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Actionable Ways for Engineering Managers to Hold Effective One-on-Ones

One often overlooked, but critical duty of an engineering manager is regular one-on-one meetings with each of your team members. These are typically 30 to 60 minute weekly or bi-weekly meetings in which the two of you discuss their performance, roadblocks they may be experiencing and career goals. This can also be an opportunity to discuss broader issues of team cohesion, interpersonal conflicts, and how the business is doing. These one-on-ones are also the perfect time to get to know your team members on a more personal level to understand what truly motivates them.

Here are four simple techniques to get the most out of your engineering one-on-ones:

Stick to the Schedule

This one may seem obvious, but come on—we’ve all been there.  

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“Ahhh . ..” you think, as you settle into your chair, the perfect beat in your headphones.  “Finally, some time to knock out this feature I’ve been putting off for days.”

Your phone buzzes with a calendar notification: “Event in 10 minutes: weekly one-on-one.”  

“Aggh!” You fire off a message: “Hey . . . is there anything urgent you’d like to discuss today? If not, would it be alright if we reschedule our one-on-one?”

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Don’t. Do. This. I know, you have so little time to “actually do work,” and you were really getting into the meat of the issue. It doesn’t matter—you need to stick to the schedule.

Regular one-on-one time with your team members is precious.  This may be the only time in which many developers feel comfortable asking for help or voicing concerns about the direction of the team or company. Also, they may have kept their schedule (and workload) light in anticipation of the meeting that you’re now requesting to move or cancel. Do your best to stick to the plan, and be on time and mentally present for every one-on-one.

As your team grows, you and your colleagues will have fewer and fewer chances to really connect and dig into important topics.

Be Prepared

As with any meeting, you and your colleague will get the most out of your one-on-one if you approach it with a solid plan in mind. While it may be tempting to do so, I would advise against opening with “So how is the sprint/your work going?”  

You’re the boss—you should already know the answer. If you’re paying attention to daily stand-ups and company chats, and examining your task board, you’ll go into your one-on-ones with a solid understanding of where things stand. Therefore, use this precious time to focus on these higher-order topics:

  • Company direction
  • Career development
  • Conflict resolution
  • Constructive feedback

In a 30-minute meeting, I’d recommend spending the first 10 minutes discussing the company or team-wide issues, which includes clarifying any major recent announcements or changes of plan. As a manager, you likely spend a lot of your time thinking about long-term planning and business objectives, and it can be easy to forget that your team doesn’t have the context you do. If you take the time to pass this information on to them, it should have a noticeable impact on their understanding of your team’s mission and their place on it.

Next, give any specific feedback you have about their performance and how they’re progressing on any specific goals you may have previously discussed with them. It’s not enough to wait for that biannual performance review to give actionable feedback to your colleagues. If you want them to be their best selves, you should take every opportunity possible to coach and guide them. Here’s some further reading on How to Foster Employee Trust and Growth through Feedback.

Finally, open up the discussion for questions and dialogue. Make sure to leave a good chunk of time for this. Try to be inviting and personable, and remind your colleague that he should feel comfortable bringing up anything that’s confusing or troubling to them. It’s highly likely that you won’t have great answers to all of his questions, so be sure to take notes so that you can follow up later. Your team will catch on pretty quick to whether you’re just nodding along or if you’re serious about resolving their issues and being proactive about your role in their success.

Get out of the Office

I’ve found that it can be very effective to get OUT of the office for one-on-ones.  Personally, I prefer the “walking meeting,” where we stroll around the block or go to a nearby park while we talk. Something about being out of doors and moving your body has a loosening effect on the stiffness of office interactions. Going somewhere for coffee can also be a nice alternative to just another meeting in a conference room. Check out the Harvard Business Review’s advice on How to Do Walking Meetings Right.

Take Action

Finally, if you’ve followed the above steps and had a productive, rich one-on-one, you’ve probably got some action items to follow up on. Whether it’s feedback you delivered that you want to revisit in a few weeks, a question your colleague asked that you didn’t have a great answer for, or an idea one of you had for how to make the next sprint go more smoothly, do you what you need to in order to remember it and follow up!

You may find it helpful to type up meeting notes as soon as you get back to your desk.  You can even share these notes with your colleague if you think that may be resourceful for them. .Feel free to check back midweek with a quick conversation or email if there’s anything that feels as if it needs more immediate attention. When the next one-on-one rolls around, part of “have a plan” should consist of following up on these action items.

I hope this has been a helpful overview of some actionable ways you can get the most out of your one-on-ones. Having productive 1:1 facetime with your colleagues is so valuable and can really transform your working relationships if you put in the effort.