Lars Bergstrom

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Great remote 1:1s

01 Nov 2020

Having spent the last month in interviews with executives and senior managers, I’ve heard one thing over and over: doing 1:1s remote is hard. Sure, a choppy conversation about specific work is tolerable. But managers are struggling to connect: to build trust and really understand how people are doing.

No matter how you feel about remote vs. in-person work, it’s worth getting better at remote 1:1s. The consensus I’m hearing from big tech companies is that even with the best possible vaccine outcomes, in the US it’ll be mid/late-2021 before teams are coming back to the office, and even then only at ~30% of capacity for critical roles and with masks required. And probably another year (late 2022) until a return to full capacity with no masks. At that same time, many of your people (particularly non-managers) may never return to a shared office. So, improving your remote 1:1s is a skill every manager and leader should develop, because they’re not going away. In this post, I’ll run through some key tips from my almost decade of remote leadership and management across a couple of companies.

Your key goals for a regular 1:1 should be to build trust and empathy. Trust is the foundation for harder conversations later around growth opportunities, either from you to the employee or the employee to you. And empathy is your critical heartbeat on how your team is doing: are you driving them too hard? Changing direction too often? Not making the hard decisions in time? Communicating badly?

Below, I’ve got some very specific tips that may help you address many common mistakes I have seen, made myself, or heard from others.

1:1s are neither optional nor a status update

As the manager, if you had something urgent, you should already have asked it - in e-mail, in a chat, or in another meeting. And status for remote teams should be relegated to asynchronous tools that collect, distribute, and track those updates (e.g., Geekbot).

Whether it’s 15 minutes or 30 minutes, the 1:1 should not be skipped and should have your undivided attention. Unless there is something hard to talk about, it should start with small talk and mainly move on to listening to comments or answering questions they have. You should attempt to connect to understand how they like to work, and whatever they are willing to share about their other interests. This will generally be harder the further the individual is from your own gender/race/background and multiplied by how far up the org chart you are. Expect it to take several meetings to be comfortable enough to have a candid conversation about even trivial topics.

Have a private 1:1 agenda/notes document

For each 1:1, have an entry for the meeting. Capture any agenda topics asynchronously ahead of the meeting. During the meeting or immediately after, capture any non-sensitive topics along with follow-ups. And then follow up. Part of building trust is starting with the small challenges (e.g., “my webcam is not great”) and getting them addressed. If you can’t fix the small concerns, people will never raise the big ones, and you will get blindsided over and over.

Prepare some open-ended questions

There’s always something to ask about. What could I have improved in our last all-team mail or town hall? What would reduce the amount of work/life strain or stress on the team? What’s an area of The Fiscal Year Strategy that feels confusing to you? Note that for the last one in particular, you may have to frame the question with a reminder about that strategy - very few people who are not directors or executives think about any of that stuff outside of the biannual “laddering of the goals/OKRs.”

Got more tips or tricks of your own? Feel free to comment on LinkedIn or Twitter!

Additional resources

LinkedIn Learning - Building Relationships While Working From Home

Gitlab handbook