You know the saying: People don’t leave bad jobs — they leave bad managers. And in the age of distributed work and competitive hiring, managers need to be investing in the success of their remote teams more than ever.
That’s where one-on-one meetings come in: when done well, they help every employee feel seen and like they’re a part of the company’s mission and vision. They should provide a safe space to give and receive feedback, clarify priorities, clear bottlenecks, and unlock career potential.
Here are 13 pro tips to make your one-on-one meetings more effective.
1. Choose a cadence and stick to it
The first tip is simple: Once you set up a schedule for your weekly or bi-weekly one-on-ones, it should be your number one rule not to cancel these meetings. Keeping your word creates consistency and trust with your team, and ensures there’s always time and space to:
follow up on discussion and action items from the previous week
catch issues before they snowball into something bigger
If, for some reason, you don’t have a lot to talk about in your allotted 30-45 minutes, you can always end the meeting early or take the time to cover a topic that usually gets put on the back-burner.
2. Use a shared agenda that's easy to fill out
A clear meeting agenda sets the stage for your entire conversation — so don’t skip it. Try a question-based agenda to prompt a discussion. It should be simple and to-the-point, so you both know what to expect and can get what you need. Here are Vowel, our CEO Andy uses three simple open-ended questions to prompt one-on-one discussions:
If you need inspiration, we’ve got a list of 97 one-on-one meeting questions to help you build the perfect agenda — or check out these pre-made one-on-one agenda templates.
In Vowel, you can add to your agenda from your dashboard — and anyone invited to the meeting will see your updates.
3. Take time to prepare
The most productive meetings happen when people don’t go in cold — in other words, they require some preparation.
Mathilde Collin, the co-founder and CEO of Front, writes that her one-on-one meetings are a lot of work. “I have 12 direct reports. It takes a lot of time to prep for and follow through on commitments made in all of these one-on-ones…but it’s worth it.”
As a general rule, give yourself 10-15 minutes to review the agenda items, reflect on the previous meeting’s talking points, and give updates on what you agreed to the last time. Make more time for prep if you’re having a performance review or career development conversation.
To make your recurring meetings easier to plan, Vowel includes all your past meeting agendas + notes in one spot.
4. Turn off notifications
Slack. Gmail. Text messages. We live in a world of never-ending notifications. According to Statista, social media was the leading distraction for people working from home in 2020.
No one wants to open up to you while you’re glancing at your phone or replying to an email. Instead, make it a priority to silence your devices during one-on-one meetings (you can even set your phone to Airplane mode).
Be curious. Ask questions during the meeting, or repeat phrases back to clarify them or show you understand. Demonstrate that you’re actively listening and care about what they have to say. Most importantly, respect each other’s time. Active listening FTW!
5. Start on a personal note
Asking at least one personal question at the start of the meeting can help guarantee engagement for the rest of the meeting — and build rapport.
For some people, one-on-one meetings are intimidating — so asking fun questions like “what’s something you saw recently that made you laugh?” or “binge-watching anything right now?” can help cool down any lingering nerves before the real business talk begins.
Or, if you’re comfortable, you can admit you had a terrible sleep the night before or you spilled your coffee on your keyboard earlier — vulnerability is a great way to build up relationships.
6. Go beyond status updates
Create an environment where your employee feels comfortable leading your one-on-ones, with you there to guide them and offer support and questions. Your employee should have filled out the agenda beforehand and prioritized items they want to talk about.
While quick status updates are okay, try to use this time for answering bigger questions, solving problems, and giving and asking for feedback. Or, as Mark Rabkin, VP of Oculus, recommends, "Get all your updates, easy questions, simple feedback, done some other way: email, team meeting, Slack message, text, whatever your company does.”
7. Consider a working session
Maybe there’s an important project deadline coming up and the team is stuck on a difficult task. Shift the agenda for that week and consider using your one-on-one to work through a specific problem together.
