you or your needs, and more about them and how you can help them succeed. Here is a list of questions to ask in 1-on-1s that can be used as conversation starts. Make sure to be an active listener and dig deeper on surface level responses.
  • Close the meeting by establishing action steps. The steps should be able to be accomplished between the currently 1-on-1 and the next. This means lofty goals of learning a new programming language or submitting a conference talk proposal are well out of reach. Let the steps be created and agreed upon by both of you so that there’s mutual buy-in and commitment to action.

What are the pros and cons of this communication method?

Pros

  • Increased loyalty to the company due to open communication channels and a sense that the organization wants to help them progress in their career.
  • Higher efficiency and productivity due to less time spent on the wrong tasks or using an errant approach.
  • Opportunity for feedback on your management style and how you can improve to help the team better.

Cons

  • “Just another meeting” can feel like a distraction from getting work done to some developers. To avoid this sentiment, come prepared to 1-on-1s with notes and a defined structure to avoid aimless talking. As employees realize they are being heard and supported the value of these meetings will speak for themselves.

1-on-1s are quite possibly the most valuable communication practice you can implement within your software team. They give employees a regular opportunity to talk and for you to listen.

In my next post, I’ll be wrapping up team communication strategies with reviews, how they work, and the pros and cons of implementing them.

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