Remote One-on-Ones: Importance, Best Practices, and Template

One-on-ones are a core part of management best practices and become more–not less–important in a remote work environment.

Abi Tyas Tunggal

Nov 30, 2021 • 11 min read

Remote One-on-Ones: Importance, Best Practices, and Template

In this article

A one-on-one meeting (or 1:1, one-to-one, or one-on-one) is a recurring meeting between a manager and their direct report. One-on-ones are your most important meeting as a remote manager. They are the focal point of your team's relationship with you and are the best point of leverage to enact changes you want to make.

Counterintuitively, one-on-ones become more–not less–important in a remote work environment that leverages asynchronous communication to successfully work across time zones. While the format of one-on-ones varies between organizations (and even teams), it's typically a dedicated time for the manager and remote workers to discuss how they're doing, and may include project updates, coaching, mentorship, action items, or helping the employee with challenging aspects of their work.

One-on-ones were popularized by Andy Grove, former Chairman and CEO of Intel, in his book High Output Management and have since become a core part of management best practices. They're incredibly high-leverage because an hour of your time can impact an employee's work for weeks.

Andy recommends the report sets the tone and agenda, and for good reason, it increases your leverage because you don't have to create a plan for each of your remote employees. This can lead to ad hoc, unstructured one-on-one meetings.

The advice in this article is based on advice from High Output Management, The Manager's Handbook, and The Mochary Method.

We'd recommend taking a highly structured approach to make use of the time available. It may seem onerous, but the structure is freeing. It lets you get business-as-usual topics out of the way so you can focus on the important things.

One-on-one meeting via video call

The purpose of a one-on-one

One-on-ones serve a number of purposes:

  • Relationship building: Where possible try to connect on a personal level. One-on-ones are the perfect forum for getting at subtle work-related problems and creating an atmosphere of trust between you and your direct reports.
  • Feedback: One-on-ones are a great place to give and receive constructive feedback so people understand how they're performing and where they could improve. This goes for you as well – if you're not getting feedback from team members, do your best to elicit it.
  • Information exchange: Typically, the meeting will start with any KPIs or OKRs the team member manages, as well as anything important that has happened since the last meeting like hiring problems, people problems, organizational issues, or new plans. The criteria of inclusion is whether the issue bothers your subordinate.
  • Accountability: You can ensure remote employees do what they have committed to doing by being an accountability partner rather than a micro-manager.
  • Career growth: Talking through remote workers' career aspirations and helping them get there. Providing team members with a clear path of advancement within your organization is a win-win. Team members who are challenged are happier, more engaged, and more likely to stay with the company.
Remote home office

The importance of one-on-ones in a remote environment

In a remote team, managers are distant by default and may not interact with their team on a daily basis. Because you can't walk around a physical office or read the faces and body language of your remote employees, you need a way to source feedback from team members when something is wrong.

Candid feedback requires a high degree of trust and one-on-ones allow remote managers and employees to connect more deeply, form bonds, and establish trust.

One-on-ones can motivate team members, increase productivity, and build a better working relationship with your team. They are immune systems for companies, bubbling up and resolving issues before they get out of control and damage company culture. They're also crucial for providing feedback so everyone knows how they're performing.

One-on-ones are also a way to ensure that when people commit to things, they do things. It's very important that you hold them accountable. Ensure that they write it down, assign themselves as the owner, and put a due date on it.

Your job is to act as your team's accountability partner. Make it clear that broken commitments are not acceptable. Since they are now committed to keeping to their agreement, it's important that they don't agree to too many things. Great managers know when you stretch an employee and when they have stretched themselves too thin, which results in broken agreements.

Aim to have six to eight direct reports which ensure half a day per week for each subordinate. Anything less than six to eight direct reports will result in on-the-job retirement or managerial meddling. More than that, and you're going to spend all your time in one-on-ones.

Remote worker frustrated with one-on-one meeting

Common mistakes and pitfalls for remote one-on-ones

The most common mistake remote managers make is treating one-on-ones as status update meetings, using them to compensate for an overall lack of communication on status, priorities, and work goals. Yes, these are important agenda items but one-on-ones shouldn't be wasted on only going through OKRs.

