Working in distributed / remote environments 4: one on ones (1:1s)

An important part of any (people) manager’s work is to evaluate how things are going for your team members, the people under your responsibility. When managing distributed or remote teams, the one on ones (1:1) become even more relevant than in collocated environments. In extreme cases, they represent the only opportunity a manager to have an honest conversation with a member of your team.

The older I get, the more relevance I provide to 1:1s. I have found myself in several occasions feeling that my manager did not paid enough attention to me, to the problems myself or my department or team were going through, that affected my motivation, the project I was working on or the organization as a whole. If is not a fun feeling, specially in remote environments, where isolation plays against you. In all cases, there was a common factor: 1:1s did not work well.

Whenever I can, I like to have short but frequent 1:1 with my team members. My preferred option is a weekly 25 minutes meeting through video chat, at the beginning of the day. I try to avoid 1:1s late in the afternoons, depending on time zones. This is tough to achieve when working with Asians (I am located in CET/WET), but it is worth making the effort.

Why weekly 1:1s

A significant number of people tend to dislike such frequent meetings initially, specially when working remotely remote. In my experience, it is often underestimated how important it is to have a healthy channel with your manager, specially when times get rough for whatever reason: personal reasons, due to frictions with colleagues, workload peaks, changes within the organization, strategy shifts, etc.

If you experience such resistance, I recommend you to invest some time early on to justify why you will schedule these weekly 1:1s. Do not take for granted they will agree with them. I provide the following arguments:

  • If I am the new guy, I need to learn about how things work so I need help. Having frequent meetings the first couple of months will help me to shorten my on-boarding process.
  • If you are trying to push changes, you want your direct reports to participate in the decision making process. Use these meetings to get feedback from them.
  • If anybody under your direct responsibility just joined the team, you want to make sure their landing process is smooth, specially if they manage a team themselves.

There are two additional points that help to overcome significant resistance to have weekly 1:1s:

  1. When there is no relevant topic to talk about or the team is experiencing a working peak, the meeting can be skipped if there is a common agreement. I rarely skip two 1:1s in a row though.
  2. These meetings are primarily to deal with people management topics, not execution topics.

In most cases, if you have regular performance evaluations, there are always topics to go over during these 25 minutes slots, that might help to develop your colleagues professional career and performance. As a manager, it is a great learning experience too.

There is a special case I try to pay special attention to. There are times in which a member of your team is already overloaded with too many meetings. Your priority then is to offload that person and clear her agenda. 1:1s become then the desired useful tool. The same principle applies to you. If you perceive the 1:1 with your manager as inopportune, you might need to take a closer look at your agenda. They never are, or should be.

Ground rules on 1:1s

Before the first 1:1 with a member of my team, I prepare a shared document including the most important ground rules for the meeting. Most  ground rules are generic so I will focus on those influenced by the special nature of a distributed or remote environment (D.R.E.):

  • Meeting goal: write down clearly the meeting goals and priorities. I recommend to put people management topics first and, only when those are covered or there is none, move on onto other kind of topics. In the absence of face to face interactions with her colleagues, other managers or yourself, these kind of meetings might be the only chance to deal with people management topics a person might have in your organization.
  • Use corporate approved channels only: this might sound like an obvious advice but there are occasions where it might become a topic>
    • I have found many engineers, specially in the Open Source space, unhappy with using proprietary tools or tools that imply the installation of an application or a plug-in that track data from their machines. This specially sensitive for contractors. Be sensitive with this case if you can.
    • When working in Open Source projects, having a clear separation between what is or is not confidential might not be easy. Confidential information should flow in corporate approved channels only. 1:1s should be consider as such so the default video chat tool might not meet legal requirements in this regard.
  • Define the process to change the schedule of the meetings: the idea is to be flexible about when to meet but strict about how the process of changing the schedule of the meeting should be done, specially when it comes to notify changes in advance. Both parties need to consider how difficult it is to manage agendas when working in distributed environments where people is located in a a wide range of time zones.
  • Start on time: add this explicitly along with how to communicate that you will be late. Remember that if people around you systematically joins late, you will end up reproducing such behaviour. This is a hard personal battle to fight.
    • What has worked for me in the past with people that systematically joins late is to agree to make a note in the shared document when your counterpart or yourself arrive late. In the performance evaluation, when you find several of these notes, the point become a topic as something to pay attention to in the coming evaluation period.
    • The toughest situation comes when executives or customers are frequently late, specially when they are not remote. Do not let the situation get into a point in which you become passive aggressive about it. If you give up with them, you will end up giving up with your team too. Make it a point.
  • Describe what is the shared document for and how to use it: I will come to this later.
  • Add links to the description of key processes and HR documentation: mature companies in distributed environments tend to have well defined written processes. The escalation process is just an example. I like to explain it so the other person understand what will it happen when he request you to escalate a topic.
  • Add the contact information of the participants: I find it very handy.

