What is the open-door policy workplace and does it still work?

April 26, 2022 - 16 min read

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What is an open-door policy in the workplace?

What is the purpose of an open-door policy and what are the benefits?

The cost of having an open-door policy workplace

How to create an open-door policy

Open-door policy workplace examples

Is our policy working properly?

The bottom line

If you’ve noticed miscommunication among your coworkers or sense your team members are burnt out, it might be time for a change. Remote and hybrid work arrangements may have shaken up the way work gets done for your team. Maybe where information and ideas used to flow, people now work alone.

You only see your team in meetings and feel out of the loop.

If that sounds like you, you’re not alone. According to a Gallup survey, only 7% of U.S. workers strongly agree that workplace communication is open and accurate. 

As a manager or leader, how can you improve communication on your teams? An open-door policy could be the answer.

You might be wondering what is an open-door policy workplace and how can it help my team? What does an open-door even mean when you're working remotely?

The open-door policy workplace is based on one simple principle: open communication solves a multitude of organizational issues. 

The problem is that managers and leaders often turn to open communication too late. They’ll praise an employee after they’ve become disgruntled, try to boost morale after trust is eroded, or investigate a communication breakdown after a project fails.

As a manager, you could benefit from taking a more proactive approach. With the right tactics, you can address employee concerns before they come back to bite you.

One of the best tools in any leader’s arsenal is an open-door policy. With an open-door policy, you can understand how your team members are feeling sooner and address problems before they become too big.

Let’s dive into what an open-door policy workplace is, and how can you implement one starting today. 

 

What is an open-door policy in the workplace?

On a basic level, an open-door policy in the workplace means you keep your office door open when at work. An open door is an invitation for others to enter.

But this policy goes a bit deeper, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has made going into the office less common. 

An effective open-door policy is a communication policy that favors transparency and makes managers and leaders accessible to employees. But it doesn't have to be a policy rolled out across the organization. As a team lead, supervisor, manager, or department head, you can institute your own open-door policy and make yourself accessible to your team.

Whether you run a small business, commute to an office, or work remotely, it's about building trust and psychological safety and leading inclusively

This means that your (perhaps metaphorical) door is open to conversation no matter what concern an employee has. It encourages your team members to speak openly and transparently about things they're struggling with. 

That type of open door can exist in any workplace, even a virtual one. 

Any level of manager — from regular employees to senior leaders — can embrace this policy. That way, employees can be comfortable addressing questions to the person most capable of answering. You won’t need to send someone down a rabbit hole searching for answers if they can go directly to their supervisor and ask. 

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What is the purpose of an open-door policy and what are the benefits?

Implementing an open-door policy workplace will provide many benefits to your team. Here are some advantages of an open-door policy:

1. Improved teamwork

If people feel comfortable coming to you with their questions, the correct information will spread through the team. When there are fewer communication silos, employee morale and teamwork will improve. Your team will feel empowered to get the answers they need when they need them. 

2. Avoid larger problems

You can’t solve problems you don’t know about. By keeping an open line of communication, employees can report problems to you as they develop — not when things have gotten out of hand. Open-door policies can even protect employers and their employees from legal and other potential harms. 

3. Healthier and more open discussions

Open doors increase employee trust, encourage open discussions, and make the workplace healthier. Staff will be more likely to divulge personal issues or workplace concerns that could be affecting their performance. This is especially important when it comes to potential issues related to diversity and inclusivity.

When people feel safe, they share information that can benefit the whole organization. You could see your employee engagement increase as people are more comfortable coming to their manager’s door with issues.

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4. Higher retention rates

When you know what the open-door policy workplace is, and you implement it, you can track your staff’s job satisfaction. Then you can act accordingly by making improvements or changes where needed. 

This will lead to less employee turnover. That means more productivity, more institutional knowledge, and a more positive work environment. 

5. A better place to work

Everyone wants to feel valued and heard. An open-door policy can contribute to a welcoming work culture that empowers your team to share their great ideas.

An open-door policy is one of the many tools available to an effective leader. If you’re a leader looking to become even better, consider using BetterUp. Our goal is to help people maximize their leadership potential and kickstart their career development. 

The cost of having an open-door policy workplace

It’s easy to see the importance of open-door policies in the workplace. But, as you implement this practice, keep in mind the potential disadvantages. 

Here are some downsides to having an open-door policy workplace:

1. It can waste time

It’s humbling when employees trust you with their questions and concerns. But if you’re not careful, they can easily take up all of your time — especially if you aren’t the best person to answer them. You can’t neglect your other duties and responsibilities.

