In one-on-ones, as in the rest of life, timing is everything. If you meet the right person at the wrong time in their life, your relationship might never get off the ground. If you schedule a concert at the same time as the Super Bowl, no one will come. And as a manager, even if you have the best of intentions for your interactions with your team, they won’t count for much if you haven’t considered the right timing and structure for those interactions.
We’ve written a lot about how managers can ask the right questions and have the right mindset in one-on-one meetings, but it’s equally important to consider the role played by effective scheduling. Should you meet with team members for half an hour once a week? An hour once a month? Fifteen seconds every leap year? (OK, clearly not that last one, but you get the idea.)
While the correct answers to these questions will vary somewhat for different teams, in our work with managers (and as managers), we’ve discovered some general guidelines for when and how often to schedule one-on-ones.
Meet (at Least) Twice per Month
One of the questions our users ask us most is how often they should schedule one-on-ones. Our answer, in a nutshell, is that we strongly recommend meeting every week or every other week. If you’re meeting only once a month, you’re not really experiencing the true value of one-on-ones.
Some managers are initially skeptical about meeting this often, and there are a few common objections to this cadence (which we delve into further in this recent episode of our podcast). Many managers worry they won’t have time to meet with every member of their team so frequently, or they don’t want one-on-ones to take up so much of their schedules. That’s an understandable concern, but meeting with your team more often will actually save you time in the long run.
If an employee gets on the wrong track with their work, but you don’t learn about it until you meet with them three weeks later, you’ll wind up spending more time fixing mistakes than you would have spent at a meeting, checking and preventing those mistakes.
Managers also often say they don’t want to meet with team members more than once a month because they don’t want to disrupt their team’s work or add more meetings that team members don’t want.
To that we say: quit selling yourself short, managers! Of course your team members want to meet with you. You hold each team member’s professional future in their hands, so they crave opportunities to have your full attention. If your team members don’t seem particularly jazzed to meet with you, it’s probably because they’re not getting much out of your current one-on-one structure.
Remember: one-on-ones are about offering team members support in overcoming roadblocks, advancing professional development, building connections, and aligning on expectations. Those are all crucial for team members who want to succeed in their roles and advance their careers.
Avoid Canceling One-on-Ones
When schedules get tight, one-on-one meetings are often the first things to get canceled, but you should really try to avoid this if possible. It’s bad for trust and bad for communication. And, just like cheating on your diet or gym routine, skipping one meeting makes it much easier to skip the next one.
In keeping your one-on-one meetings sacrosanct, remember that one-on-ones are the best possible time for team members to discuss difficult or awkward issues with you. And if you cancel a meeting, you might never know what that team member needed to tell you.
Of course, you’re not being deliberately insensitive by canceling a one-on-one. In fact, you probably ask your team member whether they’re OK with skipping the meeting or if they have something they really need to talk about. But the truth is, rather than risk seeming needy to their team leader, most employees will say it’s fine to cancel. And even if they don’t have an urgent need, they’ll likely feel somewhat hurt and neglected.
When you absolutely have to cancel a meeting, be sure to reschedule and reassure your team member that they are still a priority.
Meet for One-on-Ones Early in the Week
Remember being a kid at the end of the school year? There was the mad dash toward final exams, followed by a couple of weeks when no one really tried to teach you anything, because both you and your teachers had your minds firmly fixed on summer vacation. This phenomenon is repeated in workplaces every week as Friday approaches, so if you want your one-on-ones to make an impact, you should schedule them early in the week.
Our research has found that one-on-ones early in the week are up to 10 times more likely to be completed. Less than 10% of one-on-ones scheduled for Thursday take place, and that drops to an astonishing 2% for Fridays.
What’s more, we’ve noticed that the quality of one-on-ones degrades when they’re at the end of the week. By Thursday, people are rushing to complete their work before the weekend, so they don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to have high-level, reflective conversations. They’re less likely to be fully present, and more likely to be anxious to get back to work.
Then there’s the risk of any progress made being erased by the weekend. Even if you do manage to have a great meeting at 4:30 on a Friday, none of what you discuss is likely to stick. Anytime you and your team member make a plan or suggest a new strategy, you need to put it into practice right away, while it’s still fresh in your mind.
Tailor Length and Time of Day to Individual Team Members
When it comes to how long you need to meet with different team members, and at what time of day, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. And that’s a good thing, because it means you can come up with a one-on-one schedule that meets the needs of each individual on your team.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. And that’s a good thing.
Andy Grove famously wrote, “[A] one-on-one should last an hour at a minimum. Anything less, in my experience, tends to make the subordinate confine himself to simple things that can be handled quickly.” However, the more often you meet, the less you’ll need hour-long meetings, because you won’t need to spend the first few minutes on small talk. By meeting at least twice a month, you’ll have the context to jump straight into the issues because you’ll already have a sense of what’s going on.
You may need to meet for only 15 minutes with some team members if they have limited current needs, aren’t particularly talkative, or perform work you don’t directly oversee. Meanwhile, you may need half an hour or more with team members with whom you collaborate closely or who are at a transition point.
When it comes to the time of day, you should make sure not to schedule one-on-ones during an employee’s most productive hours. Early in the onboarding process, ask a team member when they do their most focused work so you don’t intrude on it. When you can, it’s also nice to schedule one-on-ones shortly before or after a team member’s other meetings so they’re not trying to constantly switch gears, and meeting with you disrupts their work as little as possible.
Schedule for Success
Having productive, relationship-building one-on-ones is a practice, like going to the gym or learning to play the violin. And just like those other pursuits, you shouldn’t expect to be a master at the very beginning.
The scheduling techniques we’ve suggested here will take time to bear fruit, especially if you’re transitioning from long monthly meetings to shorter, more frequent ones. But stick with it and we’re confident you’ll see results. Like everything worth having, it just takes time.