Like all good questions, the answer here is simple, “It Depends.” Do employees value an open door, or is it simply the fact that they want to see you as accessible. If you have an open door policy, advertise it, but are never in the office, then you are not accessible and your credibility (esp if you advertise to all that you have an open door policy) is diminished.
Additionally, if you have an open door policy, but when someone wants to talk and you seem pre-occupied or distracted (put down that phone), then you are equally inaccessible.
So how do you make yourself accessible or should you? First, yes you should, but you also need to respect your own time. If you send all day hearing employee complaints, maybe you should rethink what people think when you say, come see me any time (or course if you are hearing that many complaints, there is probably something else going on). I suggest using a simple signal. The door is open, my door is open to your concerns. If my door is closed, please come back later or schedule a meeting. And you can close your door simply to get work done – not just for private meetings.
What, you don’t have a door? Get creative and maybe even a little humorous and make a sign that says the door is open and on the reverse, the door is closed. People will get the hint.
Next, schedule a time each day that folks know they can catch you in your office. I have seen this most successful if you are an early morning type and 6:00 – 7:00 works. There are a couple reason this works. People know they can catch you then, but it takes thought for them to get there, so you will limit frivolous drive-bye drop-ins. And this time is almost never interrupted by an external meeting. Late afternoon open door sessions usually never happen.
Should require an agenda or a subject before I agree to a drop-in? Probably not (otherwise, a scheduled meeting is probably called for, but see my blog on meetings here). But folks should know there are two types of drop-is, 1) I need to vent! If this is the case, clarify that is the intent as soon as you recognize it for what it is. You may simple reflect back something like this: “Is there something you need for me to do or do you just want to vent?” Usually that will get a chuckle and will lighten the meeting and who, knows, you may feel that same way and can vent together. 2) I need something resolved. Ask them what they need done. If they don’t know, reflect back to them that it would be helpful if they thought about it and came up with a couple options. If they just want you to solve the problem, you are probably not going to have a successful resolution.
Finally, if the vent or complaint is about a decision made by a manager between you and the ventor, you need to clarify real quick that if they haven’t discussed with the intervening manager, then the meeting is over (at least for now). then you need to do your homework and find out both sides of the story. Then, I recommend you arbitrate a meeting between the two, if they cannot resolve it themselves.
So here it is simplified. 1) Have a clearly defined open door policy. 2) When folks utilize the open door, be present for them and have no distractions. If you cannot be present, ask them to come back when you can dedicate your full attention to the subject. 3) Make sure you know the purpose of the meeting. 4) Don’t take sides. 5) Listen to comprehend.
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P.S. if the meeting is personnel related and your office is not sound proof, move the meeting to a conference room.
P.P.S. You open door does not extend outside the office. If you run into an employee at a restaurant and the subject turns to a vent, STOP. And invite them to discuss later during work hours.