One-on-ones are an ideal time to connect with people on a personal level–if you spend the whole time asking questions about projects, then you need to improve your documentation elsewhere.

You need to give time to the direct report to share candidly about what is on their mind, which is why it's important to have a structured way to communicate OKRs and progress.

Other common pitfalls you should avoid include:

  • Lectures: Remember, the one-on-one is the direct report's meeting, not yours. If your role is to listen and ask questions, not lecture.
  • Routine business: Scheduling and planning are more appropriately handled via asynchronous communication or staff meetings.
  • Lack of preparation: The key to running an effective one-on-one is preparation. This lets you get through the procedural work quickly, so you can focus on any issues or improvements that could be made.
  • Not asking open-ended questions: "You doing alright?" is a yes/no question. There's no room for an answer unless you dig in and ask another question. Instead, ask things like "Tell me how you've been doing since we last talked."
One-on-one meeting via video call

One-on-one template

We recommend using the Mochary Method one-on-one template which is broken up into three sections:

  1. Accountability: The accountability section is designed to give the report a place to declare future actions, provide an update on those actions, and for you both to hold each other accountable for any agreements made.
  2. Coaching: The coaching section is a place for the report to surface the good things that have happened since you last met, and to resolve issues at a company, department, and individual level.
  3. Transparency: The transparency section is where you collect constructive feedback on how you can both perform better as individuals.

Your report will pre-write an update detailing what has happened since the last one-on-one. Create a commitment with your report that they will do this before each one-on-one. Ideally, you will pre-read the report ahead of time so you can save time for the meatier issues when you're talking face-to-face. At a minimum, it should be read in silence at the beginning of the one-on-one.

You can find the template here.

Remote worker writing notes

Accountability

Have your report use the accountability section not declare their future actions, progress on those actions, and to hold each other accountable to agreements made.

The structure for the accountability section is:

My objectives for this quarter (preferably three or fewer):

1.

2.

3.

My actions from the last meeting toward my objectives:

1.

2.

3.

My future actions (max three total) toward my objectives until (insert date of next check-in)

1.

2.

3.


Did I complete each past declared action, YES or NO?

  • WHY: If no, why not?
  • HABIT: What habit (or action) can I adopt (or do) to never reencounter this obstacle?

SENSITIVE goals and actions. (Put here anything related to PIPs).

KPIs: Key Performance Indicators (Link here.)

Pipelines and Roadmaps. (Link here.)

Remote meeting via video call

Coaching

Ask your report to surface the good things that have happened since you last met, issues at a company, department, and individual level, and any other topics they'd like to talk about.

Issues are typically things that are blocking your report's work that needs your assistance or insight.

It's important for your report to ask themselves how they contributed to the issues. It's easy to view problems as being created by someone or something else, but when you do this, it's difficult to see a solution that is within our control.

If, however, they ask themselves how they contributed to the situation, a solution within their control generally becomes clear.

Topics are open-ended talking points that your report wants to cover. This is usually the most important bit of the meeting. There should be enough context for you to understand the situation, but not necessarily a conclusion or solution.

The structure for the coaching section is:

The Good

Company

Department

Me

The Not Good (& Proposed Solutions)

Company

  • Issue:
  • What I did to help create the situation:
  • Proposed Solution:

Department

  • Issue:
  • What I did to help create the situation:
  • Proposed Solution:

Me

  • Issue:
  • What I did to help create the situation:
  • Proposed Solution:

Topics

SENSITIVE issues/solutions. (Put here anything related to PIPs).

Remote meeting via video call

Transparency

The transparency section is where you collect constructive feedback on how you can both perform better as individuals over the long term.

Ideally, feedback is prepared by both parties ahead of time. This allows for more considered feedback but even if you haven't prepared anything you should still do it at the end of the one-on-one.

It's important to elicit negative employee feedback about your management style, the company's actions, and even the company culture. Great managers do everything in their power to elicit it, when you receive it be thankful, and then act to resolve the issue quickly. This is how you make team members feel heard and valued.

Emphasize that you want them to share what is most painful for you to hear as that is what is most useful for you, them, and the company over the long term.

