Everyone’s life has been disrupted by COVID-19 and companies face new challenges in giving employees the flexibility and support they need while also meeting business goals.

One key to doing this is to create open communication between managers and employees,  especially during the 1:1 conversations that are so critical to engagement and career development. Even in the best of times, 1:1s can become broken. They can become routine, or worse, wind up as an endless series of status updates. Relentless prioritization is also critical.

As Chief People Officer,  I find that feedback from our people is the source of innovation. What I’ve heard most emphatically this year, given the shift to remote work, is that everyone needs additional ways to help make our work lives work while we are living at work. Recognizing that every individual’s circumstances are unique and there is no one size fits all, we realized that we needed to supercharge the ability of managers to give people the space and understanding they need. To do that, we have to make sure managers are listening and hearing their people. At Red Hat, we set out to find if we were actually creating a safe environment where associates can talk with managers about what they need. 

We asked ourselves: What are we really trying to accomplish in 1:1 meetings and performance and development conversations right now? They influence so much of the associate experience, especially in the context of COVID-19 and social unrest due to systemic racism. How can these connection points deepen work relationships and do they ever make things worse? 

At Red Hat, we pride ourselves on being an inclusive meritocracy where everyone can contribute, and the best idea wins no matter the title or tenure of the person suggesting it. So when it was time for us to reinvent our 1:1s and career development conversations, we kept listening and asking more questions. We surveyed all of our associates. Then we reached out to our managers. We held focus groups. 

A recurring theme emerged: we had to set the context for success by enabling deeper and more authentic conversations. 

This is hard enough when managers and workers are face to face. The virtual setting can make it even more difficult to foster meaningful connections and trust. Simply dialing in doesn’t do the trick. The first step to a successful conversation is for everyone involved to be honest and genuine. When you’re having a touch point meeting and see a blank stare that makes it look like your screen has frozen, but it hasn’t, it’s a sign that you need to hit Control-Alt-Delete, clear the cache, and restart the machine. 

Of course, it’s not really a technical process. Here’s how Red Hat is taking a humane approach to these conversations:

  • Make it safe: Everyone is going through a time of profound disruption and experiencing a sense of loss, even grief.  As a manager, don’t just grab an open hour on the calendar. That free hour might be meant for lunch (and a much-needed break from video meetings) rather than a heart-to-heart. Set the foundation for a meaningful discussion by asking the employee the best time for them. Before meeting with them, ask yourself how you can cultivate a meaningful conversation to understand their unique situation. Leading up to and during the conversation, show them implicit and explicit signs that you’re an ally, even if you don’t have all the answers. For instance, if they have young children at home during work hours, you might express interest in how that is going for them. Then, let the associate take the lead. Let them open up and share how they’re doing and what they want to achieve. 
  • Lean into flexibility: In a year where everything has been turned inside out, managers and employees can benefit from considering whether everyone is truly  providing additional flexibility to each other. Have we responded to one another’s unique needs, solved problems together, or have we encouraged stoicism and even suffering in silence? With the new understanding that comes from answering these questions, a team can work together to meet its goals and responsibilities. Everyone needs to get more comfortable exploring solutions together, and load balancing across teams. As a manager, reset expectations, listen closely, and get creative. Great conversations mine ambiguity for clarity and, as a result, deepen partnerships for problem solving. 
  • Champion team members. The job of the manager often lies in relentless prioritization. Understand what’s going on in your team. Respond strategically with accomodations. Ask how you will communicate with senior leaders about the common challenges your team faces. Adjust priorities. Add resources. Load balance. It is more important than ever to create visibility for senior leadership on how things are really going on the front lines. If this effort doesn’t feel audacious–and a little uncomfortable–then you probably aren’t doing it right. 

There’s an art and a science to deepening meaningful exchanges among managers and associates. Creating safety and leaning into flexibility are critical first moves. Setting the right time and place, and sending the appropriate cues are helpful. But for a truly honest and meaningful exchange over time, everyone will have to be comfortable with some vulnerability. By doing so in 1:1s, we will strengthen our relationships with our team members, ultimately re-energizing our working relationships with renewed trust, commitment, and confidence. 

By understanding one another’s diverse experiences, teams spark new ideas. As I’ve written about before, sameness is the enemy of innovation. The end goal of these conversations where we explore one another’s perspectives ultimately comes down to this: solving problems together more creatively.