Keeping employees happy and engaged should be a top priority at every organization. That's because unhappy and unengaged employees cost a lot in terms of lost productivity, increased absenteeism, and turnover.
One method managers can use is the open door policy. This informal mode of communication between supervisors and team members is said to build closer working relationships and increase morale. Of course, it can backfire, too, with impatient employees running to the boss for help with simple problems or taking up their time with non-work-related issues.
So, is an open door policy in the workplace really such a good idea?
What exactly is an open door policy?
The open door can be literal or figurative, but if you're a manager with an open door policy, it means you are accessible to everyone in your workplace. In the broadest sense, when your door is always open, employees can wander in at any time for any reason. They may wish to ask a quick work-related question or come in for a lengthy discussion on a personal matter.
To avoid constant interruptions, you can schedule days and times that your door is actually open. That way you're still easily accessible, and can still maintain an optimal level of productivity and concentration. An open door policy also includes planned one-on-one and team meetings, whether they're weekly or monthly.
Set limits as to what can be discussed in order to avoid spending your time listening to workplace gossip or personal issues that aren't related to work. This can be made clear during the interview and onboarding process of new employees and should also be addressed in any employee handbook or other HR literature. It doesn't have to be harsh: Work-related queries? Questions about a project? My door is open daily between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Drop in!
What are the benefits of having an open door?
There are many benefits to an open door policy, the first being that with quick access to the boss, employees can solve problems on the spot. This may be why, as executive recruiter Pete Leibman told us, a lot of tech companies have "aggressive" open door policies. Their work is often creative and collaborative, with brainstorming sessions part of the popular agile management style.
Employees feel empowered when they know they have access to the leader and feel that their issues are heard. Taking part in discussions that might include long-term corporate strategy can strengthen workplace relationships and let employees understand how their own position and productivity directly impact the company's future.
For an open door policy to really work, though, the CEO has to support it completely, says Ben Bazinet, vice president of strategy and development at Horizon North Logistics. Otherwise, you may see it and other HR initiatives like it taking a back seat.
"You can really sense our open door policy from the ground workers right up to the CEO. Being able to engage with all different levels within an organization is something that's really important to the younger generation of employees. To be able to approach senior leadership and ask questions is a huge draw."
Management benefits from an open door policy, too. They get direct information about what's working (and what's not working) across departments. They learn what employees value and about the bottlenecks and behaviors that reduce productivity. As they build relationships with team members, managers find out what motivates certain individuals and what causes others to disengage.
The one-on-one informal discussions also serve as great practice for a manager to improve both their listening and observational skills. Clinical psychologist Natalie Baumgartner, who is chief workforce scientist at employee success platform Achievers, points to research that shows that "managers tend to listen to employees with whom they are more personally comfortable or who have been on the job longer."
The solution is for them to "become aware of their unconscious biases and to intentionally connect with their team members in a systematic way." When supervisors can listen fairly to all employees, the result is better performance and engagement from those employees.
What are the drawbacks?
The drawbacks of an open door policy usually relate more to the lack of boundaries, rather than the policy itself. As mentioned, if you've got a revolving 24/7 door policy, constant interruptions should be expected. And if you don't let team members know what acceptable topics for discussion are, you should expect non-work-related chats.
When drawing up the policy, you should also make sure employees know who is behind their open door. In larger companies, there's a hierarchy: Employees should not bypass their direct report. If the team member feels uncomfortable with that person -- for whatever reason -- the situation should be discussed with HR in order to find a solution.
With direct and easy access to the boss, there's a risk that employees can become less self-directed, relying on instructions or approval from management for every step of a process. This not only impedes productivity, it keeps that employee from developing a sense of responsibility necessary to grow their career.
Is an open door policy a good idea?
A well-managed open door policy is a good idea. It promotes rapid problem-solving and builds a culture of trust and engagement. High employee morale positively affects retention and productivity, so the entire company can benefit.
Still, there are alternatives and add-ons.
"Having an open door is a good idea (unless the employee requests privacy), but it's even more effective to do a daily 'walk-about' and visit with employees at their work stations," Charlie Seraphin, consultant and author of One Stupid Mistake: Smart Decision-Making in a Crazy World, tells us. "You'll be amazed how much you can learn about your employees and their work by being regularly visible 'on the floor' of your operation."