"Virtual 1:1s: A guide to building relationships in virtual teams"

February 13, 2020 ☼ GuidesRemote WorkLeadershipCommunication

Managing a distributed team is hard and so different than what has happened in the history of work, although Management isn’t easy in whatever setup. The most significant learning I had in my career as a Manager was that building relationships was and is the biggest success factor of my job. I achieved that mostly through my 1:1s.

Building relationships in an office seems more natural. You are around the people you manage; you see them every day; you may even get to eat lunch with them; overall, you don’t have to think about it too much. Sometimes it just happens. In a distributed team, that is the opposite. Relationship building doesn’t just happen. You have to be intentional to form and shape the connection to the people you work with, especially as a manager and leader.

How do you know how your direct report is feeling? How can you help your team to work better together? What challenges is each team member going through? All those are questions, you, as a manager, have already asked yourself. If you read some of the best management books or blogs, almost everywhere you’ll find a quote saying how important it is to do this meeting called 1:1.

I wanted to put together some thoughts on how I approach this in a virtual setting. There are a few resources out there talking about 1:1s, but they mostly focus on in-person meetings. With this guide, I wanted to highlight the differences that you should look out for in a distributed team. But of course, you can use this too in a hybrid team or any team at all.

The guide has three parts. First of all, you prepare for the meeting with your direct report. Then in the actual video call, the primary job is to learn and to listen. And after the call ended, be sure to follow up and keep the ball rolling.

We’ll dive into those three parts now and how I am approaching 1:1s in a fully distributed team.

0. What is a Virtual 1:1, and what are the benefits?

0.1 What’s the difference to in-person 1:1s?

The main difference for distributed teams is the fact that meeting in person won’t be possible. If you are a manager of a co-located team, or at least partially distributed, you have a choice. You can decide whether to meet up for a coffee and talk or to do in virtually. Many other managers and myself, we don’t have the option. All our 1:1s have to be virtual.

The purpose and process of virtual and non-virtual 1:1s is mainly the same. I see a few nuances when it comes to the actual meeting and behavior in those.

Virtual calls are very focused on the upper half of our bodies, and we naturally look the person directly into the face and their eyes. The human face is extremely expressive, able to convey countless emotions without saying a word, which is super helpful in building trust and relationships. But we are also missing out on seeing the rest of the body, how the other person sits, stands, walks, or what their posture is. The same goes for gestures. — I’ll be talking more about Body Language down below.

While we don’t get to see the whole person in virtual calls, it might still be beneficial for some. Maybe someone is anxious to talk about specific topics in the office or even walking around. Doing virtual 1:1s might help to lessen this problem and create a safer space for people to share thoughts, concerns, and uncertainties while feeling comfortable in their environment.

0.2 Why should I consider doing them?

Working remotely means we do see our team members and direct reports mostly on our computer screen. Managing or Leading them with just this virtual relationship isn’t easy. But as most books, articles, or people will tell you, leading and managing people is based upon the relationship you have with those people. So just by nature, do 1:1s become a crucial part of your life as a manager of a distributed team.

For me, 1:1s are the one hour to get a look into the personal lives, work lives, and a general look at the people I manage. In certain weeks it might even be the only time I will get to see and talk to them on a video call. That’s why I try to get the most of them, especially continue to build my relationship with that person. I can’t do this with just avatars on Slack, so the video call is the next best option.

Don’t forget the 1:1s — Leaders’ one-to-one performance management and coaching interactions with their team members are a fundamental part of making any teamwork. Make these interactions a regular part of the virtual team rhythm, using them not only to check the status and provide feedback but to keep members connected to the vision and to highlight their part of the story” of what you are doing together.

Michael D. Watkins

0.3 What does a virtual 1:1 help me with?

1.0 Prepare

The Preparation phase includes the initial setup of deciding when and how long it should, but also the dos and don’ts before every call.

1.1 How often and How long?

What is the best duration for your 1:1, and how often should you do it? Face-time in virtual teams is quite rare, primarily if you work in a globally distributed company. We focus a lot on asynchronous work, and how crucial it is to have everything documented and written down in remote teams. When it comes to building relationships with your direct reports, this won’t work well. Building relationships with just writing or asynchronous communication won’t be easy and engaging. That’s why 1:1s are quintessential for me. They are the most important event for me as a manager to build a relationship, connect, share vulnerabilities and wishes, and overall serve that person as a leader.

