Peer one-on-ones

4 minute read

One of the services I often provide is group coaching sessions. I get a small group of people, usually four, together and we talk about some shared problems they experience together.

These sessions are usually really good, if I do say so myself. Especially when it’s a team of people working on a shared project, providing them with space and support to share knowledge and build a common understanding of the problems they face almost can’t fail to be helpful. But there was an interesting one recently where the sort of help I needed to provide was a bit more basic than the sort of thing I’m usually there for.

The session in question had originally been intended for four people, but we had two drop outs for various reasons (If I recall correctly, one was ill and the other had a last minute conflict), and decided to run the session anyway. This worked surprisingly well.

The two people who remained were working on the same project, and the conversation we had about the details of the project were generally interesting and productive, but at some point in the conversation I realised that I had a very powerful tool available to me for improving how this project would go.

So I used it: I sat back and said nothing for fifteen minutes, while the two of them exchanged useful information about the project, much of which they clearly should have told each other weeks ago.

After about 15 minutes had passed I decided to remind them that I was there, and point out what had just happened, and draw the obvious implication for them: The fact that they had so much to say to each other was clear evidence that they should be talking to each other much more regularly than they were. They saw each other regularly in planning meetings, but never really one-on-one.

This seems to be a common pattern: People don’t really have one-on-ones with their peers, and they absolutely should. Informal cross-communication between peers is one of the best ways of sharing knowledge and building common ground in a team. If you don’t feel like a unified team, or don’t feel like you know what’s going on, that’s probably because you’re not talking to the other people on your team enough. This has become much worse during the pandemic, as we’ve lost a lot of our former ways of getting casual spontaneous interaction with our colleagues, and neither slack nor regular group video meetings quite cut it.

It really does have to be at least partly one-on-one too, especially for remote work. Group video meetings are awful for informal communication, because the latency of video calls is enough to disrupt all of our normal turn-taking norms. This is why group video meetings often feel much more tiring and awkward than in person. In contrast, the turn taking norms of one-on-one communication are much simpler, so they survive the transition to video much better.

(This is also why large video meetings in particular are so bad. The group coaching I do over video works reasonably well at four people, but this requires a fair bit of active facilitation from me. I’ve tried going as high as eight people and this requires me to devote almost 100% of my attention to facilitation and I barely get to have a useful input into the session at all. As a result I tend to avoid going above four these days)

Your objection is probably the same as theirs: You don’t have enough time. It’s already being taken up by meetings and “actual work” (meetings are also actual work of course. If they’re not, why are you in them?). But this is the social equivalent of the old adage that weeks of programming can save you hours of research: It’s true that one-on-ones take time, but not knowing what’s going on or feeling alienated from your team costs you far more time than a one-on-one does.

There are various ways to build peer one-on-ones into your schedule. In the above case it was clear that these two people in particular needed a weekly one-on-one, so I just persuaded them to put it in their calendar, but here’s my favourite more generally applicable technique: A lot of people are using group video calls to do a morning standup. Afterwards, why not split up into pairs in break out rooms? Most of the video software people use supports breakout rooms (I know Zoom, Google Meet, and Teams all do), and unlike in person meetings, you’ve got an infinite number of meeting rooms available, so you might as well take advantage of it. You don’t have to talk long - 10 minutes every day is plenty - just enough to get a bit more of a sense of how your colleagues are doing, what they’re working on, etc. And if it turns into a great, productive, conversation then you can always extend it longer.

You don’t have to do it this way - there are plenty of other patterns that can work just as well if this one doesn’t suit (and I’d of course be happy to help you figure out one that works for you!), but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much better you work and feel with this kind of regular casual conversation with your coworkers restored.