Innovation

Open-door policies can actually harm office communication

Telling your employees “my door is always open” puts the burden on them to raise important issues

Employee peeking over a glass partition

(Clerkenwell/Getty)

Want to improve communication in your workplace? Then close your office door. The open-door policy has become a cliché­—a throwaway comment managers make to new hires to appear approachable.

A wide-open door is a great idea, in theory—but in practice, the policy disrupts most managers’ days and offers very little in return. Workers use it to gripe about their colleagues, buddy up with the boss or ask questions they could probably have answered on their own. Managers can abuse the policy in their own way, since it shifts the onus onto employees to flag office problems.

“What we find is that only some employees actually step up,” says Daniel Skarlicki, a professor at Sauder School of Business who studies organizational justice. “So are those people representative of the group or just expressing their own pet peeves?”

The unstructured nature of the open-door policy is perhaps its greatest weakness. To address this, Skarlicki recommends putting a few controls in place, such as setting up office hours like a university professor does and inviting employees to drop in then. Better still, take the conversation out of the office. Try setting up coffee times where the boss sits down with employees on a rotating basis.

“Don’t rely on an open-door policy as the be-all and end-all, because it’s not enough,” says Skarlicki. “To be competitive, we need to be able to access the wisdom on the shop floor. Do everything you can to get people to percolate ideas up.”

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