The Open Space Policy for Managers

One of the management concepts I dislike the most, is the Open Door Policy. The idea of this policy is that every manager’s door is open to all employees, and each of them is encouraged to have open discussions with any manager; and not just at the next management level, but at all management levels.

I dislike this policy, for three reasons.

The first thing it communicates is that managers have a door, and ordinary employees don’t. Have you ever heard of an Open Door Policy for ordinary workers? I haven’t. Apparently, top management thinks that normal employees have less need for privacy than managers do. A door emphasizes a separation, even when it is open.

The second thing it communicates is that it is OK for employees to ignore their own manager, and to discuss and negotiate matters with the superiors of their superiors. The policy encourages people to skip nodes in the line of command (both upwards and downwards). They can circumvent people with a strong opinion, and deal with the ones who are more pliable, and who often lack the context to make proper decisions.

The third thing it communicates is that, at any time, employees can peek in the top manager’s private room, and see his personal secretary, mahogany desk, private Nespresso coffee machine, and titanium golf clubs.

I think the Open Door Policy communicates and emphasizes distance, while organizations are better off emphasizing closeness and togetherness.

We need a different policy, one that emphasizes that managers should not be separated from other kinds of employees.

I prefer to have a desk somewhere among our teams. It is the same kind of desk that they have, with the same kind of stone-age-workstation. And I drink the same miserable goo that is being passed off as coffee. I appreciate that important decisions (like architecture and interface choices) are shared with me before people make them final. Which is why I do the same: I ask people for feedback on stuff like brand names, logo designs, company rules, and tool selection, before I make the decisions.

I want to suggest that we call this approach the Open Space Policy. In an open space you share the same air, and the same rules. It doesn’t mean there needs to be a physical open space (though it can help). But it communicates that everyone is in it together. We’re the same kind of people. We just have different jobs, with different responsibilities. And I would leave my Nespresso coffee machine at home. If I had one.

(picture by basykes)

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  • YvesHanoulle

    why not share your nespresso machine?

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Well _if_ I had one at home (which I don’t) I’m sure my spouse wouldn’t appreciate it when I took it with me to the office. 🙂

  • Dave Nicolette

    The team can choose to requisition a Nespresso machine on the grounds that it improves morale and, therefore, productivity. Programmers cannot function on “miserable goo.” This is a well-known fact.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Indeed. In fact, I’ve heard of a team taking matters in their own hands and buying their own Nespresso machine together. Now that’s why I’d call a proactive team, boosting their own morale.

  • Franklin Webber

    The intention of the open door policy is specifically to show other that an individual, usually higher in executive order, not in your particular workspace is also there to help address problems. Sometimes this is an important statement and a useful channel if a person is having a problem with a direct manager.
    I have been in several places where individuals have state they have an open door policy and didn’t even have offices. It is not a statement of privacy or property. It’s a statement about accessibility.
    It sounds like you have issues with doors, people with offices, nice desks, and individual ‘Nespresso’ machines.

  • Carlton Nettleton

    My only complaint with Open Space Management is the telephone calls. Managers spend a lot of time on the phone and it is distracting to people getting work done. In one example, we worked in an open space and I sat next to my director who was busy fighting off every political intrigue and action of the East Coast team. Nothing like listening to unfiltered corporate politics to drive you to the exit.
    That can be fixed by giving the managers a place for private calls.

  • Angelo

    Good thing I am not into coffee or Nespresso stuff.
    I liked the idea of an Open Space Policy since it provides the environment for better and harmonious communication. Although a lot of managers emphasize their door is always open, in the real world, that does not seem to be the case. Management have grown accustomed to age-old culture of having their own private spaces separated by walls and accessible only through the doors.

  • Parimala Shankaraiah

    In one of the previous companies I worked for, there was a shift from Open Space Policy to Open Door Policy. This shift was hard for many reasons:
    1. Manager stopped trusting his own team members just because he is hidden in a separate cabin like an ostrict sticking its head in the sand so he put spies in the team(leads) to micro manage the team on his behalf
    2. If the team members had problems convincing him about new ideas and talked about it with other managers who were interested and wanted to take it forward, this manager had problems with that team member.
    Be it Open Space or Open Door, I think it has got to do with how open the manager is to the new ideas. I have seen the Open Door Policy create more friction between the team and the manager instead of developing rapport and goodwill.
    Parimala Shankaraiah

  • Matthew Barcomb (78mgb)

    Damn skippy! I’ll be using this post as material for a leadership talk I’ll be giving at my company soon. It is a short list, the few senior manager/directors whom I work with (that have offices) that I think would be receptive to this idea T_T
    Being bang smack in the middle of non-tech corporate U.S., I’d also follow up with the suggestion of re-appropriating those swanky offices into more useful collaboration spaces for teams to use as needed. Imagine the two-fold productivity and leadership increase that might happen!
    One question though. Do you believe there is any need for personal privacy or separation of sensitive materials at higher levels? If so, what type of level/role/position? Or perhaps there would be non-office alternative to this (that would be my preference)

  • Rick

    If your team has crappy coffee and crappy workstations (so basically a Depressing Workspace Policy), they might prefer you to go and do something about that first, rather then to sit amongst them being all accessible and communicative…
    It may not apply to you (in fact I’m pretty sure it doesn’t), but it’s a well known defense mechanism of weak (middle-)managers to pretend to be “one of the guys” to cover up their failure to stand up for the interests of their team.
    I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve actually been in the trenches, but in a lot of teams getting together and buying their own Nespresso machine would be a passive-aggressive way of saying to their manager: “you’re useless, please go away”.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    You are absolutely right.
    But there’s also another side to this story. People always complain about something. Whether it is coffee, computers, chairs, airco, or whatever. There always comes point where a (good) manager needs to say, “Sorry, this is as much as the company can afford right now. Yes, maybe three monitors, and fresh cups of espresso, will further increase your productivity, but we just don’t have the money right now. Help us make money on our current projects first, and then we can afford more luxury.”

  • abby, the hacker chick blog

    Thank you! I love this. I just finished reading The Anatomy of Peace and one of the things it talks about is how much better our organizations would be if we treated people the same, provided the same furniture/accommodations, applied the same standards. How differently would managers think about how employees were provided for if the same provisions applied to them.
    Sure, different roles will need different things in order to accomplish their jobs, and that obviously should be accommodated.
    But simply giving people greater privileges (a corner office, a prime parking space, better furniture, etc.) for no reason other than their seniority… well, while it’s good to reward people for their hard work, it can also cause us to put up (metaphoric) walls between one another and to imply that some people are actually better than others… and that just makes us all less effective.
    So kudos to you for doing this! I hope more will follow your example. 🙂

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Sure there is need for privacy. For one-on-one meetings, for example. In our office we have soundproof cubicles for talks like that.
    And most organizations don’t share things like salaries and evaluation reports with everyone. That’s what secure folders on a network are for, I suppose.
    As a manager I never felt the need for a private office.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    If someone has an open door policy without having an office with a door, then perhaps he needs another name for his policy. Otherwise (I think) the name itself could send a wrong message to some.

  • Jack

    Hi Jurgen,
    I do agree with your perception about the workers of an organization. There is always a communication gap which demotivates.
    That’s a wonderful post dear.

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