The shared 1:1 document

The mission of this document is to track those conversation points that any of the participants consider relevant enough. Every time I make sure we both agree with the written text. This is extremely important to me. If there is no agreement, we work on the redaction of the text until we do. I there is no possibility to reach an agreement, both entries, mine and hers should be included.

In my experience, the shared document only works well if it is confidential.

The goal is to reflect when a common understanding has been reached and, if it hasn’t, where is the discrepancy. By default, I suggest to track at least the following topics in the shared document:

  • Agenda: during the week I introduce an entry in the document for every topic I want to raise in the meeting, if there is time. Sometimes there is no time so adding some description of the topic prevent you from having a additional meeting to deal with them. It also helps me as a self note. I tend to easily forget the topics I want to raise during these meetings, specially when I have several with different people during the week, or they are bi-weekly instead of weekly.
  • Escalations: when for whatever reason I have to escalate a point, I make sure it is written down in the document, in agreement the other person. This is very helpful when the escalation process or the resolution takes some time.
  • ToDos: sometimes the outcome of a conversation is a task. I keep track of them and who is assigned to.
  • Points related with the performance evaluation process: these points should only be written down under agreement.
  • Outcome of interesting conversations for one of both parties.

Any other topic can be translated to the document if any party wants to. My 1:1 shared documents frequently have the following sections:

  1. Document title: 1:1 (name surname):Agustín B.B. (this helps me to find the document easily.
  2. Contact info of both parties.
  3. Index
  4. Entry for each meeting with the following heading: Meeting #. Weekday YYYY/MM/DD
    1. Closed ToDos (on this week)
    2. Agenda items
    3. Open ToDos

Some other tips I recommend you to consider when it comes to using the document are:

  • Be short and accurate. This is not about tracking everything. It is not about taking minutes but about sharing a common understanding and agreeing on the outcomes.
  • Provide context. This document is meant to be consulted several times per year, like during performance reviews, for instance.
  • Although the document is confidential, write as if it is not. This is a general rule, in my opinion, to every communication.

Meeting how-to

I always start the meeting asking the person on the screen if there is any point she wants to raise. If an additional meeting is needed to go over the agenda, it should be because there was no chance to go over my points.

In my experience people with none or little experience in distributed or remote environments tend to avoid raising topics at the very beginning of the conversation. Being direct, adapted to the environment, takes some time. It is a learning process we all have gone through. If that is the case, I ask general questions about how is she doing. If nothing is raised, I like to check a couple more times during the meeting.

Only if there is time left after people management topics have been discussed, I introduce execution related topics. In any case, I like to dedicate some minutes to work unrelated topics, at the beginning or the end of the meeting depending on the agenda.

I like to configure the calendar to get a notification in my screen 5 and 1 min before the end of the meeting so I avoid cutting down the conversation abruptly. It is so easy to loose track of time…

Some additional points to consider

Do not forget about the intrinsic limitations of a communication through video chat, specially when feelings are involved. Compared to a face to face conversations, this is a serious handicap you will have to overcome as manager. Creating the right atmosphere during the good times will help you a lot when rougher times arrive, and they will.

These meetings might be the only chance for your counterpart to “talk to” or get “first hand information from” the organization. The impact of your words might get magnified by these two circumstances.

Since the nature of the relations between peers is different in remote environments than in collocated ones, managers has a higher chance to get “caught by surprise” during the one on ones by a problem, complain or a demand you had no previous information of.  If that is the case, be transparent about it and ask for some time to digest the information and provide a credible answer. Schedule another meeting if necessary. There is no award for providing a quick answer.

Do not underestimate the language barrier. It is already hard enough to talk with a manager openly through a screen about a sensitive topic. Add the fact that you have to do it in a language other than your mother tongue and you will soon realise that the shared document might work as a great ally. Cultural barriers are also higher to overcome in remote environments, as I have mentioned in previous posts of this series.

Conclusions

1:1 meetings are an essential “resource” for any manager. As expected, the remote or distributed nature of a working environment has a significant impact on this “tool” which makes it harder to master, at least in my opinion.

I prefer to have frequent and short check points than infrequent and long meetings. I also prefer to schedule an additional meeting than overrun the current one, since you loose very little time in joining/dropping from a meeting when working remotely. This might not be the case in distributed environments.

I like to create, pay attention to and put effort in translating the outcomes of interesting conversations into a shared and confidential document, keeping in mind that 1:1s are above all, about having an honest, transparent and direct conversations. Having them through internet makes the communication tougher which requires a higher doses of experience from any manager to make them meaningful, specially during stormy weather.

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