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I’ll be the first to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with meetings.  Most of the time I consider them to be a necessary evil, taking over my schedule when I believe (either correctly or incorrectly) that my time is better spent doing other things.  There is one exception though - touch base meetings.  I consider touch base meetings to be similar to listening to an awesome podcast in standstill traffic - you might still be in traffic, but it’s still an enjoyable and productive use of that time.

I’m lucky to have worked for companies and managers that value touch bases as much as I do, and even now at Visiple where everyone is remote, we still find time to catch up on a weekly or biweekly basis.  As a manager, if you’re just now looking into touch bases or are simply trying to improve upon your current version of them, you’ve already taken the most important step - recognizing the benefit.  The next thing to do is learn how to get the most out of the process.

 

What Is a Touch Base Meeting?

I’ve found the easiest way to explain a touch base is to describe what it isn’t.  It isn’t a traditional meeting designed to go over project updates or discuss your team’s backlog.  Nor is it an opportunity for a manager to provide unsolicited advice or criticism like a performance review.  Instead, it is an opportunity for a manager to get a more well-rounded picture of an employee while the employee gets to talk, vent, or ask questions about things they might not usually get to.  The ideal touch base will be very informal and have a much less rigid format than its more official counterpart.

Still uncertain?  I love this quote from Asana's blog:

A 1-1 is a dedicated space on the calendar and in your mental map for open-ended and anticipated conversation between a manager and an employee. Unlike status reports or tactical meetings, the 1-1 meeting is a place for coaching, mentorship, giving context, or even venting. The 1-1 goes beyond an open door policy and dedicates time on a regular cadence for teammates and leaders to connect and communicate.
— Asana

Why Are They Helpful?

A one-on-one meeting gives your team a chance to share their thoughts and discuss what they’re struggling with.
— Eric Sui, Single Grain

The informal nature of touch bases is meant to encourage employees to speak their mind and get things off of their chest.  For an employee, it’s a great way to talk about work environment without being limited to progress or measurable results.  For a manager, the information gained from these meetings is invaluable for bonding with employees, establish rapport, and helping round out what you already know.

Furthermore, it's a golden opportunity to get feedback on your managerial performance and identify pain points that you can help alleviate.   

 

How Can You Get the Most Out of a Touch Base?

1.  Use an Informal Structure

Of course all meetings are different, and you need to work with a style that’s doable for you. That said, if you can find a structure and manage to it, you’ll find that the conversations will naturally fit into those expectations. It’s your job as the manager to honor the time and facilitate the discussion.
— Kristen Hedges, Forbes

Yes, I’m aware “informal structure” is a bit of an oxymoron, but it’ll make sense in a second, I promise!  No matter how mundane or sporadic a meeting is, it should always follow some sort of outline, no matter how loose.  And while ideally the employee will be setting the topics (more on this later), it’s up to the manager to guide them, hence the structure part.  My recommendation is to try and break the meeting up into broad sections and let the employee fill in the gaps.

For instance, your touch base might have three sections - a small talk or opening section, a more detailed feedback section, and a closing follow up and review section.  All of these are very broad and open, but it’s good to have at least an outline of what the meeting will be about.

 

2.  Ask Open-Ended Questions

Remember, it's important that the employees open up a bit and talk, but that cannot happen if all you ask are pointed questions that result in equally pointed answers.  The touch bases I enjoy the most are the ones that begin with “How’s it going?”  This is a great way to start because it’s super informal and allows the employee to set the pace and establish the tone.  Unless the employee is a closed book, you should have a pretty good feel of the meeting after the first few sentences.

If we were to continue using the above example about 3 sections, some good questions might include the following:

  • Opening: What have you been up to?  What did you do this weekend?

  • Feedback: What are you working on that I can help with?  Are you happy with___?

  • Review: When can we follow up next?  Is there anything else you want to talk about?

Using questions like these helps reinforce the informal nature of the meeting and allows the employee to dictate the pace and topics.  If you need more inspiration for what to ask, check out this list of 101 question to ask in one on ones.

 

3.  Listen and Take Notes

Giving someone our full, uninterrupted presence is a gift that makes a big impact. It’s so rare, and I believe is a large part of what people mean when they say someone has ‘presence.’
— Kristen Hedges, Forbes
Listen to improve your touch base meetings

Listen to improve your touch base meetings

The biggest difference between traditional meetings and touch base meetings is that there is a complete 180 in role reversals when it comes to listening.  As a manager, the focus should be on hearing what they have to say.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk, only that the focus should be away from you.  It goes without saying it’s important to remember the main issues discussed each meeting, but I will say that I really appreciated managers who took visible notes.  Even if you have the memory of a short-order cook, the act of taking notes shows that you value what the other person is saying enough to write it down.

Use these notes for your own records and to review before the next follow up.  Keeping track of what you discuss is important, especially when if you dedicate part of every touch base to following up on past issues.

 

4.  Meet Regularly but Be Flexible

Your team needs to know that one-on-one’s aren’t something that you’re doing for show. Put them on the calendar, and stick to the time. Things come up and sure, sometimes you’ll reschedule, but these should take priority in your calendar, even if a customer or partner call comes along.
— Alex Turnbull, Groove
Meet regularly to improve touch base meetings

Meet regularly to improve touch base meetings

The more regular these meetings are, the more beneficial they become.  As a manager, you should do your best not to cancel and make it a habit of blocking off time regularly to avoid conflicts.  Personally, I am a fan of meeting every other week, but I have known others that are fine with once a month.  Use your best judgement based on your team's needs and establish a routine that everyone can follow.  Meeting regularly will not only help people open up more, your employees will also appreciate you making time for them.

Flexibility comes into play when considering the logistics for each meeting.  I highly recommend escaping the office environment whenever possible and these touch bases are a great opportunity to do so.  Meeting at the roof, courtyard, or even coffee shop can help people get out of 'work' mode and into conversation mode, which is exactly what you want.  If you can't get out of the office, consider heading to the kitchen or even the employee's desk, anything that switches it up a bit.

Wrapping Up

Managers can spend up to 50% of their time in meetings so I don’t blame those who aren’t thrilled about adding a few more to their schedules.  In my opinion, however, touch base meetings are worth the investment and can yield tremendous insights into your employees, improve your company culture and even impact your corporate strategy.  According to Groove founder Alex Turnbull:

Eight hours is not a small investment, but it’s proven to be one of the most valuable uses of my time. The benefits have been tremendous, and I wish badly that I had been doing these from day one.
— Alex Turnbull, Groove

Hopefully this post has inspired you to incorporate these meetings into your company and if you have any other tips feel free to put them in the comments!