Employee Engagement: A manager’s essential guide to holding regular check-ins

Intro

As many of us know, check-ins are weekly one-on-one meetings between managers and direct reports that focus on progress made on work such as projects and assigned tasks.

What not so many of us know is that holding regular check-ins helps increase employee engagement, productivity and reduces employee turnover, which is great for the organisation.

As the world battles the Covid-19 pandemic, holding regular check-ins has become all the more important for managers because they are not meeting their direct reports face-to-face as frequently as they used to.

This playbook is intended to be a guide/refresher for these weekly meetings.

1. Use this playbook to learn...

  1. About the benefits of holding regular check-ins, according to research.
  2. How to conduct check-ins effectively and help increase employee engagement, productivity and reduce employee turnover.

2. The case for employee engagement

MuchSkills’ perspective on employee engagement is guided by the findings of global analytics company Gallup that has 80+ years of data collection experience as well as 35 million global respondents in its employee engagement database, making it a global leader in the employee engagement movement. 

Gallup’s research has consistently found that organizations that enable employees to do what they do best, will increase employee engagement, productivity, and profitability. On the other hand, when employees find their skills or interests do not match their roles, they struggle to succeed and stay motivated.

Organizations that enable employees to do what they do best, will increase employee engagement, productivity, and profitability.

Source: Gallup's State of the American Workplace report 2017

3. Three research findings

a. Regular check-ins increase employee engagement

  1. On average, only 15% of employees who work for a manager who does not meet with them regularly are engaged; managers who regularly meet with their employees almost tripled that level of engagement.
    (Source: Gallup.)
  1. The engagement levels of millennial employees rise if their manager holds regular meetings with them. This is important because millennials became the largest generation in the US workforce in 2016. They are also the least engaged generation with only 29% of millennials engaged at the workplace as compared to baby boomers (33%) and Gen X (32%).
    (Source:  Gallup.)

b. Adobe and GE saw significant benefits after instituting regular check-ins

  1. Adobe saw a 30% reduction in voluntary turnover when, in 2012, it moved away from performance scores and instituted regular check-ins between managers and employees.
  2. GE registered a five-fold productivity increase when, in 2015, it dropped annual performance reviews for a new approach to performance development – regular, informal touchpoints between managers and employees.
  3. Studies by both Gallup and Harvard Business Review found that contrary to apprehensions, employee engagement did not go down if a manager spent too much time with employees.

c. Managers have a big part to play in building employee engagement.

  1. 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units can be attributed to managers.
    (Source:
    Gallup State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders.)
  1. When employees strongly agree that their manager knows what projects or tasks they are working on, they are almost seven times more likely to be engaged than actively disengaged. But if employees strongly disagree with that statement, indicating they are largely ignored by their bosses, they are 15 times more likely to be actively disengaged than engaged.
    (Source: Gallup 2013 survey of 8,287 US employees)
  2. Employees who work for a manager who helps them set performance goals are 17 times more likely to be engaged than disengaged.
    (Source: Gallup 2013 survey of 8,287 US employees)

Millennials are changing the rules

The engagement levels of millennial employees rise if their manager holds regular meetings with them.

4. Definition of a check-in

It is difficult to find a universally-agreed upon definition for the term “check-in”, but here’s one: A check-in can be defined as:

Weekly one-on-one meetings between managers and direct reports that focus on progress made on projects and assigned tasks. Check-ins give managers the opportunity to assess whether their direct reports are on the right track, and, if they are not, give them feedback on how they can change direction. Regular check-ins help managers stay in the loop, alerting them to potential problems at an early stage so that they can step in to course correct before things go out of control.

Experts say the frequency and duration of check-ins depends on how experienced the direct reports are. A more inexperienced employee might need an hourly check-in every week while it may be sufficient to check in with a more skilled employee once in two weeks.

5. How are one-on-one meetings different from check-ins?

Check-ins are essentially one-on-one meetings. But they are different from the 1:1 meetings held between managers and direct reports for the express purpose of supporting their personal and professional development. 

Both, however, are forms of continuous performance management, which several global companies are adopting while phasing out annual performance appraisals that have been criticised for focusing on the past rather than the future.

Below, we try to unpack how exactly these two meetings differ.

A check-in is business-like.

It’s a quick weekly meeting where the manager or team leader checks in with team members about progress made on a given task or project – a kind of a status report on how things are going. Managers may then give their direct report feedback on how they can tackle project-related challenges or how they can make progress with regard to the project’s objectives.

In short: Check-ins are less about the worker and more about the work.

One-on-one meetings, however, are focused on the direct report.

