The telephone is the obvious method for these calls, although if you can possibly swing a video connection it's even better for looking folks in the eye and creating a human connection. (Skype or even a chat tool like Google Voice or Yahoo Messenger have free low-resolution video conferencing.)
Yet while any manager worth her salt will tell you that these are always time well-spent, they're often the first casualties of our (and our teammates') hectic schedules. Before you start bumping employees off your calendar, here are four reasons to make one-on-ones a priority, rather than a "nice to have."
- It's time invested, not time wasted. The biggest reason managers give for blowing off time with individual employees is that they don't have time for the 30 or 45 minutes these sessions can take. At least you can schedule these meetings up front. You and I both know that if there's a problem (and eventually there will be), it will take longer to address and you won't get to pick when it occurs. One additional benefit of scheduling one-on-ones and sticking to the schedule is that employees will stop bothering you with little requests all day or week long: they'll save them for your meeting, confident that you'll address them then. Oh, and don't schedule them back to back; scatter them throughout your week, preferably early or late in the day so you're less likely to be interrupted.
- It builds trust. What does your team think when the only thing you can't seem to squeeze into your schedule is them? You might have such faith in them that you're thinking, "They'll be fine for this week, they have it all under control." But the message it sends is that almost anything else you do is more important. Over time this can really corrode the fragile relationship between you and remote employees. By sticking to a schedule, you send the message that your working partnership is a priority for you. Oh, and at least once in a while make it a convenient time for them, rather than for you. Why should they constantly have to miss dinner with the family just because they're in Zhangzhou and you're not?
- It's a top-notch diagnostic tool. When you actually take the time to speak (and more importantly listen) to one person at a time, it's a much richer discussion. You pick up the things they explicitly tell you as well as the cues in their tone of voice -- the hesitation and frustration that indicate more discussion is needed. Questions that might not surface during a conference call get asked, and you can probe more pointedly without fear of embarrassing them in front of their peers. When honest discussion is held early, you can prevent a lot of problems down the road.
- You get to really know your people. You know your people are talented, that's why they're there. But do you know what else competes for their time? What's going on in their personal lives? Are they frustrated enough to start looking around or talking to headhunters? What are their long-term goals? Study after study shows that remote employees are very loyal if they have good personal relationships with their managers -- and they're easy pickings for recruiters if there's no connection beyond the task at hand.