And because of that, I do my 1:1s every week. Outside of various team calls, this is the only moment in the week where I get to talk to that person alone and get a chance to build a safe space. Decreasing the occurrence of the meeting to happen only every three or even four weeks, would leave the direct report hanging for a long time. — If weekly is not possible, the only alternative I can see is bi-weekly.

The duration is a bit more flexible, and in my opinion, it depends on the person. Some want and need a full 60-minute meeting, and others are happy with just a weekly 30-minute call. If you do 1:1s weekly like I do, a duration of 30 — 60 minutes should work out fine — you can always adjust it.

For example, one of my direct reports didn’t like 1:1s at first, so we said that we’d only do a 30-minute call every week. But after a few weeks/months, that person got used to it and noticed they wanted more time themselves.

1.2 Process and Tools

It’s nice not to have to spend time finding a room or meeting up in person, but at the same time, a video call can be limiting too if not used in the right way.

There are two main things that I need for my 1:1s, the video call software to do the call, and then some kind of document to collect notes in or have the agenda visible for the participants. To have an engaging 1:1, though, you should also consider having the call someplace quiet, with a good connection and no immediate disturbances. This might not always be possible, but be sure to check the place you work in before your call. It also depends on how comfortable you feel to stay in open spaces and what your preferred way of working/video-calling is:

For Video Calls, I use Zoom.us, and for note-taking, I’ve mostly used Dropbox Paper (we use this as our primary note-taking tool at Buffer), although recently, I’ve been playing around with Navigator. Navigator is nice as it helps to automate a few steps to make things even smoother.

Can you or the other person walk around while holding the meeting? A topic that I’ve been thinking about recently, and was also mentioned on Twitter when I asked about virtual 1:1s. I believe that it defeats the purpose of having a video call. It might work for other meetings where the video isn’t essential. But for 1:1s, I would say that walking/driving around isn’t ideal.

1.3 Agenda

The agenda is probably one of the more essential things that you will have to set up for your 1:1 meetings. By setting up, I don’t mean to come up with all the topics to talk about but rather what tool or process you will use to get things onto the agenda.

The 1:1 is the direct report’s meeting, they own it, and they can design the time as they want. A general measure that I use is the 90% — 10% ratio. The direct report’s themes should occupy 90% of the topics and the time. The other 10% can come from me, the manager. I use this as a rule of thumb and not necessarily always in every meeting. This split helps because once you move away from owning the meeting as a manager, the 1:1s become more of a two-way dialogue instead of a one-sided conversation.

You are already documenting topics, decisions, and information that will help you build off those conversations later on.

As I mentioned above, at Buffer, we are using Dropbox Paper as a shared Document — but any tool that allows sharing documents works. The important note is that you should be able to limit access to just you and the direct report. It can be that you might chat about sensitive topics, and giving the direct report privacy around those agenda points is critical.

Tools like Navigator help you by allowing you to put more information into an agenda, classifying agenda topics, adding context, and enabling you to revisit items at a future date, without doing too much work. I like the support a tool like that can give me — but I’ve been only using it for a few weeks now. We’ll see how it evolves.

1.4 What to prepare?

The 1:1 is a place that I offer the direct report to chat about whatever is on their mind. Therefore, they own the agenda, and they should bring most of the topics to the table. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare. There are multiple things I do before every 1:1 session, and this might even change from week to week. Here are the various things I’ve been preparing in my history of 1:1s:

I would say that those are the essential areas of preparation. And they do happen on a somewhat irregular basis. Career Progression chats come in phases; team/company topics are also unpredictable. The only thing that will stay consistent is looking at the agenda and preparing for what your direct report brings to the table.


2.0 Learn and Listen

Once you are ready with all the preparations, you know when the 1:1s are happening and how long they will be, can we jump to number two. This part is the heart of the 1:1.

How do you kick off a new 1:1? What will you talk about? What should you look out for? All those are questions that I will try to answer.

2.1 Structure

Your agenda will define the most significant part of your structure. As we said, 90% of that should come from the direct report.

I don’t treat my 1:1s as strict agenda checkers, though. I also want to put effort into the meeting to build the relationship and foster trust. That’s why the first 10-15 minutes are always reserved for personal storytime. Talking about what happened in your direct report’s life, what book they are reading, what fun activity they have planned with their family over the weekend, anything at all.

