Crafting effective 1:1s for distributed teams | Spencer Norman | #LeadDevAustinOn November 18, 2019 by Raul Dinwiddie
Hello, everyone!, I’m Spencer, I’m the Director
of Engineering at Reaction Commerce, we’re a distributed team building open source technology
for retailers and developers. I live in Colorado Springs. I manage and helped to build a team
of 15 people spread across 7 timezones. There’s a ten-hour gap on my team alone. So what does
a ten-hour it gap look like in practice? Well, I have back to back one-on-ones on Tuesday.
My first is with George, he’s based in Ghana it’s his early evening and immediately following
that, I have a one-on-one with Mia. She’s based in Los Angeles and it’s her early morning.
I’m going to start with a story about one-on-one with Mia.
One of. The project lacked specific goals. Mia is really good at finding threads to pull
on so she spent some time determining which questions we should be asking asking, both
internally and externally. What she really wanted to be doing, though, was to be writing
code and solving problems. Honestly, we’re quite premature to put engineers
on that project. And in our one-on-ones, she helped me discover several major blockers
that weren’t being serviced through traditional channels. Without the information that surfaced
in our one-on-ones, we would have wasted a lot of time on this project. We would have
missed the opportunity to put an outstanding engineer into a different project on a different
team where she could succeed and Mia is thriving on a team building infrastructure tools making
our entire organization more productive. I’m not sure to convince you that one-on-ones
are important. Instead we’re going to start with the assumption that one-on-ones play
a critical role in managing your team. I’m going to focus our time today on giving you
tools to get the most out of your distributed team one-on-ones, I’m going to speak from
my experience, but I believe that these same concepts apply to any team that’s not fully
co-located. For me, one-on-ones are the most important meeting of my week. I use my one-on-ones
as a health check to monitor the pulse of people, projects and teams. They serve as
a proxy for communication methods that are otherwise hidden by remoteness. My one-on-oneses
are my primary interaction with individuals on my team each week. Some weeks my one-on-ones
may be the only time I have a face to face interaction. And because of this it’s sometimes
the only chance that I have to get a sense of how someone is really doing.
Now, there are some communication challenges that are very unique to remote teams. And
as a leader on a distributed team, it’s important for you to understand which communication
methods you’re going to need to proxy for. Let’s start with body language.
Body language is an important nonverbal communication method. You’re going to have to work hard
to get a glimpse of this on a remote team. impromptu conversations. These are great places
to have a casual conversation that builds relationship.
Occasionally someone on your team may have something they want to talk with you about.
But it doesn’t warrant interrupting you. This is an easy conversation to have in the kitchen.
When you’re distributed, it’s hard to find an appropriate place to have this conversation.
And how do you know if there’s tension or conflict building or brewing between people
on your team? Which of your teams are high-functioning? Which of them are slowed by interpersonal
conflict? When you’re co-located you can get a sense of this by looking around the room,
when you’re distributed the source of these interpersonal issues is a lot more difficult
to pinpoint. My goal here today is to give you some practical tools and insights from
my one on ones that you can start using with your team on Monday. I hope that one-on-ones
can become your most important meeting of the week.
Let’s start with a set of guidelines that I have. I share these guidelines with my team
during our very first one-on-one to ensure our time is worthwhile and effective. I’m
not going to touch on every guideline here, but I will highlight the most important ones
for distributed teams. But be aware we’re going to jump around a little bit.
Schedule your one-on-ones weekly instead of biweekly. this is especially important
when you’re on a distributed team. You don’t have access to the same casual touch points
that you do when you’re co-located. I run my one-on-ones from a shared document
that serves as both the agenda for our one-on-one and our shared notetaking space. During the
week leading up to our one-on-ones, we can have an asynchronous conversation in this
document. And during the one-on-one, I take notes in the document where both myself and
my teammates can see them in real time. We’re going to have two windows open, the
video and the agenda and notes. It means closing or minimizing all of your other applications,
including Slack and email and turn off your notifications. Those can wait.
meet in a quiet place with your camera on. A loud coffee shop is a fine place to work
remotely. It’s a poor place to have a one-on-one. You need to be in a place where you can have
a difficult conversation. There are visual cues that you can pick up on a video call
that aren’t present in a phone call. It’s far far better than a voice chat.
You’re going to get a sense of body language and you can practice active listening, so
that your teammate can tell that you’re paying attention to them. The last guideline that
I’ll highlight here is to start every one-on-one with a checkin. It’s the first item on my
one-on-one agenda and that’s what we’re going to talk about next.
I structure my one-on-ones in into three sections. The checkin, a discussion, and follow-ups.
Now, the reason that we check in is to establish context before jumping into work conversations.
A good checkin promotes empathy. Checking in well is critical to setting the tone for
a remote one-on-one. So how can you do this effectively? Personally I like to have several
prompts at my disposal. The goal is to provide additional context for the checkin and to
get beyond a simple how are you? And my go-to prompt is the traffic light.
On a spectrum from exhausted to energetic, how are you feeling? Are you red? Yellow,
or green? Why are you feeling like that? That being said, many so days you just don’t
fit on a spectrum, so when the traffic light doesn’t fit, I’ll use a different prompt.
Open-ended what prompts, like what’s something you’ve done recently that you’re proud of?
What’s one interaction that’s causing stress for you right now? It fill in the blank prompts
can be great, as well. What’s holding me back right now is, … the most important thing
I can finish this week is … And after my checkin, I’ll always ask: Where
should we start today. Because it doesn’t assume that the most important thing that
my teammate wants to talk about is something that I’ve pud put on the shared agenda. It
now, frequently the topics that are going to be brought up during our one-on-one is
going to be focused on the assignment that your team is, working on. Whether positive
or negative, you can use the one-on-one with each team member to triangulate how everyone
is doing. If everyone is sharing different concerns, that might point to communication
problems with your team. If everyone is sharing the same concern, that might point to good
communication, but that you have a different problem to like into it.
>I use the one-on-one to socialize and add workshop ideas. Ask how they would approach
solving a problem, if you have ideas for it, ask them to poke holes in your ideas.
And when you’re asking for input from your team, it’s important that you avoid offering
suggested answers, give them space to answer honestly.
Now, when I can sense excitement with an individual for working on a particular problem, I’ll
provide an opportunity for them to take ownership over that problem.
When there are several people who share excitement to solve a problem, I’ll make sure they pair
up. This happens frequently at Reaction. The conversations that start in I one-on-ones
and lead to cross-team problem solving with several engineers can provide career growth
opportunities for everyone involved. Lastly, always follow up. Your team may not bring
up an issue that they’ve brought up before, because it hasn’t been followed up on. Know
that your team is absolutely waiting for you to follow up, even if the update is just that
you’re still working on it. be the kind of leader that does what you say you’re going
to do. If there’s no follow-up, no accountability,
and no next steps, you’re not going a one-on-one. You’re just having a chat.