Stop Letting Restrictive Policies Get in the Way of Work


By Stephanie Hammerwold

For almost two years now I have been building my own business with my partner. Being away from the corporate life has given me time to reflect on all the structures we impose on the workplace and whether or not such things are effective tools to maintaining an ordered and fair environment. As a human resources professional, much of my work life has been devoted to establishing policies and processes for this reason. Things such as harassment training and anti-discrimination policies are in place to create a fair, equitable and healthy environment and can make the workplace better. But what about some of the other processes we put in place? Are things like open office plans and performance reviews getting in the way of productivity and creativity in the workplace?

Restrictive Policies

I got my start in HR at a company that was a policy heavy environment. As a result, I learned quite a bit about HR, labor law and how to draft a thorough policy. Unfortunately, this approach aggravated employees. With so many rules, it was hard to keep every process straight. Written policies help communicate the rules and guidelines of a workplace, but if your policies are extremely detailed and restrictive, it can be hard for even the best employee to never mess up. Restrictive policies also put the emphasis on the rules rather than the work. Find a happy medium between satisfying legal requirements and meeting the needs of employees.

At one point I was given the task of writing a payroll procedures policy. My first draft was one page, by the time it went through many rounds of revisions, it ended up being six pages long and included instructions that would make building Ikea furniture look easy. The written policy did little to help managers follow the correct payroll procedures because it was too long, detailed and complex.

One step many companies avoid in drafting policies is to get input from employees. When writing or updating a policy, try to get a few employees to read it and give feedback. Ask what parts are confusing and if there is anything that interferes with the way employees work. A good policy should take into account how people work at your business. Otherwise the policy takes over and gets in the way of people doing their jobs.

Open Office Plans

I am not a fan of open office plans. Every time I read something talking about how open office plans foster community and encourage creativity, I want to build a blanket fort and go hide in there with my laptop while I work. The beauty of working from a home office is that I do not have to worry about some manager deciding to throw me in a big room with a bunch of coworkers.

Open office plans can be noisy and full of distractions. In an article for The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova points to work done by organizational psychologist Matthew Davis in 2011. She writes, “He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission,…they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking and satisfaction.”

Every time I read something talking about how open office plans foster community and encourage creativity, I want to build a blanket fort and go hide in there with my laptop while I work.

I recently wrote a piece on open office plans for Blogging4Jobs in which I expressed my dislike of the open office plan. When I shared the post on various social media sites, I did not have one person who spoke up in favor of the open office plan. In all my years in HR, I have also worked to solve noisy work environment problems for countless office workers. While I am sure there are those out there who thrive in a noisy, busy environment, I know many of us like a calm environment in order to focus. What makes me cringe whenever I hear someone touting open office plans is that it seems to be a solution thrown on a whole office without much thought toward the needs of individual workers.

When considering the implementation of major changes to foster creativity and communication, ask employees what would help them do their jobs better rather than assuming the latest trend will improve the workplace.

Performance Reviews

How can I not bring up the dreaded performance review in a discussion of restrictive policies and processes? Someone in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) LinkedIn group started a discussion on performance reviews recently. An overwhelming number of HR professionals weighed in to say that the traditional annual review needs to go. Despite many of us in the profession disliking annual reviews, they persist.

Annual reviews attempt to summarize a whole year’s worth of work in a few pages. Goals are set on an annual basis as though work happens in 12-month periods. Feedback given in this format is stressful. I have worked with very few managers who get excited about reviews. Most of them grumble and worry about what to say. Employees get anxiety about what their managers will say and often only focus on whether the review will include a pay increase without hearing any feedback that their manager is giving them.

Performance management should be ongoing. Managers should meet with their employees on a regular basis to check in on projects, ask where the employee needs help, suggest areas for improvement and to give positive feedback. If a manager documents these interactions, the need for the annual performance review disappears. Also, making performance management and feedback a regular part of the work flow takes the stress off of formalizing such conversations.

The key here is to make the process a little less formal. With proper training, managers should be able to develop a system of ongoing feedback and documentation that can be used to justify employment decisions without using the annual review. Such an approach puts the focus on the work and takes it away from unnecessary paperwork.

What types of policies and processes get in the way of doing your job? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Konnikova, Maria. “The Open-Office Trap.” The New Yorker 7 January 2014. Online.