Ask your report to write feedback on how you are performing as a manager and emphasize that you want them to share what is most painful for you to hear as that is what is most useful for you over the long term.

The structure for the coaching section is:

Report to Manager:

  • Like:
  • Wish that:

Manager to Report:

  • Like:
  • Wish that:
One-on-one meeting via video call

How to organize a one-on-one

The first one-on-one meeting should occur as soon as remote onboarding is complete. We recommend starting with a recurring 30-minute meeting each week. You can extend the meeting time later if required.

If possible, organize all your one-on-ones back to back on a single day. By batching tasks, you reduce attention residue for you and your reports, and it allows you to spot patterns that you might otherwise miss.

Skew time zones in favor of your direct reports, and optimize for a time of day that is comfortable for them to share more easily, and don't reschedule or cancel. Regular meetings signal how important the time is to you and how much you value them.

One-on-one meeting via video call

How to run an effective one-on-one

Now that you have an effective one-on-one meeting agenda and know how to organize a one-on-one, you can run an effective one-on-one by:

  1. Asking your report about the highlight of their week: This doesn't have to be restricted to work, this might seem like small talk but it gets everyone in a good headspace and builds your relationship.
  2. Read your team member's report in silence: Read the entire thing before asking questions. Once you've finished reading everything, if you have any questions about the update itself, ask them.
  3. Go through their issues and proposed solutions: Try to keep it to a few minutes per issue and not get bogged down in the details. For clear asks, give an immediate response or create a follow-up task for yourself. Otherwise, allowing people to come to their own conclusions to promote ownership and independence.
  4. Talk about the topics: These are open-ended discussions.
  5. Ask them about the three most important things they want to get done this week: Avoid telling them what to do, you want them to figure this out themselves. Ideally whatever they come up with should be related to their OKRs. Your job is to hold them accountable to the tasks that they decide to take on. If they don't complete them by the next one-on-one (or when they say they are going to), then ask them why and ask them to create a habit so it doesn't happen again.
  6. Provide feedback to each other: Feedback is essential. Companies that don't do feedback well, don't function well and at a personal level, feedback helps us grow.
  7. If there's time, ask a few additional questions: Asking the right questions leads to greater trust and intimacy than small talk does. Rather than ending a one-on-one early if the agenda is light, ask your direct report a few more questions, ideally getting more personal over time.
One-on-one meeting via video call

Questions for remote managers to ask in one-on-ones

One-on-ones aren't there for you to micromanage your team. Your role is to learn, coach, and ask the right questions. You are a sounding board that your team can use to bounce ideas off and come up with their own solutions.

Ask questions, don't make statements. If you can help people come up with their own solutions, they'll become truly independent and do their best work.

When you think a team member has said everything they want to about a subject, ask another question until you both feel satisfied that you've gotten to the bottom of the problem.

Productivity and career questions

  • Is there anything you'd like to learn more about?
  • Have you seen anyone on the team do something you think was high leverage? What was it?
  • Is there anything else I can do to support you better?
  • What part of your job do you think is most in line with your long-term goals?
  • Is there anything that you are doing that you feel is a waste of your time?
  • If there was one thing you wanted to achieve between now and next year, what would it be?
  • Is there anything that is stopping you from doing your best work?
  • Is there a project or area outside your current role that you would like to contribute to?
  • How would your ideal position differ from what you're currently doing?
  • At what point in the last week were you most frustrated or discouraged by work? Is there anything I can do to help?
  • Have you seen a product or service from a company that excites you recently?

Feedback on your management style questions

  • Do you need more or less direction from me?
  • Would you like more or less feedback on your work? If so, what additional feedback would you like?
  • If you were my manager or coach, what would you tell me I needed to improve?
  • Is there anything I can tell you about myself that might make it easier to work with me?
  • What do you think is our biggest oversight and how could we resolve it?
  • What do you feel is the biggest risk to the company right now?
  • What was the most useful part of our one-on-one today?
  • Is there anything else you're worried about?

Relationship building questions

  • How's life?
  • What are you doing outside of work these days?
  • What is something you've done that you're proud of?
  • Have you read or watched anything interesting lately?

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