May 27, 2021
This is a part of a series that briefly introduces different HR metrics that are based on collaboration data extracted from digital communication and collaboration platforms.
1-on-1 meetings between an employee and their direct manager are a basic tool for effective people management. These specific meetings are beneficial in many regards: performance management, employee engagement, succession planning, retention, etc. The benefits are dependent on proper conduct, i.e. on a regular basis, with a clear agenda that includes not just status updates but also covers short-term goals, long-term aims, learning & development opportunities, career objectives and/or manager & employee feedback.
Despite the apparent value and importance of 1-on-1 meetings, they are often underutilized by managers. Too often, these meetings fall victim to last-minute cancelations to make way for other more urgent and seemingly more important meetings or tasks.
In trying to change this undesirable status quo, it is useful both for management and line managers themselves to have some feedback loop that educates and helps shape managers’ “1-on-1 behavior”. Using calendar metadata in combination with information about organizational structure, it is possible to track this behavior on a regular basis over time for individual teams.
The graphs below (Fig. 1) illustrate this metric. Using one company as an example, we see that the frequency of 1-on-1 meetings did increase slightly over the last nine months but never reached the recommended frequency of two 1-on-1 meetings monthly per employee. When examining the teams individually, it is clear that the majority of them are far from the recommended practice. Sales and Marketing are the exceptions, each crossing the value of one 1-on-1 monthly meeting per employee. From these numbers, it is obvious that there is room for improvement in terms of the managers’ 1-on-1 behavior.
Fig. 1: Screenshot from Time is Ltd.’s analytics platform showing how many 1-on-1 meetings take place each month per person, separated by team.
Because averages can be sometimes misleading, it is useful to look at the data above also from another perspective, specifically, as a proportion of employees who had at least two 1-on-1 meetings per month with their respective direct manager. Unfortunately, Fig 2. shows even more pessimistic numbers, especially for Sales and Marketing - teams which had quite commendable numbers in the previous graph.
Fig. 2: Screenshot from Time is Ltd.'s analytics platform showing the proportion of employees who had at least two 1-on-1 meetings per month with their direct manager. The first graph shows how this metric evolves company-wide over time, and the second one shows how individual teams differ in that metric.
There is evidence that 1-on-1 meetings have a positive effect on employee satisfaction, retention, engagement, and performance. For example, a study using Gallup-Healthways Daily Poll responses from 38,000 employees found that people with partner-like managers, as opposed to traditional bosses, were likely to report much greater life satisfaction and intention to stay at the company.
In other research, Gallup has found that managers who provide more frequent (weekly vs annual) feedback make team members much more motivated to do outstanding work and generally more engaged.
And Google’s Project Oxygen research famously showed that managers who conducted frequent 1-on-1 meetings with their direct team members tended to score higher in performance than managers who didn’t have regular 1-on-1 encounters.
As already mentioned, 1-on-1 meetings are too often not kept or are canceled at the last-minute. This tendency may be even more prevalent today with remote or hybrid styles of working, with the absence of physical contact reducing social pressure and opportunity for 1-on-1 meetings, despite the fact that they are more important than ever. Based on the numbers in the graph below (Fig. 3), it seems that this won’t be an issue at our fictional company, as the majority of 1-on-1 meetings were not canceled. It is thus more probable that the low frequency of 1-on-1 meetings at this company stems instead from managers “forgetting” to organize 1-on-1 meetings in the first place.
Fig. 3: Screenshot from Time is Ltd.'s analytics platform showing proportion of non-canceled 1-on-1 meetings over time and by team.
Another important topic to consider is the organizer of 1-on-1 meetings. It is a responsibility usually placed on the manager. However, given how beneficial 1-on-1 meetings are for employees’ own professional and personal development, career and well-being, it would make sense if employees took over at least part of the responsibility for organizing 1-on-1 meetings. If employees were to take on the role of organizer, as we can see in Fig 4, these meetings would occur much more frequently.
Fig. 4: Screenshot from Time is Ltd.'s analytics platform showing the proportion of 1-on-1 meetings that were organized by team members over time and by team.
Last but not least, when thinking about the best means for facilitating 1-on-1 meetings, it makes sense to look at the managers’ typical span of control. When too wide, it may come at the expense of their ability to manage their people with a “human touch” that, among other things, also includes 1-on-1 meetings.
The graph below (Fig. 5) shows the relationship between the typical span of control in each team (x-axis) and the average number of 1-on-1 meetings per employee (y-axis) for each team. These are represented by individual bubbles (with bubble size representing teams’ respective headcount). We can detect a hint of a pattern, with a wider span of control going hand in hand with a lower average frequency of 1-on-1 meetings. That said, there are three teams in the bottom left corner of the plot (Data, Development, and Dev Design) that disrupt this pattern and show a low frequency of 1-on-1 meetings, despite a narrow span of control. These are clear candidates for a deeper dive, e.g. by undertaking individual and/or group interviews with the respective managers and employees.
Fig. 5: Screenshot from Time is Ltd.'s analytics platform showing the information about the typical span of control in each team (x-axis) and about the average number of 1-on-1 meetings per employee (y-axis) for each team represented by individual bubbles. Bubble size represents teams’ respective headcount.
Make it easy
As with acquiring other habits, making the organization and process of 1-on-1 meetings easier both for managers and employees increases the likelihood that 1-on-1 meetings will be successfully adopted. It can be something as simple as pre-prepared agenda templates for 1-on-1 meetings. Or one can start to use some specialized HR software or module from a performance management system that will make the planning and conducting of 1-on-1 meetings more straightforward.
Top management should lead by example and walk the talk. For example, there can be a CEO-led information campaign encouraging employees to ask their direct managers for regular 1-on-1s. The C-Suite can make their calendars available so that employees can see leaders frequently, and regularly hold 1-on-1s with their direct team members.
Give employees more responsibility for 1-on-1s
When a manager is fully responsible for organizing regular 1-on-1s with all of her direct employees, it takes away from her many other responsibilities. But if each employee took responsibility for their own 1-on-1 meetings, there is a higher chance that these meetings will make it onto the calendar and actually occur (remember the high proportion of non-canceled 1-on-1s in Fig. 3).
Never, ever cancel
Definitely not because of the work you assigned to your employees.
Don’t treat 1-on-1s just as a status update
At the same time, they’re not just a friendly chat. They should be built around a serious agenda that touches on several areas that are important for employee’s performance, satisfaction, engagement, career and retention.
Tailor 1-on-1s to the needs of the employee
1-on-1s aren’t needed with everyone at the same pace and depth. Managers will need to ask different questions when talking with their people about setting new goals, growth opportunities, need for performance improvement, the latest project’s ups and downs, new hires’ experiences, etc.
This rule applies to all meetings, but a manager who gets distracted by other tasks in a 1-on-1 meeting sends a strong signal to that employee that they are not of high priority or importance.
To get some additional insights about such meetings, check also our case study to learn more about the fruitful outcome of effective 1-on-1s.
At Time is Ltd., we measure digital collaboration and productivity, without ever sacrificing employee privacy. We provide an advanced analytical SaaS platform that delivers a holistic view of an organization collaboration patterns. We measure your team’s digital footprint to improve communication, productivity as well as save precious time. Our approach only aggregates meta-data from a variety of data sources, to show how your teams work with your collaboration tools so you can get them more productive and motivated.