It gives them the opportunity to talk to their managers about their ideas, problems, their career trajectory or even their intentions of improving their skills or skill sets. It is aimed at helping build trust between the manager and the direct report. These in-depth meetings should be held at least once every quarter to help managers to understand what drives their direct reports and how they want to grow professionally.

You can view MuchSkills’ playbook on quarterly one-on-one meetings here.

We really liked this perspective on the difference between check-ins and performance -related one-on-ones on the website wideangle.com. It says:

Managers enter check-ins with an “update me on your progress” mentality. On the other hand, they put aside their ego to enter one-on-ones with a “servant leadership mentality”.

Having said that, the rules aren’t written in stone. If you have the time or if it is relevant, an employee’s personal and professional growth can also be addressed in check-ins. As experienced managers would know, the final call is obviously yours.

6. Employee check-in: Agenda suggestion

  • Icebreaker: This is a basic but crucial step. Experienced managers are usually adept at this, opening such meetings with something not directly related to work. At a time several people are working remotely because of Covid-19, a manager could start by asking the employee how they are doing. Icebreakers help people relax and, in the long term, helps build strong relationships. This agenda point takes less than two minutes and helps start the meeting on a good note.
  • Give any updates: Update your direct reports about any new company, team or project-related news.
  • Ask them for their thoughts or updates: This could be related to the news just delivered, projects they are working on, or specific tasks they’ve been assigned. Managers could ask if there are any challenges or roadblocks their direct reports face and if they could do anything to help. These challenges can be anything – from the lack of resources to do their work efficiently or another department holding up approvals needed for progress.
  • Follow-up: If they brought up a challenge last week and you advised them how to manage it, ask them how it went.
  • Appreciation: Some experts suggest that managers start the meeting with some bit of positivity or appreciation. If the employee has done something well at work it is important to acknowledge and recognise that.

  • Feedback: If you want to give feedback on how your direct report can handle things better, now is the time to give it.
  • Plan for next week: Ask them what they will be focusing on this coming week.
  • Check mood on the ground: Ask them how things are going with their team members. This gives managers an understanding about how the team is functioning and alerts them in case any interventions are required.

7. What managers should do after the check-in

  • Follow up with yourself: Managers who want to promote a culture of accountability lead from the front. Make a note about things you promised to follow up with, and during the week, ensure that you act on these promises or have a valid reason why you haven’t been able to.
  • Make a note to follow up with your direct report: Make a note about tasks or steps you had assigned your direct report during the meeting and remember to follow up during the next check-in. Managers who do this consistently ensure that their direct reports understand that they will be held accountable.

8. What managers should not do

  1. Don’t come to the meeting unprepared: This defeats the purpose of holding the check-in. The employee will realise you are holding the meeting just for the sake of holding it – perhaps because it’s part of organisational processes – and is likely to lose interest or enthusiasm for it.
  2. Don’t cancel a check-in: Cancelling this interaction without rescheduling can send the wrong message to the employee (that you don’t take their work seriously). It’s ok to cancel if you absolutely must. But don’t make a habit of it and always reschedule.
  3. Don’t fail to ask questions: Asking questions indicates to the employee that you are aware of their role in the larger team. It helps keep them motivated and on their toes. A quick glance at the project teams on MuchSkills can give you a quick overview and reminder of the projects the employee is involved in and what their role is.
  4. Don’t be in a location where you can be disturbed: All business meetings should be held in a safe, respectful, relaxing environment where you will not be disturbed. 
  5. Don’t have more than two people present: The entire idea of this meeting is that it’s a private discussion. There should not be more people present.
  6. Don’t put the employee on the defensive: Always make sure that any meeting you have with your direct reports is a positive experience where the employee feels comfortable.

Tip:

Your interactions must be honest and respectful.

9. A quick primer on employee engagement for managers

To get a deeper understanding of what employee engagement is really about, managers may also find it worthwhile to reflect on Gallup’s Q12. These are the 12 core questions Gallup developed to measure the most important elements of employee engagement in organizations. Gallup picked these specific questions after decades of writing, testing and refining hundreds of questions because they helped measure employee engagement most effectively.

One way managers can use these questions is to ask themselves: ‘If members of my team took this survey today how would they fare?’ 

  • Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  • Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right?
  • At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
  • In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  • Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
  • Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
  • At work, do your opinions seem to count?
  • Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
  • Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?
  • Do you have a best friend at work?
  • In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
  • In the last year, have you had opportunities to learn and grow?

The questions have been divided into four types — or levels — of employees’ performance development needs:

  • Basic needs
  • Individual needs
  • Teamwork needs
  • Personal growth needs

When managers hold regular weekly or biweekly one-on-one meetings along with in-depth quarterly meetings, they will gain insights about the whole gamut of needs in the engagement hierarchy illustrated above – from individual needs to teamwork needs – which will help them build stronger and more engaged teams.

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