You might ask, why should I do this? Well, you will notice how essential those 10 minutes are for building a healthy relationship. Understanding more about the other person’s life, knowing what context they are in will help you to up your game when it comes to listening to thoughts or challenges of the direct report actively.

This shows the rough structure that most of my virtual 1:1s have. But overall, I am not very strict about it. Repeating what I’ve probably said now multiple times, this meeting is the direct report’s meeting. They should steer it and talk about the things they have on their mind.

2.2 How to start

How are you” is probably the most typical greeting in English speaking countries. We often tend to ask the same question in video calls. Hey, how is it going?”. The problem with that is a lot of the times, the person asking How are you” isn’t much interested in the answer and continues on with the conversation. Don’t start that way; it won’t set the conversation up for success.

What I’ve been doing for the past months is to ask the following What’s on your mind this week?” or What’s keeping you at night?” The answer could be related to anything, and it is an excellent start for me to talk about anything happening in the direct report’s life. I am always interested in the response and wait after asking it to give space for the answer.

2.3 How to listen

One of your most significant tasks in the meeting is listening. Not just hearing what words are being said, but actively listening. I’ve recently published a similar guide to this about Active Listening, and I highly encourage you to check it out to learn more about this topic.

To summarise, it is critical to learn this skill, because it will help you to learn more about the people you talk to and understand what situation they might be in. It also helps you to ask better follow up questions. You’ll frequently be repeating and rephrasing what has been said, to get on the same page and dig deeper into a topic.

The three stages you might go through when learning and adapting Active Listening might look like this:

2.4 What if there is silence?

To be silent in a conversation is often seen as an embarrassing thing. I felt that a lot, and sometimes even still feel it now. After a lot of reflection and learning, I realized that it could also mean that the other person or I am just busy with their thoughts and figuring out how and what to say. This is very likely to happen with active listening, as you put more focus on what you will respond with. It is hard to push through, but enduring that silence for a couple of seconds can help and won‘t disturb the other person’s thoughts.

If the silence is getting uncomfortable, you can also ask, Hey, what‘s on your mind?” The answer will give you a hint if you are too impatient or if the other person doesn‘t have to say anything anymore. With those questions, you are also showing them that you are interested in the inner workings and thoughts and want to have a part in it. Of course, the decision to let you know is still with the other person and not you.

2.5 Questions

There are a lot of posts and websites out there telling you about the 101 questions for your next 1:1. They are great and useful. There is a but though. Management in itself is a profession that a lot of people just fall into, no formal education, more learning by doing. Therefore those question lists seem handy and helpful to get started. I agree they are helpful, but to build a relationship, you shouldn’t just go down that list and ask questions out of context.

I made the mistake of going through those lists and written me down a couple that I then asked in 1:1s without thinking much about it. I thought well if they are on those kinds of lists, they must work, right? I learned it wasn’t that easy 😅 There is more to it than just asking questions. As I mentioned in my Active Listening Guide, and multiple times above. It is essential to see this meeting as the direct report’s meeting — your questions should always reflect and dig deeper into topics that are coming up.

Of course, there is still a need for those questions. I’ve used some of them, but they have to be at the right moment. I’ll share a few examples where those questions have been helpful:

While we are here, there is another fun thing I’ve been doing. My manager at Buffer (Katie) gifted all of us EMs a card set called Plucky. The Plucky Cards have been quite a nice touch to some parts of my 1:1s. Not because I have a list of questions as cards now but because I started to involve the direct report actively in choosing the subject or topic to talk about.

Plucky Cards

In the times that I’ve used it, it has always been fun and insightful. A couple of times, I even asked the direct report to pick a number between 1 — 42, and that would result in the card I choose. I know this seems contrary to what I said above about choosing random questions. But for this game to work, it is important to do it once you’ve established a relationship, and almost every area of interest can be a great conversation topic. It also doesn’t work all the time, just be prepared to choose another question that might fit better.

Another question that can lead to quite a few great conversations: What is the best and worst job at our company for you” — Not judging the job or the person that is doing the job, but what would be the job you would love to have and not have. This can result in revealing or even confirming answers. I highly encourage you to first ask the question to yourself and then try it out with your direct reports.

2.6 Body Language

Body language is the unspoken part of your 1:1s that sometimes can help you to understand the emotions and feelings that the other person is going through or trying to avoid. To help us understand the whole message of what someone is trying to communicate, we can try and read” those signs whenever they come up.

