Open-Door Policy

There’s a story about some of the old Bell Labs offices that is told by Richard Hamming in his lecture You and Your Research 1 given at the Bell Communications Research Colloquium Seminar in 1986:

Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance.

He continues…

He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing - not much, but enough that they miss fame.

The lesson here, for me, is that you need to be very careful that you aren’t creating a closed-space for yourself, otherwise you may be inadvertently left behind when it comes to crucial trends and incidental information that ends up being the linchpin for deciding on new directions and investigating new ideas.

Of course, in an office environment where the choice is between having your door open, or having it closed, it’s clear when you are putting yourself in a bubble. Maybe we need to update this observation for the modern workplace:

Obvious Closed Doors

  • Closed office door

Ha-ha. Nobody has a private office anymore… :(

  • Remote work

Remote work seems to have had the downsides in terms of productivity and business impact examined quite closely, however, what is the impact on the individual? Could they be closing their door by working remotely? This seems like it could be the closest analog to the original phenomenon in common practice today.

  • Odd hours

Although you could still have a large overlap of time spent with your colleagues, there may be a consistent, crucial time of day where people relax, shoot the shit and discuss great (and terrible) new ideas. If you keep a consistent, odd schedule, then you may miss out on this recurring opportunity.

Insidious Closed Doors

  • Yes Men

Putting yourself in an echo chamber is quite hard to do, but it is possible, and will you know when you’ve done it?

  • Hyper-Focus

Building the ability to focus single-mindedly on a task is a skill that most people would claim they are attempting to attain, but once possessing this skill, or even while attempting to acquire it there is a possibility that they could believe that because they immerse themselves in the world, that they will be present in the world. In reality they could be in a closed-space in their own head.

  • Pervasive Negativity

There are ways in which you can feel you are being rational, or honest which seem like the only downside would be filtering out people you wouldn’t want to converse with anyway… Well, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve simply stopped attempting to make meaningful conversation with these people after concluding that most interactions with them were going to be unpleasant in the future. I know that I’m not the only one doing this. Do they know that they are working in a closed-space?


It’s important to keep in mind that the pitfalls I’m trying to identify here are really for the individual. They should not be used by teams and leaders to push for conformity, oppressive work environments, or 9-5 culture. But as with most choices, it helps to weigh up the pros and cons. There may be a hidden down-side in some of these scenarios that you can take into account when you might otherwise end up inadvertently closing a door.

Of course, when the lecture was given the world was a different place. It’s certainly possible that in today’s more connected environment the danger isn’t as great for missing out on trends and information. But I feel that the abstract danger is still there. Losing touch with collaborators within your grasp, missing out on building an understanding of the local zeitgeist, and even simply failing to gain impressions from body-language and tenor for how compelling certain trends, views, and arguments are with your peers.