Elevating Your Design Team's Performance: The Power of Regular 1:1s

Learn how to build stronger relationships and improve design team collaboration through effective 1:1 meetings.

8 min
June 29, 2023
Breanna Clemens
Design Lead

So you finally landed the big promotion and now you’re a people manager. Congratulations! 

Now what?

Let’s be honest, you’re probably somewhere between popping the champagne and a mental breakdown.

Being a people manager is one of the most challenging yet rewarding jobs out there.

But it’s not always an easy transition.

Over the past eight years of leading design teams, I’ve learned ways to make this leap easier and more effective for you and your team.

Let’s start by understanding why 1:1s are now some of the most important meetings on your calendar.

If a video discussion is more of your style, I share everything in this article in the video below.

What you’ll learn:

  • Why 1:1s are important
  • How to structure a 1:1 agenda
  • Tips for building collaborative relationships
  • Ways to have tough conversations without being a jerk
  • How to break the ice when you first start working with a new direct report
  • How to make the most of your own 1:1 with your reporting manager as a people leader yourself

Why 1:1s are important

As a manager, it should be important to you that each member of your staff feels confident telling you hard things. They need to trust that you’ll support them when situations get tough and you need to trust their abilities to get the job done, whatever that job may be. This is why building a strong relationship early on is essential to creating a dynamic of trust.

It’s also important to understand what motivates each person on your team. Frankly, not everyone is going to care about the same things. Each person has their own unique skill set, areas of improvement, goals, motivations, and needs. It’s important to understand each one of these components and collaborate with every member of your staff to guide career growth and help them to feel more fulfilled by the work that they’re doing.

Building a dynamic of trust with your team

Building trust starts with balancing the agenda and content covered in a 1:1 so that it’s about how a person is doing both professionally and personally. We bring our whole selves to work, so it’s good to understand how people are really doing.

My best advice is to let your staff dictate the agenda.

Remember, this is their time to talk to you about whatever they want to bring up. Any agenda items that you have are secondary. Typically, I like to ask what the person wants to talk about today and then let them know what I’d like to discuss.

designer having a discussion with other team members in conference room

How does this translate into a 30-minute meeting?

At Headway, we have a simple formula for how we like to spend our time during 1:1 meetings.

  • Each member of our staff meets with their reporting manager once a week for 20-30 minutes at the same time every week
  • We do our best to not move these meetings. Moving these meetings regularly will signal to your team that they’re not a priority on your calendar which will have a negative impact on your relationship
  • Time-blocking specific days or half days for 1:1s - this is the easiest way to manage 1:1s.

Our 1:1 agenda

First 5 minutes

  • How is life outside of work?
  • Any plans for the weekend?
  • I try to remember what someone told me the week before and follow up on it the following week. If you’re forgetful, this a good thing to take notes on.
  • Review your notes from the previous meeting before you meet with the person
  • The remainder of the time if for the individual and whatever they want to talk about that week. We typically as “What’s on your mind this week?”
  • Not everyone comes prepared with a full agenda every week, in which case I typically like to spend the time in this way:

10-15 minutes

  • How are you feeling about your work this week?
  • Any big wins this week?
  • What are you struggling with and how might I help?

Take notes during this part of the conversation and follow up in the coming weeks. When you’re responsible for a lot of things, it’s easy to forget the details so I always take notes during 1:1s and review the notes from the previous meeting prior to entering a 1:1 with someone. If someone makes me aware that they’re struggling with something, I will also check in with them throughout the week.

