5 Tips for Better Remote One-on-Ones

May 19, 2020

Between the asynchronous jokes, every fifth word cutting out and accidental interruptions, remote meetings have a few challenges. So to overcome them, I opened a group chat with our managers here at Meister to find inspiring tips on how to optimize online meetings, in particular remote one-on-ones.

Turns out, our advice mainly points in the same direction: Treat others like humans, even if they’re on a screen. Seems obvious, but it’s easier said than done—hence our tips.

Another interesting outcome of that group chat is that our managers don’t all agree on how to run a remote one-on-one, and I think that’s a good thing. Finding your groove for online one-on-ones is a lot like finding your groove for in-person one-on-ones in that not all advice fits—it’s a matter of creating your own style over time.

To help you do that, I’ll present the collective tips of Meister, and just as you would at the company potluck, you can take what you like and leave what you don’t.

1. Don’t put off tough conversations

Unfortunately, we don’t know when we’ll be able to have in-person meetings again. And while there’s no denying that certain topics are better discussed in person, waiting until you can be together in the same room just isn’t practical.

Adapting to the current situation means accepting that even tough issues have to be covered in remote one-on-ones. So, from our managers to yours, don’t shy away from the hard stuff—from process improvement to strategic planning, all of this needs to be covered remotely for the time being.

Related: The Ultimate Remote Work Resources Guide

Whether you have tough issues, light laughs or not much at all to go over, meet every week at a set time. Routine is as important as anything else right now. If you don’t have specific points to talk about, use the appointment as a time to check in. Break the standard meeting rule of keeping things as short as possible and remember that human interaction is at a premium these days. Don’t be stingy with it.

Do, however, bear in mind that some people have more time and desire to talk than others. If you know that an employee has their hands full at home, break another golden rule and let them postpone or reschedule. These are unusual times and standard rules shouldn’t always apply.

2. Prepare

When we have meetings in the office, we come prepared with an agenda and goals that we hope to achieve. With online meetings, we might tend to take them a little less seriously. Not having to get off the couch to meet your colleague means you might only think about the meeting when your calendar reminds you of its existence (i.e. T-minus five minutes).

Last-minute preparation for my weekly one-on-one with Martin Babry, head of marketing, forces me to clean up my tasks on our project board in record speed.

If you want your counterpart in your remote one-on-one to be as prepared as you are, you can also share your agenda in advance—again, just like we usually do for an in-office meeting. Even if your one-on-one isn’t a decision-making meeting, checking in or giving a progress report requires preparation. So, send your talking points to your employees beforehand and they’ll be able to give you a nice summary of progress without jumping around looking for tasks, materials or emails while on the call with you.

3. Share as much as you can… or don’t

Here’s where we couldn’t quite agree. One piece of advice is to keep your camera and microphone turned on wherever possible. This gives the closest simulation of a normal meeting.

However, some of us never imagined that we’d have to share the whimsical decor of our homes with our colleagues. Try to find a place with a background that you’re comfortable sharing, and if you can’t, don’t worry about it. Cut the other party some slack on this, too—your counterpart might be responsible for homeschooling three rambunctious monsters angels who have torn the house behind that turned-off camera to shreds.

If you do have your camera on, remember the basics: dress appropriately as you would for work and make sure your light source is in front of you.

Regarding the microphone, we are of two distinct minds. Some of us believe that you should mute yourself by turning off your microphone when you aren’t speaking. When you do this, you can let the person speaking have the floor and eliminate any background noise you might accidentally produce.

Related: Leaders Eat on Camera—Advice from 10 Years of Leading Remote Teams

While this is a good general rule for group meetings, one-on-ones are different. Because there are only two people in the call, there’s a higher possibility of having an almost lifelike, synchronous conversation. If your microphone is off, you’re less likely to speak spontaneously and freely. And in the end, isn’t that one of the goals of a one-on-one?

We’ll let you use your own judgment on whether you keep your microphone on. But to squeeze in one more note on the subject of sharing, putting meeting minutes where both parties can see them is especially helpful. Whatever program you use to take meeting minutes should be shown during the meeting by sharing your screen. This lets your employee know that they’re really being listened to and understood as well as if the meeting were taking place face-to-face.

Laura Bârlădeanu, head of the MindMeister team, holds a remote one-on-one with Christoph Pecher, frontend developer.

4. Stay focused

When we meet someone for a one-on-one in person, we expect them to give us our full attention, not check their phone or respond to chats. And refraining from doing these things now is hard because we’re having meetings on our computers. Turn that camera and microphone off and it’s anybody’s game.

So, to take away the temptation of doing other work (read: sending memes in the group chat), turn off all your notifications. Put your phone in airplane mode, and open the meeting in a new browser window so the notifications from all your usual tabs don’t nag at you. It’s not only about concentration but also about respect for the other person.

And if you really want to be respectful, make sure you don’t switch in and out of apps with your camera on, because chances are the other person will see the change in light on your face. On the other hand, it gives them a great opportunity to talk about a raise.

5. Be human

When we notice the other bobblehead appear on our screens, we feel an urgency to get down to business. Somehow the virtual aspect of remote one-on-one meetings makes us feel obligated to get them over as quickly as possible.

But you wouldn’t start an in-person one-on-one with, “Hi Bill, I noticed you still haven’t finished your report!” would you? So, don’t forget the small talk at the beginning. And if you can manage it, try to start with good news, because everybody needs more of that these days.

In addition to small talk, the seemingly innocent question, “How are you feeling?” is crucial right now. Making sure that your employees and colleagues are able to maintain their mental health while in this extended work-from-home situation is just as important, if not more so than getting the work done. We aren’t suggesting you be a therapist or cultivate a relationship you don’t have with your employees, but rather, notice when something is off and point them in the right direction if they need help, or let them take leave.

On a lighter note, there is another way to combat the bobblehead syndrome: get more of yourself in the frame. Lean back and have your hands visible on camera, if you can. That will help make you seem less like a hologram and more like you.

Do as I say, not as I do

We hope you find these tips useful, but at the end of the day, how you conduct your remote one-on-ones will ultimately be a matter of preference and practice.

In fact, our co-founder, Michael Hollauf, wrote in the group chat, “I currently don’t follow any of the things I suggested, but should.” Despite not following them, I can tell you that he still does a first-rate job with remote one-on-ones (where’s my raise?).

Keep reading about remote work

Staff Writer<br>Meister

Christina is many things: teacher, technical writer, marketing wordsmith, classically trained singer. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.