In the realm of software development, maintaining open channels of communication and fostering individual growth is paramount. One-on-one meetings are a pivotal part, serving as a medium to streamline progress, define expectations, provide feedback, and measure team satisfaction.

However, amidst the intricate process of developing technology that demands innovation, creativity, and teamwork, engineering managers often sideline the importance of establishing an environment that equally respects 1) contextual data and 2) the individual perspectives of their team members.

In this post, we'll delve into strategies for nurturing insightful and data-backed discussions during one-on-one sessions. But, before we embark on that journey, let's decipher the essence of a one-on-one meeting.

What Is a One-On-One Meeting?

A one-on-one meeting in software is a dedicated and private conversation between an engineering manager and a direct report. It's typically held regularly and is a platform for open and focused dialogue. The keywords here are transparent and truthful. Otherwise, it becomes a nice-to-have ritual that doesn't do anybody any good.

In one-on-one meetings, managers and direct reports discuss a wide range of topics, including performance, goals, challenges, upskilling, or any other issue that may affect the direct report’s level of happiness, satisfaction, or productivity.

One-on-one meetings also provide an opportunity for personalized attention, individual or team feedback, and support. They help improve communication, build rapport, and make sure that expectations are set for their direct reports and that their goals align with their tasks.

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What Are the Benefits of Running One-On-One Meetings?

The one-on-one meeting is one of the most important tools in any manager’s toolkit. Done right it can offer a multitude of benefits that contribute to a happier and more productive team. Here are some key benefits:

Improved Communication

You probably have several stressful meetings a day — the one-on-one meeting shouldn’t be one of them. One-on-one meetings provide a space for open and honest communication between you and your direct report. It’s the perfect opportunity for either of you to learn how to say things differently, either in expressing your ideas and concerns or giving feedback in ways you haven’t done so in the past.

Such micro-experiments in articulating your ideas can improve overall communication. Also, if you think you can improve rapport, the one-on-one meeting can be the place to strengthen the working relationship.

Increased Productivity

By having regular touchpoints with your direct reports, you gain insights into what they’re really good or not so good at. This knowledge allows you to delegate certain tasks to certain individuals. Play to each of your direct reports’ strengths. When they have a greater likelihood of excelling, their motivation and engagement levels increase, resulting in greater benefits for the entire company.

Employee Satisfaction and Engagement

Are your direct reports happy, engaged, and inspired? If you don’t know, now’s the time to find out with a pulse survey or an effective one-on-one meeting.

In your one-on-one meeting, you can show compassion and genuine interest in the wellbeing and growth of your direct reports. Cultivate trust, support, and appreciation by dedicating time to address their individual needs, concerns, and aspirations. This results in employee satisfaction, engagement, and loyalty to the organization.

Identification of Development Opportunities

In a one-on-one meeting, you can also focus on career aspirations, skill development, and growth opportunities. Identify areas where your direct report may need additional training or support. This not only benefits your direct report's growth but also contributes to the long-term success of the company. Of course, you get to bring up your direct report’s success in your next performance review, too.

Conflict Resolution and Risk Mitigation

Through one-on-one meetings, you’ll learn how to address conflicts, challenges, and issues that your direct reports may be facing. By providing a safe and confidential space to discuss concerns, you can work collaboratively with them to find solutions, prevent escalation, and maintain a positive work environment.

Why Are One-On-One Meetings in Software Development So Important?

As you probably know, software engineers are in huge demand in almost every industry, in every business, and at every rung of the career ladder. They cost companies a fortune to hire, onboard, and retain. So, it pays to ensure they are well taken care of and that you have their best interests at heart.

The big question is: How do you know if they’re happy and looked after? How do you know if they’re confronting burnout, need technical coaching, or if they’re having problems with their teammates or tech stack? Through effective and meaningful one-on-one meetings!

What Are the Benefits Of Running One-On-One Meetings in Software Development?

Examine Work Output

As mentioned, software development requires a deep understanding of complex technical concepts, tools, and methodologies to solve problems. Having data available in the form of metrics during a one-on-one meeting could help you understand the nature of the project at hand.

Such metrics include but are not limited to merge commits, pull requests, code reviews, etc. You can manually pull such metrics from GitHub or try how are you, a developer-focused, non-HR solution that extracts just the right amount of data from your repositories to have meaningful and data-driven 1-on-1 meetings.

Remember, though, that not all activities can be put down to numbers, i.e., attending meetings and brainstorming events, helping teammates on issues, or providing other forms of guidance.

