5 ways to get the most out of one-on-ones
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5 ways to get the most out of one-on-ones

A framework for keeping one-on-ones organized and productive

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What’s a great one-on-one?

I’ve worked in people operations for over a decade, currently as head of HR for Coda, and previously at Box. And I’ve discovered that one of the most over-looked rituals in a team is how they handle employee-manager 1-on-1s.

The problem: Stale, standard meeting notes → ineffective one-on-ones
At most companies, one-on-one docs look very similar, no matter what kind of support the team member needs — they tend to be one doc with a running log of notes added every meeting.

I call these the “forever-scroll” one-on-one: a doc with the date of the most recent session, followed by notes, then another session date, and more notes. Usually about 60 pages long.

Somewhere in the middle of this endless stream of text is a some meaningful performance feedback, a goals review, a key insight, or a list of quarter-end accomplishments. Eventually, the doc becomes an ineffective tool for reflecting on growth and progress made toward goals.

A story from Square: How Jenny transformed one-on-ones
My aha moment was when our team met Jenny Emick, a Design Lead at Square. For context, Square is one of Coda’s largest customers, so we met Jenny in a customer meeting. She described how despite having weekly one-on-ones, her team felt that they only got meaningful coaching and feedback during the formal biannual performance review cycle. Jenny noted that the feedback was often there, but lost in the forever-scroll meeting doc.

Jenny knows the power of systematic rituals, so she decided to try a new approach. She templatized her own one-on-one strategy, with attention to a specific set of principles that you can .

Her method spread quickly through Square and is now used by dozens of Square managers.

The solution: A personalized approach to partnerships
Drawing from Jenny’s insights and perspectives, we wanted to make sure that personalized approach was front-and-center. I suggest five ways to have more productive one-on-ones, with the being the first and most important step. The remaining four sections are a bit of a choose your own adventure to ensure a customized experience for each member of your team.

This template follows two primary principles:

1. Every manager<>employee relationship is unique: As is each pair. This doc is structured to guide this “pair” to find their specific way of working together. And kicking the relationship off with a partnership agreement sets expectations and boundaries that allow for more authentic engagement and collaboration.
2. The right place for everything: This doc divides each aspect of the employee-manager relationship into pages. It’s amazing how much this little touch can lead to much more meaningful relationships. You’re constantly reminded of the important topics you decided to cover. Feel free to hide any pages you agreed to not cover (at least for now).

This template has now been implemented throughout Coda, and much like at Square, it spread quickly as a much better approach to one-on-ones.

5 ways to get the most out of one-on-ones
I’ve broken the template into 5 pages, each focused on a different support strategy to help optimize your one-on-one meetings. Below is a list of pages with a note about how we use them. Feel free to adapt our pages or add your own to fit your needs.

: This is the most important step. Define how you want your unique partnership to work, including the meeting cadence, the types of topics you’ll cover, and who’s responsible for what aspects of the session.
: Structure and capture your primary meeting notes here. Take time to design how you want each meeting to run. This is the page where you’ll spend the most time.
: Capture individual
and personal goals.
: Agree on personal and professional goals. Keep a list of learning resources, conferences, classes etc to help with growth.
: Record proud moments and snippets of praise from others for encouragement and growth.

No matter what is needed during one-on-ones, this template should facilitate a more efficient, clear way of providing support. We now have hundreds of employee and manager ‘pairs’ using this template at Coda and the impact has been amazing to see. Hope you like it!

FAQ
I received a lot of amazing feedback and questions as I was putting together the doc. Here are a few highlights:

Love the partnership agreement - is that a typical process?
Surprisingly, by far the most common feedback on this doc was on the , including comments like, “I love the partnership agreement idea - that is new to me and I really like it.”

In retrospect, I think it’s clear why: the establishes the uniqueness of the employee<>manager pair.

One person suggested that the pages in the doc should be ordered differently, with the more frequently used first. Of course, this doc is meant to be customized and everyone should do what they want, but I personally keep the first in all my 1-on-1 docs. I think of it as an important and constant reminder of how we’ve agreed to work together, and I like forcing myself to go through it on my way to this week’s meeting.

What’s the best structure for the meeting notes? What kind of questions should be posed in a one-on-one?
If the key to making this meeting productive is a personal approach, the best structure is one that reflects the needs of the partnership. Rushabh Doshi recommends action items at the top of the page (easy to do by typing “/tasks”). Susan Alban suggested that she likes Jenny’s in that it felt tighter and easier to digest and know what the action is coming out of the meeting. You could also use something like this doc.

One thing I’ve come to love in my is the sentiment question. I added this after working with an employee who quit my team abruptly, with a long list of grievances. I mentioned that we start every 1-on-1 with me asking “how are you doing?” and I had never heard these issues. They commented that “well, I thought that was just normal banter, not a serious ask on how I’m feeling”. Since then I’ve added an explicit sentiment question for both the employee and myself, and we start every 1-on-1 with a true assessment of how we’re each feeling. It’s amazing how much I’ve uncovered with this simple addition!

How often should the Review Goals and Track Development check-ins happen?
Every employee<>manager pair is unique, and establishing this rhythm is important. I’ve seen some pairs choose to do this process constantly as some employees really relish this feedback. Others space it out to give time for reflection, collecting feedback, etc. Most important point is to pick a cadence and spell it out in your .

Sarah Lovelace gave me a great example of what she does here:
Each week I write down the most important feedback/actions. I force myself to keep it to “1/2 of a moleskin” so it isn't a laundry list. Before the next 1:1 I review the previous 1:1 to make sure I am following up
1x / month I make sure to pencil in OKR review and a career/feeling convo. I schedule a re-occuring reminder on my calendar for the start of the week so I know if there is a specific area I want to cover.
At the end of each month I write a mini-review (10 min per person) and then review with the employee.

Rushabh Doshi gave another good framework for how he runs this process (and organizes his version of this doc):
The intent is to organize information by frequency of access: meeting log page: multiple times per week, personal okrs - 1 - 2 times per quarter, partnership agreement - once, and then on demand. I think career development and personal OKRs can be collapsed and the doc can become simpler. Similarly, kudo scrapbook (another genius idea) can go into the meeting log page too, so you have essentially 2-3 pages in your 1-1 hub: Daily, Quarterly, Once / On-Demand.

Who owns the agenda?
A seemingly small question, but amazing how often people don’t answer this and are left with confusion on this point. In most of my cases, I ask the employee to own the agenda and treat it as “their time,” but everyone works a bit differently. If I were to highlight two practical questions that must be answered in the partnership agreement, I would pick:
Who owns the agenda?
What should happen if we have a conflict: reschedule or cancel?
Getting the mechanics of your partnership right is key!

Thank you to everyone who reviewed and help shape this doc—I appreciate all of your feedback: Sarah Lovelace, Tawni Cranz, Rushabh Doshi, Lenny Rachitsky, and Susan Alban.

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