What should an open-door policy really mean?

Open doors are not one size fits all.
 What should an open-door policy really mean?

There is an open and lively debate about the virtues and pitfalls of an open-door policy. On one side, we have the argument that managers should view themselves as coaches and always be available to employees.

“Organisations put open-door policies in place to encourage communication and problem-solving,” said Libby Sander, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond University in Queensland, Australia. “If doors are closed all the time, people can get the impression that managers aren’t very accessible, so the team might feel like you’re not available for the support they need in their roles.”

On the other side, we have the rebuttal that a manager who is interrupted 80 times a day will never finish their own work. According to research from the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes to refocus your attention and concentration once you’ve been interrupted in a knowledge work environment, so if a manager is interrupted an unreasonable amount, it will be impossible for them to finish their own work.

So how can managers be available to, and supportive of, team members without damaging their own productivity? The solution likely falls somewhere in the middle.

“The key is for organisations to have a balance,” Sander said. “To say, ‘Look, we want communication, we want problems solved quickly, we don’t want stuff to bottleneck, but at the same time, we understand that people doing knowledge work need periods of uninterrupted time.’”

Experts offer the following tips on how managers can balance accessibility with productivity:

Close your door, but open your schedule. The level of openness a manager should adopt depends on how much solo work they have on their plate. If a manager is expected to do a substantial amount of work that requires quiet concentration, one solution is to close your door but open your schedule.

“The idea is to have more prescheduled meetings, ideally as office hours,” said Philadelphia-based Kevin Kruse, author of Great Leaders Have No Rules: Contrarian Leadership Principles to Transform Your Team and Business. “Maybe let your team know that every day from 3 to 5 are drop-in office hours. Or maybe the first and last hour of each day, or all day Friday — whatever works best for you.”

Adjust to a coaching mentality. For managers whose primary function is coaching and supporting employees, Tammy Erickson recommends a wide-open door.

“I tell leaders that their role today is very close to that of a teacher,” said Erickson, adjunct professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. “It used to be that, in an industrial model, the leader was basically a judge who would assess performance, but in a knowledge-based economy, it’s much more important that leaders see themselves as a teacher or a coach.”

She believes a manager should be actively helping people develop ideas, and in order to do that, they must be available to provide critical information so employees can find solutions.

“Managers who are sticking to old models feel they need to be the ones coming up with all the answers and telling other people what to do,” she said. “In that case, an open-door policy doesn’t really make sense. You have to flip to this idea of the leader as a coach or teacher, and the employee as an explorer who is taking initiative.”

Communicate before signing out. If a manager comes to a breaking point when they simply need a block of time to themselves, there’s always the option of closing the door and eliminating distractions for the necessary amount of time. Just be sure to give people a heads up before you do.

“Don’t just shut the door or turn off the email and disappear,” Sander said. “Communicate in advance. Otherwise, you’ll come back to an avalanche of angry clients and stressed-out staff, making you feel even more stressed than before you tried to get that job done.”

Allow for flexibility. Erickson argues that, because people are wildly different, you should adjust your approach depending on the person in question.

At a previous job, she had two young men reporting to her with very different personalities. One was an extrovert who popped into her office almost every day. The other could go a month without touching base, and she would have to find him every so often to make sure he was alive.

“Yet, if I were to judge their performance, I would have said they were equal. They were both extremely good at what they did, but their need to interact with other people was very different,” she said. “So I don’t think you need to make any hard-and-fast rules — you need to be flexible.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at