“My door is always open,” said the leader, as they turned away from their team.

This phrase hasn’t aged well and it’s becoming more obsolete than ever. Now that remote work is the norm, many leaders find themselves without offices and without doors. But that’s not the only reason why it’s long past time that we all do away with “My door is always open.”

On the surface, “my door is always open” is meant to convey to employees that they should feel free to raise concerns to leaders at any time. Leaders often offer it to imply, “I am very accessible,” but the reality of organizational life keeps leaders isolated from the feedback they seek.

What employees hear is that they need to be proactive about raising concerns. Although, it’s great to foster a workplace culture where people feel comfortable speaking up to senior leaders, the responsibility for identifying problems shouldn’t fall squarely on employees. Leaders need to be proactive about stepping outside of their office and engaging with employees to learn about what their day-to-day lives are like. If leaders take a “my door is always open” approach, they will likely wait in their office assuming everything is fine until employees find the courage to speak up.

An office is a status symbol. It is a sign of power, authority, and privilege. For an employee, it can be awkward and uncomfortable to enter the physical space of a leader’s office. Even if they’ve been invited to do so, employees might not feel welcome, particularly if they must interrupt a leader to get their attention. As the #metoo movement surfaced countless stories of sexual harassment and abuse at companies with supposedly strong workplace cultures, it has become clearer and clearer that, for many people, entering into the private space of someone else’s office puts an employee at risk.

Here’s what to do instead:

  • Be proactive. Step out of the office and engage employees directly. Solicit stories about what’s working well, and what’s not. Be prepared to ask questions and facilitate conversations but be ready to listen too, and to listen without judgement.
  • Hold one-on-one meetings in public spaces. Move conversations away from your own office and into conference rooms with an open door, open-air workstations, cafeterias, or even outside. Even when privacy is a concern, finding a publicly visible space with enough distance from others creates more safety for the employee, and it shows other employees that you proactively provide one-on-one support. It also helps eliminate any notions that an employee is in trouble any time they step into your office.
  • Schedule feedback session. Be transparent and specific about when you are available to accept feedback from employees. It’s not practical or realistic for your door to always be open, so employees are left guessing when you are or aren’t available. Instead, set specific times when you are available to hear from employees. You’ll also benefit from the uninterrupted time when your “door is closed.”

Rick Buccheri, MSOD
Director of Programs