What do we mean by 1:1 (pronounced one-on-one)? This is typically a private conversation between an Engineering Manager/Lead and their Employee. I personally have been a Lead, a Manager, and also an Independent Contributor/Software Engineer, so I’ve sat at each side of the table. I’ve both had great experiences on each side and have made mistakes on each side. That said, I'm going to cover some meditations on the subject because 1:1s open opportunities for personal and professional growth when they're effective.
What I’ve noticed about Software Engineering as a discipline, in particular, is that it has many people sharing posts about technical implementations and very few about engineering management. Management can influence and impact our ability to code efficiently and hone our craft, so it’s worth exploring publicly.
My thoughts on this change a lot and, like all humans, I’m always learning, so please don’t take any of these opinions as gospel. Think of them more like a dialogue where we can bounce ideas off one another.
Establishing baseline rules
I believe that 1:1s are crucial and should not be the kind of meeting anyone takes lightly, whether on the management or employee side. The meetings should have a regular cadence, scheduled either once a week or biweekly and only cancelled for pressing circumstances — and if they have to be cancelled, it's a good practice to let the other person know why rather than simply removing it from the calendar.
It might be tempting to think remote working means fewer 1:1s, but it's quite the opposite. Since each person is in a different space on a day-to-day basis, 1:1s help make up for sporadic contact by meeting regularly.
1:1s should be conducted in a space with the smallest amount of distractions possible. If you are in a room with one other person, shut off your computer and use a notepad so you won’t get notifications. If doing a 1:1 remotely, make sure you’re in a quiet place and that it has stable internet bandwidth. And, please, avoid taking 1:1s in a car or while running errands. It's also worth trying to limit the time you spend in noisy environments, like cafes. Another tip: if you have to be outside, wear headphones. Again, this is all for the benefit of limiting distractions so that everyone's focus is on the meeting itself.
Honestly, I would rather someone cancel on me or push the meeting off until they’re in a quiet place than take a call swarming with distractions. Nothing says, “I don’t value your time,” like multitasking during a 1:1 meeting. The whole purpose of the 1:1 should be to make the other person feel valuable and connected.
So, why should we devote time to 1:1s anyway?
1:1s are crucial. If we constantly work on tasks without taking the time to step back and check in with our work, we risk being tactical rather than strategic. We risk working in a silo, which can lead to burnout and anxiety. We risk opportunities to spot errors early and reduce technical debt. At their root, 1:1s should reduce uncertainty by making us feel more connected to the rest of the team while clarifying intent.
For example, on the employee side, you might not be sure whether to invest your time in Task A or Task B and the progress of your commits slows down as a result. Which one is higher priority? On the manager side, you might not be sure what's happening — the employee could be stuck on a problem. They could be burnt out, but it's tough to be sure. It's totally normal for someone to get stuck once in a while, but it's common to not want to announce it in front of others, perhaps out of fear of embarrassment, among other things. A 1:1 is a good, safe, private place to explore concerns before they become tangible problems because they offer privacy that some open floor plans simply do not.
This privacy part is important. Candid exploration of high level topics, like career goals, or even low level topics, like code reviews, are best done and that is easier to do with one person in a private space rather than a full audience out in the open. At their best, 1:1s should create a good environment to resolve some of these issues.
Employees and managers alike should be fully invested in the meeting. This means using active body language that shows attention. This means emphasizing listening and speaking in turn without interrupting the other person.
Belonging is a core tenant of Maslow's hierarchy of needs because, as humans, we're designed for connectedness and kinship. I know this article is about engineering management, but engineers are no less in need of empathy and human connection than any other person in any other profession.
The reason I include this at all is because connecting with others on a personal level is something I really need to work on myself. I’m awkward. I’m an introvert. I don’t always know how to talk to people. But I do know that there have been plenty of 1:1s where I either felt heard or that I was hearing someone else. In other words, I felt in connected to the other person, be it through shared goals, personal similarities, or even common gripes about something.
A friend of mine mentioned that "people leave managers, not jobs." This is, for the most part, so true! Simply taking the time to develop a connection where a manager and employee both know each other better creates a higher level of comfort that can go a long way towards many benefits, including employee retention.
It might be worth asking the other person what modality works best if you're remote. Some people prefer video chats; some people prefer phone calls. That's all part of fostering a better connection.
1:1s are more for employees than managers
Don't let that headline give you pause. Yes, these meetings are for both parties. They really are. But here’s the thing: in the balance of power, the manager can always speak directly to the employee. The inverse isn’t always true. There are also dynamics between teammates. That means the manager’s job in a 1:1 is to provide a space for the employee to speak clearly and freely about concerns, particularly ones that might impact their performance.
Ideally, a manager will listen more than an employee, but a back and forth dialogue can be healthy, too. A 1:1 where a manager is speaking the most is probably the least productive. This isn't team time; it's time to give an employee the floor because it otherwise might not happen in other venues.