I’m a huge fan of metrics and developer KPIs, but they’re not absolute, definitive productivity measures. We recommend never using metrics as the be-all and end-all of a developer’s performance or contribution to a project. However, they do provide context as they show a developer’s work habits that can potentially lead to burnout. They can also show if your developers participate in code reviews or even signal the size of their code commits. Some developers prefer bigger commits less frequently to smaller commits more frequently. The latter are easier to review and merge. Metrics can definitely notify you of both types of habits.

Metrics also signal output. Because developers are like builders, it’s always nice to have proof of work in the form of artifacts. From the perspective of an engineering manager, analyzing work through metrics is a good way to show appreciation.

Establish Trust

One-on-one meetings should be a place where trust is extended to and received by your software developers. Trust also means that your developers’ satisfaction needs to be considered, and if you don’t act quickly on what might be setting them back, then they could lose trust not only in the review process but also in the company.

In a psychologically safe space for honest conversation, your developer may already feel comfortable communicating his or her concerns. If that space hasn’t been created, be authentic and caring as a first step. To help this go smoothly, mention that permission is always given to speak openly and freely and that no secrets should be kept. The developer could then tell you if they’re burnt out, struggling with code, or if they’re having problems with other teammates, etc.

Being able to do this with a sense of compassion will help you and your developers in the long run. They will feel valued and in turn work towards being better developers.

Improve Communication

Here’s that soft skill that could be really important for a software engineer’s career development, and you could play a huge role in improving it. If your engineers are of the idea that they work better in isolation and not with people in teams, then it’s possible they haven’t practiced communicating well with others. A one-on-one meeting is a good place to start improving communication.

Encourage them to get their ideas across efficiently and effectively. This will help you save time and money, reduces blockers, and creates a success-driven work environment.

As I said in the opener, software development is a highly collaborative and creative people process. If developers are aware of different information channels (intra-team: in frontend versus inter-team: frontend with backend) and basically know what’s going on at every stage of the dev pipeline, then all teams perform better and developers are more productive.

Developers should be informed from the get-go that one-on-one meetings are essentially their meetings. Everything that isn’t right for an email should find suitable grounds for discussion in a one-on-one meeting.

Look at Feedback

Before any constructive feedback is given, be sure that expectations have been set and that roles have been clearly defined. Otherwise, the assessment gets off to a bad start as it might create confusion over who is doing what or who should be doing what.

After expectations are sorted, get specific about what your developer has been doing. Look deeply at both the good and the bad. If you critique your developer in broad, generic terms like, “Ok, you’re doing a great job!” then it signals to them that you did little research to find out how he or she has really been doing on a particular task or project. No milestone, big or small, should be left undiscussed.

And if your feedback is entirely based on metrics, then expect your developer to lose faith in the process. Data should be used to nurture healthy conversations and be looked at in the context of all other tasks. Developers should always walk away feeling appreciated for their work and that there was enough discussed to reflect upon, which ultimately helps them grow as people, not only as developers.

Lastly, give your developers the opportunity to give feedback about how you’re conducting one-on-one meetings. Not only does this help you be better, but it lends itself well to a complete 360-degree feedback model.

Focus On Wellbeing

Working remotely in the post-pandemic era, and on the cusp of global inflation, can have lasting effects on a software developer’s mental state. While working at the office may reveal much of what’s on somebody’s mind, during a meeting via Zoom that may be difficult. Asking about wellbeing or burnout also isn’t enough. You should be proactive and take preventative measures like providing a gym membership and offering mental health days and therapy sessions.

Consider freeing up some funds for a work-from-home budget. Ask your developers if they’ve got their workspace sorted and if they’ve got all the tools they need to be happy doing their job. That means having comfortable chairs and big monitors, etc. Do whatever it takes to fuel those moments of hard work being done in a state of flow.

If you haven’t done so already, embrace flexible working. Developers are an interesting breed - some work better early in the morning, and some, late at night. Encourage them to maintain a healthy work-life balance, as many might have kids or other commitments, too.

Lastly, organize in-person events that get everybody engaged and involved in some sort of team-building activity. According to a Google assessment of engineers, software teams with a “generative culture, featuring belonging and inclusion” were less likely to go through burnout during the pandemic.

If your company has many remote software engineers, it might be difficult to gather everyone in a single live space. So, why not try an online event? They’re just as good at promoting creativity and boosting morale. This could be anything like board games or a ‘Second Breakfast Club.’

Virtual company outings are becoming more popular nowadays. They allow your developers from a distance to create meaningful connections differently. They even got virtual escape rooms, cooking classes, and scavenger hunts!

