Most leaders want to make themselves available to their team members. Typically, we call this the open-door policy, as in “My door is always open, let me know how I can help you, anytime.” While most say they have an open-door, far fewer actually live it in practice – which is the topic for another article. For today the point is this – how can you have an open-door policy, when your remote team members can’t even see the door?
The Purpose of the Open-Door Policy
The purposes for this stated policy are several, most of them admirable. Let’s review why leaders make this statement about their availability.
- To answer questions. This may be the most obvious, you are opening the door so people can ask their questions without delay or anxiety.
- To remove barriers to communication. If people know they can drop in and get your attention, you have removed a barrier to communication and information flow. Of course, when people show up, you must welcome them – or your stated policy isn’t reality.
- To provide just-in-time support for team members. You want to support people to build their confidence and ability to make decisions and get things done. An open door can help allow that to happen.
- To build productivity. If people are waiting for answers, decisions, support or valuable information, it is likely that productivity will be reduced. An open door can keep things moving and aid in a productive workplace.
- To build trust. Your availability itself can build trust with team members, but when you are truly available and can help in the ways described above, trust will grow.
Clearly all these reasons apply to remote team members, perhaps to even a greater degree.
The Barriers to Doing it Remotely
There are others, but these are three big barriers that keep remote team members from acting on the “open-door.”
- They don’t know when you are available. This is the biggest and most obvious of the barriers. I said it above – remote team members aren’t down the hall, they can’t see the door, so they don’t know if you are there or available.
- They don’t want to bother you. They may know you are there but have no visual clues if you are busy or focused on something else. We have all walked towards someone’s office and even if the door is open, could tell that now isn’t the best possible time. When we don’t have the visual clues, we often assume someone is busy – because it is safer. Why risk interrupting the boss?
- They wait. Because people can’t tell or aren’t sure they may become more passive and wait. Waiting may cut productivity and reduce confidence and trust.
Making it Work at a Distance
As a leader of a remote team with a busy calendar, I must remember my intention alone doesn’t create the perception I desire nor does it automatically become reality. Chances are, if you are still reading that I true for you as well. So how can you turn your intention of being available and supportive into reality for your remote team members? Here are some tangible ways to make it happen.
- Use your calendar. Keep your calendar up to date and include blocks that you might be working on projects and therefore have a “closed door.” If you use this tool and encourage your team to use it, it will help. But how do you keep from being over-booked?
- Have “office hours.” Likely you remember the college professors who had scheduled office hours when they were available and encouraged you to drop by. That process can work for you now as a remote leader. When you use the calendar to block all your time, including the office hours or “open-door” times, you will alleviate some of the uncertainty and hesitation for your team members.
- Schedule regular one-on-ones. Yes, you need make it easier for people to know when they can catch you, but you should also have regular one-on-ones with each team member. This will allow some of the one-off questions that aren’t urgent to get handled in those scheduled meeting times.
- Have people keep a list. Since you are going to be meeting regularly, encourage people to keep a list of things to discuss with you then – and you do the same.
- Use chat to jumpstart the process. If you have a chat/instant message tool, consider using it as a way for people to check in and see when they can get a couple minutes of your time. Even f you keep the calendar up to date, your day won’t look exactly like the calendar. A quick instant message asking when you have a couple of minutes can be a very effective way to have the quick conversations you both may need.
- Go first. Be intentional about reaching out to your remote team members, in much the same way you would say hello when walking through the office. It will be more valuable to people than you realize.
Finding ways to engage and connect with remote team members is critical to the success of a remote team. Rather than the flippant – “I have an open door,” build an intentional plan to give your team members the support and face time they need to be most engaged and successful.