Studies show that 61% of people globally work remotely at least once per week.
This means that more and more project managers will have to learn how to manage their teams remotely (and do it well). For many, this is a lot to ask.
Most managers start their people-leadership journey with no experience, forcing them to rely upon a mental checklist that was formed from their interactions with great—or not-so-great—managers.
Don’t micromanage like X
Do run one-on-ones like Y
Although it’s a great jumping-off point, it does not qualify an individual to lead a team, let alone one that’s remote. They need to know what it’s like and some of the best practices, skills, and remote work tips and advice.
Note: You can use daily task management software to keep track of your employee’s tasks, but also as an easier way to assess the best value of their time.
Not to mention that most organizations don’t have a budget ready to provide their managers with adequate management training to set them and their teams up for success. If that’s you and you want to hone your project manager skills, read this hands-on guide on how to get into project management.
However, this isn’t to say that remote managers are doomed and set to fail. It just means that they need to put a heavier emphasis on the most important meetings of their week: one-on-ones.
One-on-ones are dedicated to just you and the other person. It’s super high bandwidth for complex and uncertain content, especially emotions, hopes, and fears. —Mark Rabkin, Vice President, AR/VR Experiences, Facebook
What are one-on-one meetings and why should remote managers have them?
One-on-ones are a dedicated time and space for managers and their direct reports to share feedback, build rapport, and eliminate roadblocks. However, keep in mind that one-on-one meetings are not a time for status updates.
I do one-on-ones to connect with my team – to understand what challenges they are facing, as well as challenge them directly to help them level up. It’s also a great time for them to also share feedback with me on how I am performing as a leader, and helps me keep a regular pulse on all the work happening. —James Carr, Infrastructure Engineering Lead at Zapier
If you’re a remote manager and you’re not having one-on-ones with your team, well, you’re in the minority. Our recent State of One-on-ones report found that 95% of managers with at least one remote employee have one-on-ones with their direct reports. Only 50% of these managers have one-on-ones on a weekly cadence.
The benefits of running remote one-on-ones
Working remotely can be an isolating thing. When you’re in an office setting, there are a lot of activities you can do as a team to build trust and rapport in a meaningful way. Whether you’re going out to lunch together or just hanging by the water cooler, that face-to-face interaction you get is a luxury that remote teams don’t get to experience—at least not in the same capacity.
One-on-ones give you the opportunity to:
- Add in some “face-to-face” time with every direct report, which can help minimize the feeling of loneliness that many remote workers experience.
- Get a better understanding of how they’re feeling in their remote life (and if they need more human interaction, find a way to make that happen).
- As Mark Rabkin said in the earlier quote, “It’s a dedicated time to just you and the other person.” When it’s a safe space, direct reports will open up about their ambitions, interests, and challenges.
One-on-ones are a great tool for remote managers to leverage because it helps you have a better understanding of how to best engage each individual on your team. So ask your direct report about what motivates them, what excites them about their work, and if there are any projects they’re keen on being involved in. With this knowledge, you’re better able to distribute work amongst your team.
Now that you have a bit more understanding behind the why of one-on-ones let’s talk about how to turn this time into a safe space and a great tool to keep employees engaged.
How to make remote one-on-ones productive
1. Set a recurring time to meet (and be flexible)
Being a remote manager means that your team is likely living in multiple different time zones. When setting up a recurring time to meet, you and your direct report should decide on a time and cadence that works best for both of you. You’ll both need to be a little more flexible, especially when your time zones are many hours apart.
Any remote worker knows you have to be flexible, so I feel time zone differences don’t impact your remote work life too much. I’d quite happily sacrifice staying a little later or getting up a little earlier to avoid the stresses of a morning commute in rush hour traffic. —Lindsay Brand, Support at Zapier
2. Never cancel a one-on-one
A one-on-one meeting shows your direct reports that you are committed to them. If you frequently cancel your one-on-ones, you’ll send the wrong message, which can lead to even more problems in the long term, such as:
- A flooded inbox
- An increased number of work emergencies
- A decrease in productivity due to a lack of direction
The lesson here is to make your one-on-one meetings a priority. Not only will it save you and your direct report time, but it will also minimize frustration and confusion in the long run.
3. Define the meeting goal and communicate it
The key to a productive remote one-on-one meeting is defining what you and your direct report want to get out of it. The meeting goal should be set together so that both of you are on the same page leading up to, during, and after the meeting.
