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How to make your next manager one-on-one meeting productive

Use the meeting time wisely. More than seven in 10 senior managers find meetings to be unproductive.
Regular 1:1s can strengthen the manager-employee relationship while helping to reduce employee turnover.

When well-planned and executed, meetings between managers and direct reports can be meaningful and transformative experiences—particularly for millennials, who represent the largest share of the American workforce.

As such, regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings—as opposed to annual or quarterly performance reviews—can as much as double levels of employee engagement. These meetings allow for private conversations about career goals and professional roles while providing opportunities to give and receive feedback, a major plus for more reserved direct reports.

Regular 1:1s can strengthen the manager-employee relationship while helping to reduce employee turnover. Assembly used data from various sources to curate a list of five tips to make your next manager 1:1 more productive.

The trick lies in making smart use of meeting time. Generally speaking, more than seven in 10 senior managers find meetings to be unproductive, according to a 2017/2018 survey from Harvard Business Review. In March 2022, the same publication noted that a 40% decrease in the number of meetings resulted in a roughly 70% increase in employee productivity. But while certain meetings like status updates may be unnecessary, 1:1s may be among the most important productivity tools available to managers and reports.

Keep reading to learn more about making your next 1:1 more productive.

Two men in an office check calendar dates on a phone.


Set a meeting cadence that works for everyone

Aim for a cooperative approach to ensure both parties will be fully engaged. Plan to have your meeting in the peak of the "productivity zone," those times of day when individuals are most likely to be free to chat. YouCanBookMe analyzed more than half a million appointment invitations and found that the optimal time for 1:1s was Tuesdays at 2:30 p.m.

Consider meeting weekly and skipping every once in a while to prevent meeting fatigue and promote ongoing communication and timely feedback. Harvard Business Review recommends scheduling weekly meetings for 30 minutes and biweeklies for 45-60 minutes. A hybrid plan, whereby certain team members meet weekly and others biweekly, can also benefit managers with too many meetings and employees who may need more or less communication.

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Before ending a 1:1, confirm discussed action items that need follow up

Action items are the individual steps or tasks involved in completing a project, typically associated with a deadline and priority level. In a 1:1 meeting, action items function as talking points and threads that provide continuity from one appointment to the next; as such, they should be well-documented at the end of the meeting.

If your current 1:1 communication and record-keeping tools consist of a pad and pen for taking notes, it might be time to update your meeting toolbox. For example, management software programs can provide managers and direct reports with a shared, central platform for preparing collaborative agendas before the meeting, taking notes and tracking talking points during the conversation, and documenting action items. 

Two women on a video call itemize a list.


Set an agenda for every meeting so it stays productive

A well-crafted agenda prepared in advance can help you make the most of meetings, especially if it's a collaborative effort. If you haven't in the past, consider asking them what they would like to discuss beforehand, and update the agenda accordingly. In concert with the direct report, decide on a theme or objective for the meeting. New hires may benefit from an agenda guide or template.

Once you both have decided on an agenda theme and items, assign a certain amount of time to each component. For example, a 45-minute meeting might unfold as follows, with time allotted at the beginning and end for icebreakers and personal questions that put the direct report at ease and let you know that you hear and see them as an individual:

  • Check-in (5 minutes)
  • Direct report feedback and items of concern or interest (10 minutes)
  • Manager feedback and items of concern or interest, including coaching and professional development (15 minutes)
  • Free time devoted to long-term career or company goals (10 minutes)
  • Action and accountability items and closing personal questions (5 minutes)

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Fill out the agenda early to give each other adequate time to review topics

Aim to email or share the meeting agenda at least 24 hours before the meeting. If your meetings are biweekly, you may want to give more time to review the items and suggest additions or changes, as you'll be covering more ground with less frequency.

When emailing your meeting reminder, include the URL for the agenda and any other documents that might be discussed. Or, as previously mentioned, consider using a scheduling software program that allows managers and direct reports to work on a common platform, allowing for a faster and more efficient approach when updating meeting documents.

If you haven't already done so, be sure to establish a permanent videoconferencing link, even for an on-site meeting, to avoid having to cancel if and when one or both parties can't speak in person.

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Know when to cancel

Harvard Business Review cautions against canceling regularly scheduled 1:1s whenever possible because missed meetings may give direct reports the impression that your time together is not a priority and can negatively affect project and team progress. Legitimate reasons for canceling can include illness, a scheduling conflict (such as attendance in an earlier meeting that's running late), traffic and transportation issues, or an unforeseen family or personal emergency.

If you must cancel, send the cancellation email as soon as possible, preferably at least 24 hours in advance. Apologize for the inconvenience and briefly explain why you have to cancel. Emphasize the importance of the meeting and provide a few rescheduling options, and be open to the direct report's proposed alternative should you encounter any time-related conflicts. When closing the email, express your appreciation for their time and understanding, and let them know you look forward to meeting with them in the near future.

This story originally appeared on Assembly and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.