2. It can erode team problem-solving

If team members are too dependent on you, they may stop trying to solve problems themselves. They’d rather come to you to resolve things for them. Remember to encourage creative problem solving within the team and work with them to feel empowered to own smaller problems.

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3. People can ignore team hierarchies

Open-door policies can flatten the chain of command. In some situations, this might be fine. But people shouldn’t come to you with problems better suited to their team leader. 

4. It can be used for gossip or slander

If a pair of co-workers are in conflict, one might take advantage of the open-door policy to bad-mouth the other. This can breed toxicity in the workplace. It’s important to see this when it’s happening and make it clear to your team that you won’t accept gossip in the workplace. In his book Conscious Business, Executive coach Fred Kofman recommends never hearing a conflict from a direct report unless both parties are in the room (or Zoom). 

How to create an open-door policy

Now that you’re aware of the pros and cons, here’s how to create an open-door policy at your workplace: 

  • Set boundaries. Having a carte-blanche policy leaves the door open to abuse. Instead, be deliberate about your availability and boundaries. For example, you could publicly share new office hours every week and block off a chunk of your calendar to be around for questions.
  • Communicate the policy clearly. Inform your team that they’re welcome to pop by with questions when your door is open. But, if your door is closed, it means you’re busy.

    If all or part of your team is remote, you have to evolve new signals and expectations.
    • You might decide to have regularly scheduled open-office hours and let people sign up for short appointments within that time block (several calendar programs have this feature).
    • You can also use emojis on Slack and MS Teams or other communication tools to let people know when you are busy or free — consider creating your own "Door is Open" emoji for just this purpose.
    • You may also want to write the policy somewhere for everyone to see, like in your team's onboarding and process document. 
  • Clarify the purpose of the policy. It’s important to clarify the purpose of the policy. Let your team know that your door is not open for socializing or gossip — it’s to communicate work-related concerns or questions.
  • Follow-through. When the policy is in place, you must hold up your end of the deal. Practice effective communication like active listening and open body language. Be sympathetic to employee concerns. If you don’t, you risk breaking their trust, and they won’t embrace the policy anymore.

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Open-door policy workplace examples

There are many ways to configure an open-door policy if you’re mindful of the above risks and limitations. 

Here are some creative open-door policies that could work for different management styles and work environments:

Example 1: As a senior manager, your schedule is slammed — you can’t have consistent office hours every week. Instead, send an all-staff email every Monday, telling the team when they can stop by during this week. And if something is urgent, let them know they can reply to schedule a time to chat outside of those hours.

Example 2: Let's say you're working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and you tell your staff they can schedule a video chat if they need. You could also encourage managers to organize monthly one-on-ones with their team and meet with the supervisors afterward. 

All important feedback would travel up to you without requiring you to meet with everyone. You can train managers to help their employees solve problems. This will simultaneously strengthen their leadership skills and the team’s morale.

Example 3: If you’re a small team working primarily in the field, tell the staff to only call if they’re stuck. Because you’re usually apart, and never near a computer, distribute an employee handbook with everyone’s phone numbers. And when they do call, always ask what solutions they’ve tried so far before offering advice.

Is our policy working properly?

There’s always an adjustment period when implementing a new policy. Remember to watch out for these signs that things aren’t working as you’d planned:

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1. Your door is (literally) always open

You may need to re-adjust our policy if people constantly interrupt you. Sometimes closed doors are necessary to meet your other work obligations. This is especially true if you’re a senior leadership member and people are coming to you instead of their immediate supervisor. You might not have the best answer to their questions and you have other things to focus on.

2. You don’t hear what you need to know

Most employees will use your office hours to complain. This is perfectly valid. But you also want to hear about their innovative ideas or genuine concerns. Open doors are an opportunity to share information — not just vent.

3. You aren’t using this information strategically

It’s tempting to solve everyone’s problems. But spending too much time on this distracts from the bigger picture. Use the information to prevent workplace issues wherever possible — not just to solve them when they show up.

The bottom line

Knowing what the open-door policy workplace is can revitalize an organization. You can keep an eye on your staff through honest communication, bring new ideas to the fore, and maximize productivity. Everyone will feel like part of the team.

Brush up on your communication skills, leverage your emotional intelligence, and learn how to build strong working relationships with BetterUp. Become the best leader you can be, starting with the open door policy. 

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Published April 26, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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