About 15 years ago, I started a simple practice with my fellow co-workers and employees. Every so often, we’d meet to discuss stuff and things. Nothing too formal, just a touch-point to make sure we were staying connected. I called the sessions “touch-point meetings”. Over time, I made adjustments to the format of the meeting as various structures proved more or less valuable.

At some point, I came to know these touch-points by another name. People were calling them “one on one” meetings. I discovered they were a common practice for many managers. Shortly thereafter, I came to learn that aside from the name “one on one” these meetings had little in common with one another from company to company, department to department, and manager to manager.

As a manager, you’ve plenty of opportunity to provide employees feedback, direction, and information. The one on one session, above all else, should be a format for employees to speak to you. This is about their needs, their concerns, and their personal growth. Your job is to ask productive open-ended questions, to listen, and to follow-up constructively.

It may take several sessions before an employee opens up to you. Allow them to move at their own pace.

Don’t ask for updates on projects. Gently redirect the employee away from project status updates. These should be happening in another venue. An employee unfamiliar with a healthy 1:1 may tend to interpret these as a check-in on personal performance.

Schedule these sessions as a regular event. I suggest you pre-schedule them in six month blocks. This sends the message you intend to do these regularly and ensures the time is blocked off on your schedules. Do your absolute best to keep these commitments. It is easy to allow crucial deadlines and other seemingly more urgent priorities to get in the way of One on One sessions. But ultimately nothing is more important than ensuring your employee’s growth. If you must move a One on One, try to keep it on the same day. Use video conferencing to keep the commitments when you are away.

The following is a suggested format, not a prescription. Find what works for you. This format has worked well for me for a number of years.

As you start having 1:1 sessions with your employees, you may need an hour or more per session. Once a cadence is established, you may be able to reduce the meeting length to as little as 30 minutes. Anything less than 30 minutes is too short. This is not about maximizing efficiency. The following format is for a 30 minute meeting. If your meetings are more than 30 minutes in length, the Primary discussion should consume the bulk fo your time. For a 60 minute meeting, the open and close should still be approximately 5 minutes in length, the Primary discussion should be 40 minutes, and the manager input approximately 10 minutes. Don’t keep a tight clock on these sections, but be keenly aware of the amount of time you spend talking.

5 minutes
Review action items from prior 1:1
Are we doing what we agreed to?
Are we getting results?
Primary discussion
15 minutes
Your (employee) topic of choice
Updates / Feedback
Requests for support
Action planning
Manager input
5 minutes
Manager items to share
Updates / Feedback
Requests for support
Action planning
5 minutes
Review new action items
What are we planning to do?
How will we measure outcomes?
Close meeting
Many employees will not have experienced 1:1 sessions in their professional careers. For those who have, many still will not be familiar with a format that places their needs at the center of the event. Let employees know how the session will be run, what they can expect, and what you expect of them.

Ask employees to prepare for the meeting. Let them know they will have time to discuss whatever they wish and you will respect their use of the time. Ask them to consider using the time as an opportunity to concentrate on their goals, their plans, their growth, and their professional needs.

If an employee isn’t sure what to talk about or the discussion is waning, you can ask open-ended questions to help encourage further discussion. I tend to have one or two questions prepared prior to the session. I typically spend 10 minutes prior to the sessions to think through observations from the prior week, note any updates I think they’d be interested in, and consider questions that might draw out latent issues or concerns.

How are you doing?
Are you working on something interesting?
Do you like what you’re doing?
How are you getting along with your team mates?
What is one or two things that would make your life better here?
How can I better serve you?
As your manager, what could I be doing better?
If we could address one issue on your work-life right now, what would you want it to be?
What would you say is the best part of working here?
What is one thing you’d like to see improved on your team?
What is one thing you’d like to see improved in your department?
What is one thing you’d like to see improved at your company?
Tell me about some of the challenges you’ve faced this week.
Is there anything I can do to help with your work?
What are you most concerned about?
What’s the biggest opportunity we’re missing out on?
What are we not doing that we should be doing?
Are you happy working here?
What suggestions do you have?
What have you learned this past week?
The One on One session will grow meaningless if issues are shared, but no resolve is realized. At the end of each session, make sure you perform the close; agree to your next action items. After each session, take a few minutes to write up a summary and email it to the employee, including your agreed action items.

And then take action on the items. As you start the next session, you should have at least an update, if not a resolve on each of your action items. This consistent show of commitment builds trust and ensures growth for the employee.