In my experience, it’s best if a manager first learns the an employee's Ultimate Goals™. Where do they see themselves in five years? What kind of work they like to do most? What environments do they work in best and which ones are the most difficult? A manager can’t always facilitate the ideal situation, but having this information is still extremely valuable for cultivating a person’s career trajectory, for the work that needs to be done, and for a general understanding of what will keep people working well together.
Let's say you have two employees: one wants to be a Principal Architect someday and another who tells you that they love refactoring. That actually gives you pretty good insight for a project that requires one person to drive direction and another to clean up the legacy code in preparation for the refactor!
Or, say you have an employee that wants to be Director someday but rarely helps others. You also concurrently get an intern. This is your chance to develop one's mentoring skills and scale the other's engineering skills.
When these meetings are focused on the employee instead of the manager, they help the employee feel heard and motivated, which can bolster their career and also give the manager the ability to make bigger decisions about how everyone works together to accomplish their individual and collective goals.
Yes, agendas are required
Yes, even though 1:1s have a tendency to be informal because everyone already knows each other well, they’re way more successful when there's an agenda, at least in my opinion. And no, it’s not important for the agendas to be super formal either. They could be a couple bullet points on a sheet of paper. Or even items added to a private Slack channel. What's most important is that both parties come prepared to talk.
If both the manager and the employee have agendas, my preference is to either defer priority to the employee, or compare lists up front to prioritize items. It might be that the manager has to discuss something pressing and sensitive, like a team reorg that affects the employee's agenda. Regardless, communication is key. In a best-case scenario, you’re both in lock step and that all agenda items actually overlap.
Employees: Sometimes weeks are tough and it's easy to get frustrated. Taking time to write an agenda keeps the meeting from being all, “I hate everything and how could you have done me so wrong,” and more focused on actionable items. Why not just vent? Sure, there's a time and place for venting, but the problem with it is that your manager is a person, and might not know exactly how to help you on an emotional level. Having specific topics and items make it facilitate more actionable feedback for your manager, and therefore, make them better able to support you.
Managers: Let’s face it, you’re probably juggling a million plates. (That metaphor might be wrong, but you catch my drift.) There’s a lot on your mind and most of it is confidential. Agenda give you the context you need to prevent wandering into topics you might not be at liberty to discuss. It also keeps things on track. Are there four more things you need to cover and you’re already 15 minutes into a 30-minute meeting? You’re less likely to pontificate about your early career or foray into irrelevant paths and stay focused on the task and human right in front of you.
Direction and Guidance
One thing that a 1:1 can be useful for is guidance. On a few occasions, I’ve checked in with an employee who's communicated feeling like they’re in over their heads — whether they've overcommitted or have such a tall task in front of them, they’re not sure how to proceed and feel anxious to the point of paralysis.
As mentioned before, this is a great opportunity for a manager to reduce uncertainty. Some ways to do that:
- Prioritize. If there’s too much work, spend time talking through the most important pieces, and even perhaps offer yourself as a shield from some of the work.
- Make action items. Sometimes a task is too large and the employee needs help breaking it down into organized pieces making it easier to know where to start and how to move forward.
- Clarify vision. People might feel overwhelmed because they don’t know why they’re doing something. If you can communicate the necessity of the work at hand, then it can align them with the goal of the project and make the work more rewarding and valuable.
One risk here is passive listening. For example, there's a fine line between knowing when to let an employee vent and when that venting needs actionable solutions. Or both! I have no hard rules about when one is needed over the other, and I sometimes get this wrong myself. This is why eye contact and active listening is important. You’ll receive subtle cues from the person that help reveal what is needed in the situation.
If you’re an employee and your manager isn’t providing the listening mode you need from them, I think it’s OK to gently mention that. Your manager isn’t a mind reader, and in many cases, they haven’t even received management training to develop proper listening skills. It’s perfectly fine to say something along the lines of, "It would be really great if you could sit with me and help me prioritize all these tasks on my to do list,” or “I really need to vent right now, but some of the venting is stuff I think is valuable for you to know about." Personally, I love it when someone tells me what they need. I’m usually trying to figure that out, so it takes out the guesswork.
You spend many waking hours at work. It’s important that your working relationships — particularly between manager and employee — are healthy and that you're intentionally checking in with purpose, both in the short-term and the long-term.
1:1s may appear to be time hogs on the calendar, but over the long haul, you’ll find they save valuable time. As a manager, having a team of employees who feel valued, aligned and connected is about the best thing you can ask for. So, value them because you'll get solid value in return.
- A Brief Guide to Better 1:1’s—For Makers and Managers Alike - The HelpScout blog is full of great posts on the topic.
- One on One Meetings: The Only Guide Managers Need - Lighthouse is also a pretty good tool for facilitating productive 1:1s.
- I Didn’t Want to Be a Manager Anymore — and the World Didn’t End - An honest personal reflection from an engineer's experience in management.