Read the Blog

How to Make Virtual 121s Count

How to Make Virtual 121s Count

Ally Jones

You know that feeling when a meeting that's important to you gets pushed back, or worse still, postponed indefinitely? Or when someone asks you to give them a rundown of what you wanted to speak about on the phone or in an email instead? Yep - that's the first pitfall to avoid when it comes to one-to-ones. Always make sure the time is protected in your diary!

Now we've got that out the way, let's talk about virtual 121s. The technology that enables remote or agile working might be great, the attendance might be similar, but for some, it's just not quite the same as sitting with someone, knowing their attention is 100% yours. Fret not - all isn't lost! There's lots you can continue to create meaningful and impactful conversations that are held virtually.

While 121s invoke varied responses in people, depending on their personality type and work style, they all offer deep value and opportunity to reflect on a person's performance, general wellbeing and the time to work through any concerns (not to mention, they're great for building strong working relationships!). They're invaluable, and we shouldn't let agile or remote working get in the way of them.

But how do you ensure your 121s are effective while you're hidden behind a screen?

The first barrier to a successful 121 is failing to understand the person you're speaking with. You might have known your people for a considerable time, but have you checked in with them and ensured you understood their preferred ways of working recently? Are you confident of their feelings towards their 121?

People often consider themselves in one of three categories:

  • Those that want to work their hours and go home. They do a great job but aren't interested in career development (which, is totally OK!).
  • Those that are interested in development but prefer self-directed learning and don't rely on senior guidance or mentorship.
  • Those that crave one-to-one time with you. They see you as their coach and mentor and find feedback a super-important part of their development.

The same format of a 121 would not work well on all three types of people here, but just understanding who might place themselves in each category will give you a good starting point.

What goes hand in hand here is understanding what people want from their 121s, down to the practical logistics. How long do they want to spend with you? How often would they prefer this to happen? And what do they want the session to achieve? Gathering this information lets you build a clearer picture in your mind of what your people's work style and preferences are, plus how much they value the sessions.

Tip! If the impression you get is that the value to them is very small, this suggests an area of attention in itself to explore. Ensuring the person feels supported, is able to approach you openly, and that their schedule reflects their responsibilities well are all points you could consider for their session.

Avoid 121s Becoming a Tick Box Exercise
Beyond this, setting up a time and turning up to take notes is only going to achieve a tick in a box. Both managers and team members often state that 121s don't offer value, or that the person they meet with isn't engaged enough, and leave feeling as though they wasted their time. Time to work with all of our focus and attention has been in short supply in lockdown, thanks to the juggle of work and home life in every breath, so here are a few things to consider to get ahead of your 121, and make them count:

Have them plan the agenda
Nobody wants to turn up to their 121, finally able to get off their chest what's been sitting there for months, only to listen to their manager dominate the conversation the whole time or set an agenda which doesn't leave room for other topics.

Let people come to you with an agenda. Not only will they feel comfortable and in control of their meeting, you'll gain valuable perspective on what's important to them right now. You'll probably discover some topics you hadn't considered, and definitely get a stronger sense of issues surrounding their role.

Ask them to send you their agenda in advance and take the time to read it. Knowing you're both coming to the session prepared gives you a positive before you begin.

Offer flexibility
Like it or not, your team's workdays might include a lot of family juggling right now. Every task they attempt might be accompanied by the Peppa Pig theme tune (or in my case, Ryan's World on YouTube!), and there's only so much attention you can fairly demand from people in this situation. For their 121, why not offer a level of flexibility to allow them to attend with their whole self? Asking what time their kids go to bed and offering a time after this in the evening might work better for both of you in the long run.

Even post-COVID, offering your teams flexibility around other commitments will be greatly appreciated.

Promise dedication
Ensure they know that despite the distance, the session is still offering dedicated time for them and to hear what they have to say. Ensure any concerns are met with attentive listening, and any topics brought up which could generate the need for further meetings or involvement of others are acted upon in good time.

Accommodate difficult conversations
121s during COVID-19 have the potential to include difficult or emotional topics. Consider the best way to approach this - here's where a shared agenda ahead of time allows both parties to prepare, both emotionally and practically.

Choose the most considerate way to meet
Face to face meetings might be physically possible with distancing in place, but logistically does this work for people who still have children at home? This isn't a case for automatically deflecting to a video call, but considering the content of the session and what the person will be most comfortable with. The answer? Ask them and accommodate.

Above all else, keep your commitment. Make and keep time in the diary to explore the things your team member wants to explore - and hear what they have to say without judgement or assumption.