5 minutes

  • Lead Honestly questions
  • Design Team / LH Scorecard
  • If ratings are low, I like to start the conversation about why that is

5 minutes

  • Check-in on progress on quarterly goals
  • Making action plans and helping folks carve out time in their calendar to work on goals outside of client work
  • About once a quarter, I’ll spin up a list of questions that I ask everyone on the team candidly during 1:1s. This can range from questions about overall happiness at work, career growth, team/office culture, or feedback on working with me as a manager.
  • I don’t send these questions out in advance because I feel that putting people on the spot yields the most honest response. However, if someone asks for more time to think about their answer to a question I’ve asked, I’ll just make a note to follow up next week.
  • If someone comes to their 1:1 with a full agenda the week I’m planning to do this exercise, I will either book a separate time with them to do the exercise or I’ll let them know to plan to do this during our next meeting.

This isn't the only way to do a 1:1

Miranda shares the 10-10-10 format here. Another great tool if you need to change things up once in awhile.

designers having a discussion in a studio

Tips for having difficult conversations

Some of the most challenging conversations that managers have taken place during 1:1s - this is it’s important for managers to develop a solid rapport with their staff.

  • Be kind - let your staff know you’re here to help & support them to the best of your abilities.
  • Be curious - ask questions politely with genuine curiosity without being invasive.
  • Be vulnerable - share past experiences you had that might be similar. Share what you did to solve a challenge and how you felt while you were going through that process.
  • Treat others as they would like to be treated ( ie. operating manual ). Remember that each person processes situations and feelings differently.

If you’re asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, just be honest. Let your staff member know that you’re unsure and show them you’re willing to help them find out the answer.

Maybe you can direct them to another person in the business, or someone in your network who might be able to help them out. You might also need to do some research on a technical question or research what tools are out there that could help solve a problem.

I recommended learning how to create psychological safety with your teams too.

What to include on the agenda for a 1:1 meeting with your manager

This is your opportunity to share wins and talk about the great work you are doing, but it’s also your chance to share challenges, and/or ask for guidance or assistance on projects, tasks, or dealing with people. 

Remember as you’re sharing challenges, it’s best to be solution oriented. Being proactive and showing that you’ve put thought into potential solutions will showcase your work ethic and also involve you in the solution.

From a manager’s perspective, there’s nothing worse than listening to someone complain about a problem they’re having with the expectation that you’ll fix it for them without their participation. Remember, they’re your manager, not your mom.

two team members working together on a project

Additional ways to make the most of your time

Build your “operating manual” and share it with your manager. 

Ask your manager to do this exercise alongside you and share your responses with each other in an upcoming 1:1. It’s important for you to understand what makes your manager tick as well so that you can collaborate more effectively.

Ask your manager how you can help them. 

What goals are they currently focused on that you might be able to contribute towards? 

Have big career aspirations? 

Your manager wants to hear about them! Utilize your 1:1 to share your dreams and aspirations. This will help you feel seen and heard, and allow your manager to have a greater understanding of your goals both in and out of the workplace.

Ask for support

Ask your manager to pair on something you’re building in Figma.

Building strong relationships through 1:1s

One-on-ones are important to building strong relationships with your staff and leading high-performing teams where individuals feel fulfilled by the work that they’re doing.

If you’re not currently having regular 1:1s with your manager or staff members, now is the time to send out those DMs or emails to them and get something on the calendar.

At Headway, we have 1:1s on a weekly cadence, but that might not make sense for every team. Collaborate with your manager or staff members on a cadence that works for both of your schedules. Set that meeting up as a recurring invite on the calendar and do your best to stick to it.

Billy recently shared how he structures his calendar time and mental energy as Head of Design at Headway.


A selection of my favorite resources on leadership for further reading

Tools we use at Headway for having effective 1:1s

Actionable UX audit kit

  • Guide with Checklist
  • UX Audit Template for Figma
  • UX Audit Report Template for Figma
  • Walkthrough Video
By filling out this form you agree to receive our super helpful design newsletter and announcements from the Headway design crew.

Create better products in just 10 minutes per week

Learn how to launch and grow products with less chaos.

See what our crew shares inside our private slack channels to stay on top of industry trends.

By filling out this form you agree to receive a super helpful weekly newsletter and announcements from the Headway crew.