Open-Door Management: How ‘Short Conversations’ Can Make Big Things Happen

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Open“I think that the ways of doing business in the past are long gone, especially with social media and employer interaction,” says Bill Peppler, managing partner at staffing firm Kavaliro. “You might as well embrace it and encourage the conversation. Be ahead of it instead of being reactive toward it.”

Peppler is commenting on a particularly interesting section of Kavaliro’s 2015 Employee Outlook and Salary Guide, which suggests that open communication is one of the keys to keeping employees “happy and loyal.” To wit:

It is imperative for your employees to know they can always speak with you regarding anything. You want to stress the importance of an “open-door” policy at all levels of the company. Most problems can be solved with a short conversation.

The idea that communication matters in efforts to boost employee engagement and lower turnover rates isn’t exactly radical, but what’s interesting about Peppler’s take on the subject is the way he wholeheartedly embraces communication across all levels. Forget the traditional management hierarchies, in which the higher-ups dictate the terms of discussion. In Kavaliro’s “open-door” work environment, employees have the power to head up important conversations with managers and leadership teams.

“When you have the management talking down to somebody, or a closed-door type management, so many things are missed,” Peppler says. “We open the door to everything we do, including sharing financials and information I could only dream of seeing when I was anywhere between 22 and 35. We want to be completely transparent with our goals and where we’re doing well, where we’re not doing well.”

Peppler says Kavaliro’s open-door policy draws inspiration from the software world, which “is moving toward a more formal, project-management style of thinking” exemplified by processes like Scrum development.

“Those meetings are encouraged every single day. People sit desk-side and talk about where they are in these individual sprints in developing software,” Peppler says. “We’ve taken that mindset and applied it to general business.”

An Open-Door Policy That Focuses on Solutions

Peppler notes that a successful open-door policy — one that actually allows for problem-solving through short conversations — must focus on solutions, rather than issues. That’s why Kavaliro added a caveat to its open-door policy: employees can raise issues, but if they’re going to do that, they should be prepared to also offer solutions.

“I think at first, people were coming in and talking about the smallest things in the world, whereas now they know that they have to tie it into a solution and actively think about it before they come in,” Peppler says.

Not only does this solution-oriented approach to open-doors foster creativity, innovation, and problem-solving, but is also helps employees invest themselves more in the company’s successes.

“When you engage them in the process, I feel like you have a better employee, because they truly feel like they’re making a difference,” Peppler says.

Overcoming the Challenges of Constant Communication

Of course, an open-door policy sounds wonderful and semi-utopian in theory, but is it really doable? Kavaliro’s guide suggests that companies institute weekly or monthly progress meetings in which “employees have the opportunity to privately voice their concerns and managers can give constructive criticism or praise.” Do managers and leaders really have the time and resources to conduct these kinds of conversations with employees of all levels?

Peppler readily admits that holding weekly and/or monthly progress meetings can be tough. However, he says, some smart planning can make the task much less daunting.

For example, when it comes to monthly progress reports, Kavaliro “puts the onus on the back of the individual.” Employees fill out personal self-assessment forms that they bring to these monthly meetings. The manager reviews these self-assessments with each employee and then offers feedback via their own form. Most of the data in this process is collected by the employee, rather than the manager. This frees the manager up to focus more on processing the data and offering feedback.

“That’s by design. [Employees] are a part of their own evaluation and feel more like vested members of the organization,” Peppler says. “Plus, when they’re a part of it, it takes less legwork, less paperwork. That’s really what slows down these types of meetings: the documentation and paperwork afterward.”

Peppler recalls being in charge of a team of 25-30 people at a previous organization. While there, he absolutely dreaded quarterly reviews.

“I wanted to give feedback to every single person — not only in conversation, but with something they could walk away with,” Peppler says. “When I had to create a template every single time, it made it so much tougher.”

“This process,” he reflects, “makes things go a little easier.”

Solutions-oriented open-door policies can boost engagement, productivity, and innovation. Sure, it takes a little effort to successfully implement such a policy, but once the framework is in place, a company can really leverage the power of short conversations.

By Matthew Kosinski