Remote but Not Alone

July 24, 2020

The significant shift toward remote work brought on by the pandemic looks like it's going to have a lasting effect mainly because of the long list of benefits, from increased productivity to general employee satisfaction. While the shift to remote work has a lot of great things going for it, one thing most newly remote workers will miss is the opportunity for face-to-face interaction. I've been fully remote for the last two years and for me, that was probably the biggest adjustment. Millions of Zoom meeting memes over the last few months make me think I'm not alone on this one.

1-on-1 meetings are a staple of effective management, whether they're with direct reports, skip-level team members, peers, or mentees. 1-on-1s are an area where remote work actually makes things more challenging, especially when so much communication is non-verbal.

That quick chat over lunch requires a Zoom meeting. You can't step out to grab a coffee when you're timezones apart. But—like all the other adaptations for remote work—there are ways to make remote 1-on-1s as effective as possible.

Our team at Storj Labs is remote-first, meaning we've built all our processes with remote work top of mind. With team members in 14 countries, we've developed and tried a wide range of tools, techniques, and processes to make our remote team productive and happy. We use 1-on-1s as an important tool to keep our distributed workforce aligned, particularly across atomic teams that frequently include team members from different countries and time zones. 1-on-1 meetings can help keep employees connected, build stronger relationships, drive culture, and develop mutual understanding. Whether your 1-on-1 is a regularly scheduled meeting with a manager or peer or an impromptu meeting, here are some tips on how you can get the most out of 1-on-1s when you can't meet in person.

1. Allow space

A 1-on-1 session should feel like a positive, safe space. This is the time to listen to your team members talk about their own challenges and learnings and work together to solve problems at hand. Get to know your colleague on a personal level; this is vital for building trust and connections. 1-on-1s shouldn't be used for corrective action or discipline, but constructive feedback is healthy.

2. Don't make it about tasks

When you and a team member are passionate about your company and project, it's so easy to use 1-on-1 time to talk about projects in flight. Too often, 1-on-1s can become hijacked and turned into working meetings or formal course corrections, rather than time for open, honest communication. Getting too far into the weeds negates the goal of creating a positive, safe space. You don't want employees to start dreading meetings or miss out on the opportunities 1-on-1s offer to foster better communication.

3. Ask questions

1-on-1s are a great opportunity for active listening. I personally try to listen more than I talk. I always ask some variation of two questions when meeting with someone on my team. The first is a general "How are you doing - overwhelmed, underwhelmed or just whelmed?" and the second is "What can I do for you?" Asking questions like this helps identify blockers or risks our team members are going through and also alerts us to any fires that may need to be put out. 

4. Arrive with a plan, but allow for flexibility

I always try to come prepared with a rough agenda for an upcoming 1-on-1 and encourage my colleagues to do the same. Most of my team members either send a list of topics in advance over slack or keep a running agenda. I try to limit the topics that are either covered in other meetings or more project oriented. I also find it helpful to keep some time for just generally checking in on how the other person is doing—to hear about successes, blockers, or watch for signs of stress and burnout. 

5. Meet with people you don't work with

I find skip-level and cross-org 1-on-1s are an effective way to help build valuable relationships and understanding across departments. By making a point of doing a 1-on-1 a week with someone I don't often work with, I'm able to have a better understanding of the challenges facing other teams. Many times, we can easily help others solve the problems they're facing but we lack awareness of the challenges, and they don't know how to use you as a resource. Meeting with your more junior team members can give them context about the problems they're working on and how they impact the larger business, as well as help them feel part of something great. After all, as a remote company, we can't bump into each other in the hallways, so these 1-on-1s create needed connections and information cross-pollination. 

6. Try not to reschedule

We're a startup with a newly launched product in growth mode—and it's a challenging environment for any company right now. It seems there are always high priority customer and media calls, and schedules are frequently juggled. With 1-on-1s, it's important to keep a regular cadence of meetings, but if you can't make it for a valid reason, reschedule immediately—but don't make it a habit. Internal meetings tend to be the easiest and first meetings to move, but it's important to have consistency with 1-on-1s, and especially important to make sure the meetings happen and don't get pushed to the next week or repeatedly rescheduled. Treating the meetings like a high priority clearly communicates that you value the time.

7. Maximize your access to nonverbal cues 

Sometimes chats in Slack or email get locked in patterns of miscommunication, especially where people are passionate about a particular point or where topics are emotionally charged. The majority of communication is nonverbal and written communication tools—like chat and email—are pretty much doomed to fail in highly charged communications when the only non-verbal tool in chat is typing in ALL CAPS or emojis! Breaking away from emotional exchanges in writing, and taking advantage of non-verbal cues through an actual phone or voice call or video chat can dramatically increase the probability of successful resolution.

The shift to remote work is new for many organizations. Adapting some of the tried and true tools like 1-on-1s can significantly increase the probability of achieving the many benefits of remote work. I feel strongly—and have seen first-hand—the way remote 1-on-1s can drive culture when executed well.

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