Updated 29 September 2020
An open door policy is a means of fostering better communication within the workplace.
If you are an employer looking to implement one, this article gives an in-depth open door policy definition and tips for best practice.
A basic open door policy definition would be a policy whereby employees are encouraged to talk freely with management and senior-level staff across their organization.
The concept of ‘leaving the door open’ means staff can drop by whenever there is a need, to discuss problems within the workplace, suggest ideas, ask for guidance or highlight personal issues that may be affecting their performance.
Instead of having only their direct line manager as a point of contact, an open door policy means every manager, no matter their seniority, is available to listen to the thoughts and concerns of every employee.
By adopting an open door policy, a company moves from a top-down managerial structure towards a more open, collaborative workplace.
This can bring many benefits to the professional environment, as well as new opportunities for business growth.
Leaders who work behind closed doors separate themselves from the day-to-day operations of a business. This creates a barrier between employees and their managers, often resulting in an ‘us and them’ atmosphere.
Tensions can easily arise if staff feel shut out, unable to speak up or kept in the dark. It may also appear that management are somewhat disengaged from the business and don’t really care about what goes on outside of their office.
By opening their doors, managers become approachable. They show greater involvement in the business from the ground up, which makes staff more inclined to see them as people they can trust, rather than faceless authority figures.
An effective open door policy provides a safe space for employees to voice their concerns.
When issues arise within the workplace, they know they’re able to discuss them openly as their managers have made themselves actively available.
They feel comfortable knowing they can raise concerns with someone with the authority to implement change and this often results in problems being faced before they become contentious issues.
One of the most common problems in the workplace is conflict between an employee and their direct manager.
Without an open door policy, the employee has no one to turn to in these circumstances. However, with one, they have the option to discuss the matter with an individual higher up the chain of command.
An open door policy can impact productivity in several ways.
First, it boosts team morale and staff loyalty through transparency and cooperation. Happy staff that are loyal to their employer are far more likely to go the extra mile in their day-to-day duties.
Second, it can remove the disruption caused by petty squabbles or more serious workplace conflicts, which are often the cause of a downturn in productivity.
Third, an open door policy helps managers keep their finger on the pulse. They become much more aware of how their teams interact, making it easier to identify areas for improvement.
More often than not, the most innovative ideas come from informal discussions.
Organized meetings add pressure that can hinder creativity and some people are afraid to voice their thoughts in front of others.
An open door policy means an employee can take an idea to the relevant manager whenever it comes to them and discuss it in a relaxed environment.
This encourages constant innovation, rather than restricting it to a particular setting.
In addition, many industries now operate at an increasingly fast pace and businesses need to react quickly to stay competitive. An open door policy means employees can take suggestions straight to the top for (potentially) immediate approval, without going through drawn-out motions.
Perhaps the most powerful consequence of an open door policy is the level of trust it can create.
Employees and employers alike are more engaged with business operations, as well as their co-workers, which helps foster a sense of common purpose.
Staff trust more in their managers to make the right decisions for everyone in the company, managers trust more in staff to act responsibly and teams come together with mutual respect.
Whilst there are many benefits to be had, it is important to understand the potential issues that can arise from an open door policy:
It can take time to adapt to – This is particularly true if it is a whole new way of working. You need to be prepared for gradual, rather than immediate change.
You need total buy-in – Everyone must be on the same page. If one manager makes themselves more available than the rest, they can quickly become overwhelmed and distracted from their own responsibilities.
It can undermine authority – If staff persistently go around their direct manager and take their problems to the top, it can cause a breakdown in your organizational structure.
It can discourage problem-solving – Since employees feel comfortable seeking guidance, they may stop looking to solve problems by themselves in the first instance.
There could be issues with favoritism – If a particular employee is a regular visitor to a given manager, it could be classed as preferential treatment, whether actual or perceived.
It could result in time-wasting – Some staff may see an open door policy as a reasonable excuse to take a break for a chat, even if they have nothing important to discuss.
It’s also important to ensure your open door policy does not become a gateway for gossip.
It is human nature to engage in idle chit chat now and again and even the most responsible manager can get sidetracked.
To avoid the cons of an open door policy, you must approach it from a strategic point of view.
Here's how to properly implement an open door policy:
For your open door policy to work, there needs to be documented practices and procedures in place.
Communicate clearly with all levels of staff on how the policy will work and what is expected of them.
For instance, you may consider ‘open door’ as relating to face-to-face conversations only, or you may class phone calls and emails as acceptable forms of communication too.
You may also have certain topics you feel are better suited to private conversation by appointment only.
There’s no one-size-fits-all here. How you encourage openness in the workplace really depends on the type of business you run, your employee count and how often management are actually on-site.
The important thing is that these guidelines are known to every employee right from the outset.
An open door policy does not mean every door is open every hour of the working day.
You and your management team still have a job to do and that means setting time aside when you know you’ll have no interruptions.
You might decide to open your doors on certain days of the week, or at particular hours of the day.
Again, there’s no right or wrong, so long as you set expectations from the start and make staff aware that when the door is closed it is because you are busy, not because you have turned your back on the policy.
As previously mentioned, for an open door policy to work, you need complete buy-in. The best way to get this is to involve middle management in the policy design.
Drafting a policy without consulting them first goes against the whole concept of openness and collaboration.
By bringing them into the conversation, you make them feel part of the process, which in turn will make them more inclined to participate.
Active listening is a must-have skill for conflict resolution and your entire management team should be prepared to hear both sides of an argument, remain impartial and act as a mediator.
It is not a skill that comes naturally to everyone and even the most experienced of managers can show unintentional bias.
Training may come at a cost, but it is a valuable investment that will save you money in the long run. Problems solved in the early stages will result in far less disruption and keep productivity on track.
Not all issues can be resolved with an open door policy and in certain circumstances, it will be necessary to move the problem higher up the ranks or involve HR.
Managers at all levels should know the correct procedure to follow when a problem becomes more serious and beyond their capability to resolve.
Make your escalation procedure clear within your documented open door policy.
Before compiling your open door policy, consider asking your staff for their thoughts on how it should work and what they feel would be most beneficial to the company.
After all, you are implementing it for their benefit in part, so their opinions should impact your methodology.
Once in place, follow these tips to keep it an effective business practice:
Reinforce boundaries – Guidelines can be easily forgotten if not continually reinforced. Whilst an open door policy means staff are free to speak openly, it does not mean they are free to take liberties. Keep boundaries in check to prevent your policy from falling into unacceptable behaviors.
Encourage individual responsibility – If a problem could be easily solved by the employee in question, make this clear and encourage them to do so. It is easy to accidentally create a culture of reliance whereby staff absolve themselves of all responsibility. Do not let this happen.
Redirect the problem – You may find staff are taking problems higher up the ranks than necessary. If there is an issue that should have been raised with a less senior member of management, suggest the employee does so first.
Foster better relationships – As part of your open door policy, make it a point to build closer bonds between employees and their direct manager(s). Once these are established, the need for the policy itself reduces.
Revise it regularly – As with any company practice or procedure, an open door policy should be revised at regular intervals. Business needs change and you may find that what was once working no longer has a positive impact.
Managerial styles have undergone a major shift in recent years and open door policies are now more the norm than the exception as company owners experience the many benefits that come from transparent business practices.
If implemented well, an open door policy can be an effective way of creating a more collaborative workplace, promoting proactive conflict resolution and creating a team environment built on trust and loyalty.