Reading” those signs can be beneficial in a virtual setting, as you don’t have the person in front of you, and any additional information is worth a lot. Also, knowing that, according to Psychology Today, 55% of our communication is body language!

Here are some examples of what that could look like:

Those are just some examples. If you want to learn more about reading body language, check out this page or this video.

2.7 Note Taking

After Active Listening, taking notes is probably the second most important thing. I am not talking about transcribing the whole meeting, but taking note of actions items, items to revisit, or that you need to remember.

There are two distinctions I have for my 1:1 notes. There is a shared agenda that often functions as a notepad for both of us. But there is also my notebook, where I do take notes on what I want to remember from the video call.

I find it tough to write while I talk or am in a conversation. What I tend to do is to engage in the conversation entirely, and after the call has ended, take 5-10 minutes and summarise or take note of what was important to me. I will write those notes down in my notebook, just for the sake of remembering what has happened.

In the call, it can happen that both the direct report and I also take intentional notes about action items or any particular important fact. We do this on the shared agenda so that it is visible for everyone. Tools like Navigator, help with that as you have a separate notes section for each agenda item.


3.0 Follow Up

However, the 1:1 went, whether it was a super success or not, be glad that you just got the chance to work and build up your relationship with that person. Every minute you get to do this in a distributed team is worth a lot.

There are still a few things that I usually do after a 1:1 meeting to help me reflect on it.

3.1 And now?

Be sure to spend a couple of minutes after the 1:1 to take note of anything that you didn’t get a chance to write down. Maybe also take notice of certain feelings or emotions, something that can help you understand the situation better when you perhaps reflect on the call later on.

I also try to leave at least 5-10 minutes of breath-catching time before booking another call 😅

3.2 Action Items

After the call has ended, and I had time to check my notes, I will take care of any action items. There are two things to it. First, my action items that I will save in my todo app (Things in my case) and add a date to it. And second, be sure that the other person also takes note of the action items or that they are at least noted down transparently on your shared agenda.

Dropbox Paper, the shared tool doc we use, supports todo items, and also lets us assign them to people. This is helpful but not ideal, as everyone uses their todo app or system. Ultimately it is in everyone’s interests that action items are being followed up on, and if someone might have forgotten about one, no worries, you’ll add it to the next week’s agenda.

3.3 Send a summary

For specific topics like Career Progression Chats or Feedback, I sometimes summarise my notes and send a quick note to me and the direct report. Now, this is helpful because a lot happens in a 1-hour video call, and everyone has different ways of understanding and learning. Some people might be totally fine by just listening to it; others might prefer to have it written, giving them time to digest it on their own time.

You should know ahead of time what communication preferences your direct report has, especially when it comes to feedback discussions. If you don’t know that just yet and it is one of your earlier 1:1s, be sure to ask what preferred way of communication they have directly.

The summary is a bit more work, but worth it, especially after a more intense call or discussion. Take your own time to dig through the notes and then write it up. I often also either read it multiple times or let it sit for a few minutes to see if I got everything and that it is all clear enough.


4.0 Tools

Having written about the whole process, I think some of you might be curious to ask the question, what tools do you use? We all love fancy new tools, and hopping on the next new remote work tool. I am the same. But it is crucial to have your process nailed down first. No tool will be able to do the call for you or help you build a real relationship. You still need to do that. Be aware of that before choosing or even switching from your current solution, maybe a video call and a shared doc are just fine for what you need.

Nonetheless, I wanted to share a few of the most common tools that I’ve seen being used.

4.1 Video Call Tools

Video calls are the essence of virtual 1:1s. Finding the best tool for yourself is crucial and should be done before you start with the meeting. Use what the whole team is using and don’t try too many. Stick with what works for you.

4.2 Document Sharing Tools

Your team or company probably already use some kind of documentation tool. I bet that this will work for you too. One thing to be aware of is the ability to have access just limited to you and the direct report!

4.3 Other Tools

Those tools I’ve been seeing pop up more and more now. Helping you to build up your agenda and facilitate all the pre and post work of the 1:1. As I mentioned above, I have been playing around with Navigator — not sure if it will stick. It’s been a nice addition so far.

5.0 Resources

Thank you Miriam, Ataul, Tereza, Jan and Tim for your questions on Twitter — they helped a lot to form some of the above sections 🙌