Increased Importance of Remote One-on-Ones

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Updated March 23, 2023

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Treat your peers as interesting fellow humans and you might be surprised by what it does for their motivation, dedication, and engagement.Camille Fournier, Managing Director, Two Sigma, and author, The Manager’s Path*

In a remote team, the manager is by default an abstract, distant avatar and not a real live human who interacts socially with their team on a daily basis. Managers can’t see what’s happening by walking around a physical office or by reading faces and body language, so they must have a way to direct and encourage employees to be open and honest if something is wrong. This requires a far higher degree of trust in the manager/direct-report relationship than when you can simply observe their behavior and office dynamics directly. one-on-ones are both the space specifically designated for employees to share any issues, and where managers can connect more deeply with direct reports, form bonds, and establish trust.

The practices for remote one-on-ones are essentially the best practices for one-on-ones in general, but because they’re so critical for remote work, we’ll cover them in detail here. Even in a heavily asynchronous culture such as GitLab, the one-on-one structure is carefully observed. In their remote one-on-one guide, GitLab recommends that managers have seven, and no more than ten, direct reports because “beyond this, proper [remote] one-on-ones are hard to sustain.”

caution The first mistake remote managers make with one-ons is using them as a crutch to replace a lack of overall communication on status, priorities, and work goals. The one-on-one is an ideal time to connect with people who report to you on a human level—if the whole hour or hour and a half is taken up answering questions about projects the report is supposed to be working on, then meetings and documentation need to be improved elsewhere.

To open up the agenda for the direct report to share candidly what’s on their mind with their manager, it’s important to clear out the routine, administrative communication that can take up valuable facetime. This section covers how to do that.

Remote One-on-One Pitfalls

There are a few things you can (not) do to ensure managers and employees get the most out of one-ons:

  • No status updates. Status updates go in project management software or other forms of documentation. A one-on-one meeting isn’t a status-update setting, so be sure that’s already taken care of elsewhere.

  • No routine business. Things like scheduling and planning are more appropriately handled in staff or project meetings.

  • No lectures. Truly one-way communication goes in an email, wiki update, or even recorded video message. It’s not appropriate to lecture your direct report in their one-on-one.

Remote One-on-One Checklist

Over time, I’ve learned that getting some particular data during an initial one-on-one can be really helpful, as I can refer back to the answers as I need to give a person feedback, recognize them, and find creative ways to support them.Lara Hogan, management coach; co-founder, Wherewithall*

To ensure one-on-one effectiveness, it’s helpful to make sure you are:

  • Managing time well. We recommend meeting for one hour, every week.

    • It’s best to skew timezones in favor of the direct report, and to optimize for the time of day that is comfortable for them to share more easily, where possible.

    • Keeping the full amount of meeting time signals how much you value these meetings.

    • Don’t reschedule or cancel: signal how important this time is by showing up.

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