Upskill and Career Development

Software engineers are hungry for learning new things every day. That could be anything from mastering new tech stacks to learning how to communicate effectively. Ask your developers what they need to stay ahead of the game and how you, as their engineering manager, can help them get there. Investing in your developers’ learning gets you a high return on new skills, loyalty, and motivation to work harder. Consider a subscription to a learning platform like Udemy, perhaps even sending them to a tech conference. Encourage them to read a book. Motivate your developers to set realistic goals, and be sure to coach them on their professional journeys.

How to Prepare for a One-On-One Meeting in Software Development?

Preparing for one-on-one meetings doesn't have to be complicated. By focusing on these 8 factors, you can create an environment that sets you and your developers up for success.

Here are some steps to help you prepare for a productive one-on-one meeting:

Embrace the Right Mindset

Approach the one-on-one meeting with a balanced mindset. Instead of overthinking how it will go or if it will be useful for you and your developers, view it as an opportunity to experiment with ideas, and talking points, and openly discuss things to improve collaboration.

At the end of the day, your primary role is to listen and to make sure your developer is happy. Be flexible yet productive in how you exchange your ideas. It’s also good to approach the meeting like a coach and to find ways to support your developer. Make sure it’s their time to talk; the focus of the conversation should be on them.

Set an Agenda

Write down the topics you want to discuss during the meeting. This could include contextual metrics, project updates, performance feedback, career development, challenges, or any specific areas of focus. Share the agenda with your software developer in advance so they can also prepare their thoughts or questions.

Go Over Past Conversations

Take a moment to revisit the notes or action items from previous one-on-one meetings. Ask your developer if their goals have been reached or if the developer is having trouble reaching them. This allows you to track progress on agreed-upon tasks and address any outstanding issues or concerns.

Gather Feedback

Do your due diligence by seeking input from other team members, stakeholders, or other relevant sources of information. By doing so, you’ll gain a well-rounded perspective on your software developer's performance, contributions, and areas that need improvement. This feedback can inform your discussions and help you provide specific guidance or support.

Create a Safe Environment

If the environment you create for you and your developer is safe, then it’s easier for you and your developer to share thoughts, concerns, and aspirations.

Emphasize that the purpose of the meeting is not for you to be the hammer and for your developer to be the nail. The purpose is to support their professional growth and address any challenges they may be facing.

Prepare Developmental Resources

You should know what your developer is really good at or what he or she needs improvement in. That way you’ll be ready to share relevant resources, such as training materials, online courses, or mentoring opportunities, that can aid your software developer's learning and skill development. This shows that you’re committed to their professional advancement and not just checking boxes during the 1:1 meeting.

Practice Active Listening

One-on-one meetings should be two-way conversations. Prepare to actively listen and engage with your software developer's ideas, questions, and feedback. Encourage them to express their thoughts openly and ask follow-up questions to gain a deeper understanding.

Be Flexible

While having an agenda is important, be open to addressing unexpected topics or concerns that your software developer may bring up during the meeting. Flexibility allows you to adapt to their needs and provide timely support or guidance.

What Are Some Questions to Ask Your Software Developer During Your Next One-On-One Meeting?

  1. How do you feel about your current projects or tasks? Is there anything specific you need support with right now?
  2. Are you facing any blockers at the moment? Is there anything I can do to help you overcome them?
  3. What are your short-term and long-term career goals? Is there anything I can do to support your growth and development?
  4. Would you be interested in doing self-evaluations as a way to reflect on and better yourself?
  5. Are you satisfied with the level of feedback you receive? Is there anything you'd like to see more or less of in terms of feedback?
  6. How do you feel about your team and collaborating with your team? Is there anything we can do to improve teamwork and communication?
  7. Are there any new tools that you’re using that help you work better?
  8. How do you prioritize your tasks and manage your workload? Is there anything that can be adjusted to help you work more efficiently?
  9. What are your code reviews like? What’s your philosophy on how you approach them?
  10. Do you have any ideas or suggestions for improving our software development processes or workflows?
  11. Is there anything else you'd like to discuss or bring up during this meeting?

Conclusion

When one-on-one meetings are done correctly they foster an honest and transparent work environment. You’ll be able to give and receive constructive feedback, check in on goals and wellbeing, and coach your engineers to be better versions of themselves every day.

It’s not only about crunching code and delivering features before tight deadlines; it’s about making sure that engineers are engaged, inspired, and find great meaning in their work. Hit on all these points, and you’re bound to keep your best coders on the payroll for a very long time 🎈

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