Once you’ve set your goal, make sure that it is documented somewhere that’s easily accessible, like your calendar invite or in your meeting description. Take a look at the meeting description of the weekly one-on-one meeting between me and my manager:
If you don’t know where to start when it comes to your meeting goals, you can have a look at what other managers hope to get out of their one-on-ones. Going back to the report mentioned earlier, over 200 managers were surveyed on how they approach one-on-one meetings, including what their goals were:
Worth noting: although 54% of managers claim that one of the goals of their one-on-ones is to understand how projects are coming along (a.k.a. Status updates) remember that these conversations belong in the parking lot.
4. Have the right tech in place
You’ll want to implement the right tech to ensure that this time is productive and that both individuals are on the same page leading up to, during, and after every one-on-one. So, consider your team’s tech stack.
Video conferencing tools
We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of a meeting, and you spend 5-10 minutes playing the “Can you hear me?” game.
Technical difficulties are going to happen. So try using reliable video conferencing tools like Zoom to minimize these hiccups as much as possible. Being remote means you’re interacting with your team through a screen most of the time, so adding in the face-to-face element that video conferencing provides will make your meeting feel a little more personal.
Video is key because it makes both parties take the call more seriously and come fully prepared. During the call, we discussed the previous day’s work, the current day’s agenda, and any questions or things the individual was blocked on. The video component and the fact that this meeting occurred daily made my reports feel like they were fully part of the onsite team. —Priyanka Prakash Lending and Credit Expert at Fundera
Project management tool
When it comes to one-on-one meetings, leave the status update talk in the parking lot. Implement project management software like Paymo where you can comment and attach files on a task and project level to keep updates in context. Remember, the focus of the one-on-one should be on your direct report’s development, not the development of their projects.
One-on-one meeting software
Having a dedicated place to organize your one-on-one meetings, like SoapBox, is key for any manager. All of your meeting notes and decisions are accessible to you and your direct reports, which means that you’ll both come prepared to discuss every meeting. Having a shared agenda will also make it easier for all individuals on your team to contribute to your meetings while ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard.
5. Talk about growth and development in your one-on-ones
Referencing the SoapBox report, it turns out that 75% of managers discuss growth and development during their one-on-ones. This is like driving a car with only three working tires, wondering why aren’t you there—your company’s or team’s goal—yet.
Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace went a little bit further and found that when employees have consistent performance feedback, they become emotionally and psychologically attached to their work and their workplace.
So, if you’re like one of the remote managers in the minority who don’t discuss growth and development, it’s time to make a change. If you’re not sure how to start, try adding one of the following questions to your next meeting agenda:
- Do you feel you’re getting enough feedback on your work? If not, where would you like more feedback?
- Who in the company would you like to learn from? What do you want to learn?
- Do you feel you’re getting enough feedback on your work? If not, where would you like more feedback?
- How would you like to use your education budget this year?
- Where do you see yourself within the team in the next year?
6. …but leave room to discuss non-work related things
According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work, 19% of remote workers say their biggest struggle is loneliness. As a remote manager, make it a point to set time aside to discuss non-work-related things. This is both a great way to minimize the feeling of loneliness and also help build more trust and rapport with your direct reports.
A team member expressed a love of food/cooking recently on Slack, so we spent time chatting about that. Another bought an off-road motorcycle recently, and we talked about how interesting the motorcycle safety course we both took was. This is their time, and I trust them to use it effectively. Some days they want to talk career. Some days they want to talk about current work. Some days they’re so busy and engaged in current work tasks that they don’t want to spend a lot of time away from that work. Some days, they want to connect on a human level. —Kara McNair, Engineering Manager at Buffer
Ultimately, the amount of time spent on non-work related things during your one-on-one is up to your direct report because it’s their time with you. However, to ensure that you’re continuing to have balanced conversations, you can set some boundaries in terms of what are no-go’s and what is permitted. The best way to set these boundaries is when you’re collaboratively putting together the meeting goal.
3 key takeaways for your next remote one-on-one
Being able to run a one-on-one effectively is arguably the most effective employee engagement tool you have. So, before your next one-on-one, here are three things you should consider doing:
- If you’re not already, schedule a recurring one-on-one meeting with your direct reports (don’t forget to come up with a meeting goal together!)
- Evaluate the tech stack you’re currently using to communicate and connect with your direct reports. Find the best mix for your team.
- Ask a question related to growth and development during your next meeting. But don’t forget to ask a personal question as well. Get to know who your direct reports are outside of work.
First published on December 12, 2019.
Content Marketing Manager
Hiba Amin is the Content Marketing Manager at SoapBox, a shared one-on-one and team meeting agenda app used by over 30,000 managers globally.