What's a 1-on-1?
So glad you asked! A 1-on-1 is a meeting between a manager and their direct report. The purpose of the meeting is not to discuss the actual work that needs doing, but is instead a meta discussion about how the work is being done. Think of it as an annual review that happens weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. It's an open dialogue for both employee and manager to talk about what is working well, what isn't, and how both can improve.
Sounds like a lot of work. Why even bother?
If you don't care about retention or improving the quality of your developers' work then by all means, don't bother. Odds are you iterate continually to improve your product; why wouldn't you do the same for your employees?
1-on-1s give you the opportunity to peer in to your developer's head and suss out how happy they are. It also gives them the opportunity to air grievances so they can be addressed rather than left to fester.
Conducting a 1-on-1 with an employee is straightforward. Here's how to go about it:
1. Choose a day and time for a standing meeting on Tues, Weds, or Thurs to minimize vacations and holidays
2. Make that time sacred: avoid cancelation at all costs!
3. Ask what went well in their week/fortnight/month, keep the discussion away from the work itself
4. Ask what didn't go well, again keeping discussion meta
5. Ask what you can do to help them
6. Ask if there's anything they want to discuss
7. Track progress on long-term goals
Consider this a framework; you don't have to cover every topic in every meeting. The point is to have an open and natural dialogue, not fill out a form.
This meeting is a great opportunity to create, track, and evaluate your developer's professional growth. Professional growth is key to retaining developers. If they know where they stand, where they want to be, and how to get there, then you can mitigate the feeling that they need to "move out to move up". As scarce and expensive to hire as developers are you must do everything you can to take care of them!
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This article is pretty high-level. If you want more details and tactics on how to deal with developers, sign up to get 50% off my upcoming book, Dealing with Developers.