In 2020, I received my first chance to lead a team. Although I felt anything but prepared, I liked the idea of stepping into the unknown. What interested me was how humble the CEO was. I remember asking him, what makes this place different? His answers give me goosebumps even today.
“We’re all the same. Every day, I come to work to create an environment where we can speak openly to each other. I don’t have an office to reduce barriers and I ensure hierarchies don’t block people from speaking their minds.”
That’s where I first experienced an open-door policy. In this article, you’ll learn what an open-door policy is, its advantages and disadvantages, as well as how to build one within your product team.
An open-door policy occurs when an office encourages open communication without repercussion. It means any employee can talk to anyone they’d like to without concerns. Hierarchies don’t block them from speaking their mind. As a result, they feel heard and know their opinions count and the chance of a toxic culture diminishes dramatically.
Let me ask you a few questions:
If these are easy questions for you, you likely have an open-door policy in place. Otherwise, you might be in a more hierarchical and traditional organization.
Returning to the example I started with, the CEO told me, “Making it easier for people to speak up accelerates solving problems. The harder it is to talk to management, the more problems go unsolved.”
I thought a lot about what they said to me. Without an open-door policy, I observe teams trying to solve problems independently without asking for help. This can be good, but sometimes it’s unrealistic that teams can solve everything on their own.
An open-door policy allows for:
While these are all great, you may face the following challenges:
The CEO of Virtual Identity (a company I worked for) realized that people wouldn’t approach him or even share problems endangering projects; he had to do something about it. As he became aware of an open-door policy, he decided to try it out.
First, the CEO told the team that hierarchies were functional but should not block communication. Anyone should talk to anyone whenever they see a need to keep moving the business forward. Then, he shared that his office would always be open, and he went even further by removing his office door.
A few months down the road, the CEO received more feedback, but people still resisted approaching him. He noticed he was one of the few people with an office, so he removed his office and sat in the open space with employees. That changed everything.
People felt he was more like a team player and started approaching him to bounce ideas and exchange concerns and opportunities. Slowly, the culture moved toward what he envisioned. In short, here’s how he implemented the open culture policy:
After a few months, more people came in, some left, and the culture started drifting away from the open-door policy. The CEO had to act again. He got external help at this stage that changed the game forever. Here are the few strategies he deployed:
The above enabled a proper open-door policy, but it wasn’t achievable in the short term. It took years to get everyone on the same page. Employee retention improved by more than 20 percent and customer satisfaction also increased considerably.
An open-door policy helps businesses move faster as problems become known sooner. Also, accountability plays a different role as people feel they can move the needle. Yet, you need to be aware that setting an open-door policy requires a solid strategy and resilience to make it your reality.
When setting up your open-door policy, try to remove as many barriers as possible. It will also be vital for your leadership to listen and make people feel heard. Without this, people won’t feel comfortable speaking their mind.
Featured image source: IconScout
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