How to Create Virtual 1:1s Your People will Value

Updated: Mar 26

I learned a valuable lesson about leading during crisis and uncertainty from my friend Sean Bacon. Sean is a Canadian Armed Forces Vet who has trained soldiers and law enforcement to thrive under adverse conditions. I learned from him that fighting adversity is like wrestling a Gorilla. You don't quit when you're tired, you quit when the gorilla is tired. COVID is a gorilla. Many of us are feeling drained, like the last mile in a marathon, or the late innings in a baseball game. Reminding myself of Sean's perspective is helping me to re-energize myself in the fight against this COVID gorilla. So you may be leading virtually for longer. Even when the COVID gorilla is defeated, my prediction is that most organizations are going to be permanently hybrid. If you're going to be leading virtually, you might as well do the best you can! To support you with that, below are my top 10 tips for effective virtual 1:1s.


10 tips for effective virtual 1:1s

  1. Have a shared virtual agenda (use Google Docs or SharePoint). Your direct report can input before the meeting on topics. Your agenda can include a who/what/when tracker

  2. Ask and know what each individual expects of you as their (virtual) manager. For example how they like to receive feedback, how they like to be acknowledged

  3. Know and honour their preference for communication vehicle (video, phone, etc)

  4. Don’t force an hour if unnecessary. Adapt to each person’s style

  5. Use the undervalued leadership skill of Listening (more on this below)

  6. Reconnect people to the big picture when you sense they need it

  7. Give direction, feedback, and recognition

  8. Don't just tell people what to do. Give people room to think critically on their own, and give them a safety net to check with you if needed before proceeding

  9. Establish or build the relationship by sharing your back story and what is important to you. Ask your direct report to do the same

  10. Don’t be a taskmaster in your 1:1s. Connect personally, check in and ask how people are doing

The two most under-utilized Leadership skills: listening & coaching

"The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so we might listen more and take less" - Epictetus

If you want to have effective virtual 1:1s that your people value, not loathe, utilize these two leadership skills: listening and coaching.

Listening in Leadership

Let's be honest. Often when people are listening, they aren't really listening with the intent to understand. They are listening to their own voices while you are speaking. They are waiting for their turn to speak. They are filtering everything they hear through their own experience. For example, if I told you I lived in Europe, your brain might start to think about how you always wanted to go on a summer holiday in Italy. You are no longer listening to me, you are thinking of your own experience. This is called level one listening. And most of us listen at this level, most of the time. Level two listening is where you are fulling listening with the intent to understand the other person's perspective. Even if you might not agree. You are fully focused on the person speaking and what they are saying. Level three listening is listening to the environment. It's body language, tone of voice, what's not being said, who sits (or doesn't sit) next to each other in a boardroom. In Leadership, the more you can listen and level two and three the more effective you will be.

Coaching in Leadership

It helps first to distinguish what the difference is between coaching and mentoring. Coaching is asking questions to help the person find the answers for themselves. You do not need to be a subject-matter expert to be an effective coach. Mentoring, on the other hand, is where you provide answers or guidance on a specific subject to help the person. Coaching is a very powerful skill in leadership because people want autonomy. They don't want to be told what to do. Coaching gives them autonomy with support. I will interchangeably use both coaching and mentoring, often with the same person, depending on the topic. Powerful coaching questions are short and start with the word "what". You want to get the other person doing the thinking. Some of my most impactful coaching conversations have been ones where I've spoken 20% or less of the time. Some examples you can use:

  • What’s on your mind?

  • What’s the real challenge? For you?

  • What is getting in the way?

  • What is most important?

  • What do you need to move this forward?

  • What do you really want?

  • How can I help?


1:1 meeting agenda template


Use this simple agenda for your virtual 1:1s.

  1. How are you doing? (you are just checking in & staying connected)

  2. Accountability Check-in (who/what/when)

  3. How can I help?

  4. Support personal development

  5. Additional topics submitted by you or your direct contact

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