The Importance of Employee One on Ones

Frequent One-on-Ones Boost Employee Engagement and Productivity

Companies are working hard to find a way to manage a four-generation workforce and keep employees happy at the same time. This can be particularly challenging when each generation has a different preferred method of communication.

Once tech-savvy Millennials began to make up the largest proportion of the US labor market (with Gen Y not far behind) and baby boomers began retiring, we started seeing the technology in the workplace rapidly evolve, especially as it relates to feedback and communication between companies and their workers.

Importance of Employee One on Ones

No matter the generation, the general workplace consensus is that the annual review process is an outdated and ineffective measure of employee performance and satisfaction. Indeed, an in-depth employee study done by software giant Adobe found that 55% of employees and 66% of managers were willing to do away with the annual review process entirely.

Adobe, like many other companies, is opting instead for frequent, one-on-one feedback sessions between employees and their supervisors to help employees feel heard and valued – resulting in increased job satisfaction and engagement. In Adobe’s case, 80% of their workers favored real-time feedback rather than aggregating comments over a period of months.

Frequent one-on-ones are being implemented either in tandem with, or instead of, the annual review depending on the company’s particular needs.

When employees are more satisfied and engaged in their job, it is representative of the deeper emotional investment they have with the company and their role within it. Consulting giant PWC notes that an engaged employee will go to greater lengths to solve problems and help the organization reach its objectives.

As the chart below shows, there are many tangible benefits for companies that work to keep employees engaged.


Unfortunately, not all companies are focused on enhancing employee engagement or have been quick to adopt a more frequent employee survey/feedback program.

According to a 2017 study by Deloitte Consulting, only 22% of companies provide quarterly or more frequent employee feedback, 79% survey annually or less…and 14% don’t survey at all. This lack of regular communication could explain why the majority of companies feel their employees are dissatisfied with life-work balance, engagement, and sense of corporate purpose.

Companies that have recognized the payoff of frequent one-on-ones are making long-term commitments and investing in resources such as employee feedback software to maximize the program’s success. Seventy-nine percent have said that an employee one-on-one program is a top priority for them in the future.

Deloitte’s study also revealed that of the companies that have already replaced their old performance measurement practices, 90% have seen direct improvements in employee engagement. And an incredible 96% believe it has simplified their feedback process and increased the quality of conversations between employees and their managers.

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One-on-One Objectives

An effective employee-manager one-on-one session isn’t just a chat between an employee and their supervisor; each meeting needs structure and goals – ideally following a mutually-collaborated agenda to help keep the meeting brief and effective.

Meetings should be held in person, but when necessary (due to geography or travel) they can be held by phone or video-conference.

Broadly speaking, a successful one-on-one should:

  • Reinforce good behavior patterns and correct problematic ones
  • Motivate employees to want to succeed
  • Fix potential problems before they escalate
  • Help employees prioritize their workload
  • Build trust and open communication between the employee and manager
  • Develop employee leadership and problem-solving skills

More specifically, the sessions should be used to establish and assess previously agreed upon performance goals, set tasks, and action plans, identify areas where efficiencies, improvements and clarifications can be made, and offer guidance.

Margaret Moore, the CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation and co-author of Organize Your Emotions, Optimize Your Life, believes that for managers, one-on-ones are intended to show “commitment to helping your colleague develop and grow.” Additionally, it is important to keep the company’s mandate in mind while thinking about “how best you can work side-by-side with this person to get things done.”

The end result of each feedback session should leave both, the employee and the manager, feeling that they are on the same page – and more importantly, that a good level of confidence, trust and an open line of communication has been established.


Building trust between the employee and manager is an important but often undervalued element in the employee-employer relationship. An article on strategic employee communication that appeared on notes that “The more employees trust you, the more willing they will be to follow where you lead.”

For managers, motivating employees to become leaders also shows that you believe in their professional expertise and aspirations, which is critical to building a skilled team.

Constructing an Effective One-on-One

Ideally, to maintain momentum (and build the trust that comes with predictability) sessions should be held regularly. This means weekly, or bi-weekly, and ideally don’t take much time, as the initial framework and topics have been established.

Leadership author and Forbes contributor, Kristi Hedges believes that an effective one-on-one session can be held in under 45-minutes!

Though it’s good to think of the meetings as flexible check-in sessions, having a cavalier approach to them can have detrimental results. Meetings should never get canceled or rescheduled unless absolutely necessary.

Understandably, when things get busy, managers may feel that canceling the one-on-one or replacing it with an ‘open door’ policy is an effective alternative.

This is a potentially destructive and inefficient tactic that could backfire, leading to loss of productivity and diminished feelings of trust and respect.

Both sides may be better able to consistently commit to the one-on-one if they view it as a meeting with an important client.

One-on-ones don’t need to be entirely directed by the manager.

Once a few sessions have taken place and expectations have been set, outlining the one-on-one session can be a good training ground for developing an employee’s leadership abilities.

Asking employees to design the agenda and determine the subjects to be discussed allows them to lead rather than follow, helping them enhance communication, prioritization, time management, and strategic problem-solving skills. This could give them an opportunity to identify a specific problem they are dealing with – perhaps one the manager isn’t aware of! – and allow them to present potential solutions for discussion during the session.

Throughout the session, the manager will need to provide specific comments and observations about the employee, always ending with genuine positive reinforcement. Using open-ended questions during the session will encourage more meaningful communication.

Critical to a successful one-on-one is a manager’s confidence and ability to appropriately correct improper employee behavior while providing constructive, non-judgemental feedback.

Managers should remember to use the SMART acronym to help guide employees and keep them engaged and motivated for success:

  • Share only what the manager knows to be true, not based on gossip.
  • Make comments that are specific and behavior-oriented.
  • Address only matters that the employee can influence or change.
  • Remember to provide positive, encouraging feedback.
  • Time feedback appropriately (address improper or exceptional behavior as soon as it’s noticed).

What One-on-Ones Are Not

Knowing what makes a one-on-one session fail is just as important as knowing what makes one succeed.

One-on-ones are not opportunities for the manager to tell the employee how a particular matter or approach to a task should be handled. The session is about providing guidance, not solutions.

Managers should consider using less definitive language and draw answers directly from the employee. “The next time this comes up, you should…”, might be rephrased to, “What could you do differently next time?” “As I see it, the problem is…”, should be, “What do you think the problem is?”

These simple practices can help the employee feel empowered and heard, and establish the manager as a trusted listener.

Additionally, managers need to be aware of potentially damaging language and be able to refocus the meeting so they don’t turn into gossip or gripe sessions. Inevitably employees will want to offload about a particularly frustrating event or co-worker.

While this may be seen as an established level of trust between the employee and manager, it can also be viewed as granting permission for the employee to harbor destructive feelings and behaviors. If the employee can’t develop a solution with the guidance of the manager, it may be necessary to consider bringing in a member of the human resources department to help address any potential long-term issues.

In order to maintain trust, employees should always be informed of this course of action before the human resources department is consulted.

Ultimately, the approach and what a company chooses to put into its one-on-one employee feedback sessions is up to the company’s particular needs.

Some companies choose to continue with a formal annual review, using it as the time to help set long-term employee goals for growth and development, advancement and identify adjustments to salary or vacation/paid time off allowances, etc. Others build these topics into the more frequent sessions.

Whichever route, it’s important to remember that the program needs to be a company-wide, long-term commitment, designed in such a way that will encourage participation, and meet both the company’s and the employees’ needs.

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