An open door says, “Welcome. Come in. Let’s talk.” A closed door says, “I need my privacy. Please come back later.” When you’re a manager, you and your door (real or figurative) should communicate that you will lead well and maintain your own productivity. The trick is to keep both of these needs in balance with a smart open door policy.
The term, “open door policy,” sounds kind of quaint in these days as we maintain physical distance and so many of us are working remotely, doesn’t it? As you can surmise, it isn’t about the door. Whether you have a literal office door that is literally open, or you are connecting to your employees by video chat, having an appropriate open door policy is a wise management tool. Its purpose, says Insperity, an HR solutions provider, is to encourage “employees to come to their managers with questions, concerns and for discussion about issues. The policy is supposed to promote transparency, productivity and faster communication.”
Notice the Insperity writer’s pointed use of the words supposed to. When that literal or figurative open door revolves so much that it devolves into a steady stream of interruptions or is not otherwise managed well, neither the leader nor the team will function well. Fostering a work environment that values both productivity and safe, two-way communication between employees and managers takes intention.
Follow these seven guidelines to establish a well-functioning open door policy
Learn from the profs
Remember how faculty members at your university informed students at the top of the term when their office hours would be? Follow their lead. Rather than saying, “I’m always available if you have concerns,” give your team a timeframe such as two hours in the afternoon after lunch. Choose a time that makes sense for you and the way your organization works. “Even managers who encourage frequent, informal conversations through ‘walk around management’ may need to establish set office hours, say before and after team meetings,” says Insperity. Also, make sure your team knows when it is appropriate to knock outside of those hours — what qualifies as urgent?
Plan your tasks accordingly
Your open-door hours are a good time to do the more routine or lightweight tasks on your own to-do list. Reserve undisturbed chunks of your day for when you need concentration, such as writing in-depth reports or analyzing trends.
When an employee shows up at your door or on your screen during open-door times, keep in mind that they are initiating the meeting, not you. Turn from what you were doing and prepare to listen actively. Don’t allow yourself to slide into things you have been meaning to tell them. Avoid the three Ds: Don’t be distracted, dismissive, or dominating. Be there for them in that moment.
Promote problem solving
You don’t want your open door policy to be an invitation to gripe or to passively expect quick answers. Listen, yes, but encourage employees to think through problems themselves and consider different perspectives. You might have guidance you can share, but don’t remove their agency to solve their problems and think creatively. Ask more questions than the answers you offer.
Follow existing frameworks when setting your open door policy
Confidentiality is essential if employees are to feel safe to come to you, yet some issues might need to be referred to HR, or legal, or some other function within your company. Know when to call in help. Do you have a whistleblower policy too? If it gets to that level, protection of the person who brought it to you needs to be assured.
Stay out of the personal weeds
Your open door policy should clearly communicate that the purpose of open-door hours is professional. The focus is on exploring solutions to challenges employees experience at work or questions they need clarification on, not sharing rumors or oversharing personal lives. Treat everyone the same regarding your availability. If one or two start to dominate your time, you will have to deal with the impression of favoritism — and that’s not good.
Tune in to early warnings
Document the topics that employees bring to you during your open-door hours and watch for patterns that might emerge. You might gain just the insight you need to nip something bigger in the bud. For instance, “If someone is bringing up issues to you privately that should have been aired in a team meeting, you need to look at the relationship and communication dynamics of the team. If the drop-in staff member is telling you the team problems and not bringing them directly to the team, you may have team dysfunction issues to address,” writes Alice Waagen, contributing writer for The Business Journals.
Do you have an open door policy?
We hope these suggestions will help you create even better environments for productive communication and team morale. Your bottom line will tell the difference.
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