What does it really mean for a leader to have an ‘open door policy’? 

Three doors, one is open.

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“Would you ever consider moving to Hong Kong?” my boss asked me one afternoon in June 2006. 

“I don’t eat rice, I can’t tolerate spice, and I don’t eat pork or seafood,” I replied. 

“Put all that aside … would you be willing to spend a few years up there building the business?”. 

Six weeks later I moved to Hong Kong … sight unseen. I couldn’t believe it. Me … an obsessive compulsive, fresh-air loving, severely dietary-restricted germaphobe who doesn’t deal with humidity at the best of times.  

I had grown a large and very successful Sydney business and had now been given the opportunity to do it again in a foreign market. 

I arrived in the middle of summer on what I would later refer to as my mosquito-infested, over polluted hot rock. Oh … and on my first morning, a ‘Typhoon Signal 8’ hit the island (signal 9 indicates a ‘destructive force’!) so I couldn’t even leave my tiny hotel room. 

On my second morning, I went into the office to meet my team for the first time. 

The office manager showed me to my (corner) office with an incredible view out over Hong Kong Harbour and its famous Star Ferries and old junks heading to and from Kowloon. 

“Wow!”, I said, moving back out into the main part of the office putting my stuff down at an empty desk. 

A few of the team looked at me strangely and one of them asked me why I wasn’t going into my office. 

“I don’t need an office”, I said. 

About a month later, the corner office didn’t even exist anymore. I’d had it taken down to allow for more desks as I had big plans to grow the team quickly. 

I hadn’t thought about my early days in Hong Kong for ages, until a conversation I overheard in a food court last week transported me back. 

I was having lunch and two people came and sat down at the table next to me. As one of them devoured his burrito, he said to his friend, “My boss is full of sh*t. She always bangs on about having an ‘open door policy’, but seriously her door is always shut”.  

“I know what you mean”, his friend said scrolling on her phone as she waited for her bowl of pho to cool down. “My boss says the same thing. His door is always open, but he’s literally never in there. He’s always upstairs in meetings”. 

“Why do they even need to have an office?”, burrito guy asked. 

“Exactly!”, I said. I couldn’t help myself. I assured them I hadn’t been eavesdropping. It’s just that they were sitting less than 30cm away from me! 

I then told them the story of my arrival in Hong Kong. 

“Gosh … you didn’t just remove the door”, pho girl said. “You literally got rid of your office entirely. That takes ‘open door policy’ to a whole new level”. 

Having an open door policy typically refers to a management approach (and I use this term here intentionally) where team members are encouraged to approach their supervisor (once again a conscious word choice) with any issues or concerns they may have. The term comes from the idea that the manager’s office door is always open for employees to come in and talk to them about anything. 

From a leadership perspective, having an open door policy is intended to create a culture of transparency, trust, and open communication within the workplace. 

It allows team members to feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas, and it provides an opportunity for leaders to address any issues that may be impacting the team’s productivity or morale. It also helps to promote a positive and supportive work environment where employees feel valued and respected, fostering a culture of openness and collaboration. 

Having an open door policy should no longer even be about a physical door. It’s about being an approachable leader. 

After all, it has become far too easy, particularly in a remote or hybrid work setting, to become an invisible leader or simply a disembodied voice on the other end of a camera-less Zoom call.  

Every leader wants to be credible in the eyes of their employees. But part of this credibility doesn’t just come from being visible. It also means being approachable. After all, it’s one thing for your team members to know you are there (because they see you); but knowing that they can come to you and confide in you is something completely different.  

To be an approachable leader means you are perceived by your team members as being open and willing to listen. 

It means creating an environment where employees feel comfortable approaching you with questions, concerns, and feedback without fear of negative consequences. 

As a leader, how are you making yourself approachable to your team members? What are you doing to be present, engaged, and empathetic to their needs? Are you demonstrating genuine compassion in your interactions with your people, so they feel valued and cared for? 

Sir Richard Branson and Bill Gates have both been known for their approachable leadership style and always made it a priority to create a supportive and inclusive work environment. 

It’s ultimately a leader’s genuine presence and regular availability that will increase team morale, loyalty, and commitment.  

Of course, there will be times as a leader when you need privacy. However, you certainly don’t need an actual office for that. You can find a meeting room, or you could even take the conversation off-site. Gosh I’ve had many experiences as both a leader and as an employee when some of my most confidential conversations took place sitting in a café or walking around a park.  

No office. No door. 

It’s highly unlikely that anyone will ever leave an organisation because they felt their leader was too approachable.  

On the other hand, if employees constantly see their boss behind closed doors or who see their manager’s door open but where the manager is nowhere to be seen, this can create a culture of fear, mistrust, and disengagement. 

Leaders who consciously focus on being present and approachable understand the difference between ‘engaging with’ as opposed to simply ‘communicating to’ their team. So, be present. Be available. Be approachable. Be genuine. Be empathetic. Then, and only then will you discover how noticed and valued your team members feel as individuals and as a group.  

You might also want to think about what ‘having an open door policy’ means in a remote or hybrid context. Does it simply mean that employees can ‘ping’ their leader at any time or schedule a Zoom call (i.e. that their ‘virtual door’ is always open)? Or is there more to it than that? 

Remember, hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders understand the importance of being approachable and empathetic.  

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