Being flexible ensures you don't get stuck in the same meeting format. And switching from a typical one-on-one to a working session can help save the trouble of finding another time to meet.
If you’re meeting virtually, you can screen-share and use a tool like Miro or Figjam to whiteboard ideas and get the team member unstuck with an action plan. Record the session too, so it's easy for the employee to go back to and reference later!
8. Focus on feedback
One-on-ones are powerful spaces for providing constructive feedback. Receiving feedback can be an uncomfortable, awkward experience for both parties — especially if trust hasn’t been established.
It can be easy to make feedback a one-sided conversation, with the manager telling the direct report what they did wrong or right. But let the other person speak and hear what they have to say.
To promote feedback, you can ask questions like:
How can I support you better (in this area)?
What can I can do to communicate with you more effectively?
Is there anything you're waiting on me for?
“We've found that one of the most important things about creating a good working environment is to set aside time to touch base and provide real feedback. When it's time to actually have the conversation, provide specific examples of things that went well and things that could be improved.” - Shanid Dhanani, CEO, Apteo
9. Avoid "toxic positivity"
In the current remote work environment, it’s important to recognize that your employees are parents, caretakers, and — most importantly — human.
When employees are discouraged to say what they’re truly feeling or thinking, a lack of trust begins to form. Focus on creating an environment that encourages honesty over positivity.
Address the issues that employees raise during one-on-one meetings instead of being dismissive. Ask them about their work/life balance. Are they feeling burnt out? Are they tackling too many projects on their own? One-on-ones are the perfect place for real talk.
10. Keep goals top-of-mind
You should create ambitious goals for your team and enable them in any way you can — including in your one-on-ones.
Make it a point to pull up your agreed-upon OKRs (or goals) for the quarter at least once a month during your one-on-ones. This ensures they’re top-of-mind for both you and your employee, and it helps them benchmark where they are in the process.
If progress isn't going as expected, what are the barriers getting in the way of achieving results? Even asking for a one- or two-sentence summary can open your eyes to what’s really going on.
11. Schedule regular career development check-ins
Studies show that workers care more about professional development than financial rewards.
Schedule a quarterly or bi-annual meeting where you and employees can discuss career development opportunities, and short-term and long-term goals in the company.
Give them time to prepare any questions or comments, and come up with a few questions of your own to help encourage them. Some ideas:
Do you feel challenged at work? Are you learning new things?
What area of the company would you like to learn more about?
Are there any roles in the company you'd like to learn more about?
Asking how they want to grow — and sharing resources that could help them on that path — is much more productive than making assumptions or fitting their career growth into what you think it should look like.
12. Keep track of any action or follow-up items
By the end of the meeting, leave time to ask “Is there anything else that’s been on your mind?” or “How can I help you?” Letting the other person know that you’re willing to offer guidance or support will help strengthen the working relationship.
More importantly, take meeting notes. Be sure to write down any important changes discussed and action items that each of you agree to take on before the next meeting. That way, nothing important gets forgotten and everyone knows the next steps.
In Vowel, it's easy to take action items and assign them to people in your workspace!
13. End with genuine acknowledgement of their contributions
According to a poll by Maritz Research, employees who receive recognition on the job are five times more likely to feel valued and will more likely stay in the company for a long time.
Although office parties don’t really happen anymore, it doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate each other’s accomplishments in other ways. Leave room at the end of the meeting to share accomplishments and support each other’s growth. Watch what a positive difference this can make to your team.
Have more effective one-on-one meetings
The average manager spends a whole lot of time in meetings. With remote work becoming common, most of these meetings are over video.
So, we get it — it can be hard to make your one-on-one meetings feel *great* all the time. But by putting time and energy into your direct reports, you're investing in your team strength and relationships for the long-term.
Remember: One-on-one meetings should enable and empower team members to do their best work.
If you're looking to have more productive one-on-one meetings, try Vowel for free — it's got collaborative agendas + notes, live transcription, and instantly available recordings built on top of best-in-class video conferencing.