An Open Door Policy for the Digital Age


If a letter of the alphabet describes your generation, you might want to sit down before reading this. Back in the dark ages when eager young boomers walked the halls of corporate America, we actually used to meet face-to-face. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. Some bosses even practiced what was known as an open door policy.

Today, in an era where it’s all-too-easy to hide behind emails and texts, business leaders would be wise to bring back this retro management concept and its somewhat more agile cousin, management by walking around. Granted, there are risks we’ll get to in a minute, but the rewards are well worth it.

How does it work?

Let’s start with the basics. What you do is put the word out that any employee can walk into any manager’s office or cubicle – right on up to the CEO – and chat. OK, sometimes you have to get past an administrative assistant and make an appointment, but you get the idea.

No, you definitely do not want to send the news out as an all-employee email. The irony won’t be lost an anyone, especially those snarky cynics that have something to say about everything. Trust me, you’ll never hear the end of it.

Instead, tell your staff, have them tell their staffs and so on. Yes, I know that’s weird. It’s called word-of-mouth. Try it; it really works. Yes, better than Twitter. Come to think of it, everything works better than Twitter.

Then, every week or so, walk around and chat with folks. Do it on Friday afternoons when everyone’s already mentally checked out for the weekend. If they’re doing something important, don’t interrupt. And watch the body language for signs you’ve overstayed your welcome. That does more harm than good.

Before you walk on to the next person, tell them to stop by anytime. If they don’t respond, don’t worry; it’s just shock. They’ll get over it after a margarita or two.

What are the benefits?

The benefits are huge but prepare yourself, they fly in the face of popular wisdom you hear from all the digital age coaches, consultants and content generators.

Empowerment, not engagement. Employee engagement is all the rage, but no matter what Gallup says, it’s just another survey on employee satisfaction 2.0. If you want a high-performance team of individuals who are motivated to do great work that makes a real difference, show them they matter by occasionally getting up off your butt and challenging them to get their head in the game and take risks.  

Accessibility, not likability. Everyone talks about being likable these days but that’s just nonsense. Some of the most successful executives of our era who built some of our greatest companies – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Andy Grove, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg, to name a few – would never be called nice guys. But they weren’t sequestered in ivory towers, either. They were accessible.

Connection, not communication. All the all-hands meetings and all-employee emails in the world aren’t worth one genuine connection between two human beings. When Jobs wanted word to get around at Apple, he spoke with his staff, they spoke with theirs, and so on. That’s still how Apple communicates. Real connections come from real-time interactions, not one-to-many virtual communications.

Genuine openness, not false transparency. Openness is about putting yourself out there and answering questions on the fly with no selfish or manipulative agenda. Of course you can’t be open about everything, but folks will appreciate you being honest about that too.

What’s the downside?

Sure, there are risks, but nothing worth achieving is ever without risk. It’s the same with people as it is with products. If you want to build a company culture that outperforms the competition, you’ve got to break from the status quo and do things differently. And that means taking some chances by putting yourself out there.

Some managers will feel threatened that employees can go over their heads, but they’ll just have to get with the program or get out. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad way to weed out the weak links.

It will take some of your time, but if you make it a priority, the return on investment is huge. You will actually have to listen and occasionally act on what people say or risk being perceived as disingenuous, but that just makes you more responsive, adaptive and agile. Those are good qualities for every leader to have.

And yes, behaving like a genuine, open human being will occasionally offend someone. There will be lawsuits. But that’s what lawyers are for. Besides, if you’re not gutsy enough to do the right thing because you’re afraid of a little litigation, I’m afraid you probably don’t have what it takes to be a successful executive or business leader.

Now more than ever – not despite the digital age but because of it – companies need open door policies and managers who actually walk around and connect with real people in the real world.