There has been a question raised in our Managers First Aid Forum on what the frequency of one-on-ones should ideally be. This is a very common and relevant question for a new manager to ask, and there is not a simple answer to it, so I decided to share my elaborated response with you here.
There is no universal rule about the ideal frequency and length of a one-on-one meeting between a manager and his subordinate. Still, I will give you some tips on how to decide what suits your needs best. Before doing that, let me share what has worked for me.
Whether I’ve been in the role of manager or subordinate, weekly one-on-ones that were 30 minutes long have worked best. Weekly 60-minute-long one-on-ones have always seemed too long, and 30 to 60-minute-long one-on-ones every other week have seemed too far from each other.
I have also kept a habit of agreeing with my subordinates on adding an extra one-on-one or team meeting whenever needed. When people reporting to me have been based in different countries, we have been in frequent touch through video-phone, mail, Skype, and other media, often daily. I have also encouraged my team members to call me whenever there has been something important to discuss immediately.
So how to define the frequency of one-on-ones for yourself? Try to answer these questions first:
1. How many direct reports do you have?
During my career, I have met people who were unfortunate to have way too many direct reports. If you have 20 people reporting to you, your decision-making process will clearly be very different than when you have just 5 subordinates. It’s pretty hard to be a good and successful manager with too many direct reports. You need to balance your want with the amount of weekly working time you can afford to spend on one-on-ones.
2. What is the nature of your work?
The approach to one-on-ones planning will differ if you are a team lead in an agile IT company, a production shift leader in a 24/7 production, or an HR director with direct reports in different countries.
Take these sub-questions into account:
a) Do you work closely with your direct reports, are hands-on, coach them and monitor their work results on daily basis?
If the answers are “yes,” you do not need to spend your one-on-ones asking for updates, discussing daily tasks or solving issues. You can concentrate on creating space where people reporting to you can ask questions and search for support, further coaching, or advice. Use one-on-one time for helping them grow and develop their skills, as well as stay engaged and bring great results. In this case, you can decide for longer and less frequent one-on-ones, e.g. 30-60 minutes twice a month.
b) Do your team members inform you about their work done on any other occasion, such as weekly team meetings?
You might save time if your team members inform you about their actual work on other occasions. However, as mentioned above, one-on-ones shouldn’t only be about reporting. Your subordinates still need you to have time for them – and “only” them. In this case, you might plan for 30 minutes weekly, and cut the meeting shorter if there is nothing further to discuss.
c) Do people reporting to you work outside your location?
If so, my recommendation is to consider more frequent one-on-ones than in situations a) and b) above. Based on the scope of work, seniority of your direct reports, time you have been working together, and other factors, you might decide for daily one-on-ones or make it a routine that you meet online weekly.
I know a successful manager who had “check-ins” with his junior direct report, who was working from another time zone, set up in his calendar each day at the same time. I also know one who had her one-on-one every other week with her direct report who himself was a manager, and it worked fine as well.
3. Is there any reason for extra one-on-ones with anybody on your team?
Let’s assume you decided for weekly 30-minute-long one-on-ones. But you have somebody on your team you want to grow quickly to a manager’s role. Or your team member is on a “Personal Improvement Plan” (PIP) and unless he improves, you will have to let him go. In these situations, you will want to spend more time with these people to help them succeed. Any frequency from daily to twice a week might work in these situations, depending especially on your answer to question number 2.
The golden rule for those who are indecisive should be “the more communication the better, unless it becomes bothersome or useless.” It is better to agree you have nothing further to discuss after 10 minutes than not to give your team members options for connecting with you.
Some managers choose 30-minute, weekly one-on-ones, others choose 60 minutes weekly or bi-weekly. It is perfectly OK to start with 60 minutes and then cut it shorter when you feel like. When I had a new person reporting to me or the person was new to the company, we started with 60 minutes weekly and once we both felt comfortable with cutting it shorter, we cut it to 30 minutes.
It is critical to make sure that communication channels are open
and your team members know
when and how to reach you whenever they need.
I have unfortunately seen too many managers underestimate the importance of one-on-ones. But then, when I have asked them about the importance of communication in great leadership, they said it was critical. Let’s think about a one-on-one “communication” as one of the key management tools you have to build a successful team!