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Office hours: the simple way to spend the right sort of time with your employees and customers

07 March 2011

I'm a great fan of crosspollination -of being inspired by the workings of one industry to help improve another - and so I was delighted to stumble upon this great example.

When I was at University the Professors held \"Office Hours\" during which time students could drop in and talk to the Professor about pretty much anything. I had forgotten about \"Office Hours\" (probably because I was having too much fun to take advantage of them) until I read that the CEO of 37Signals (a funky web-based software company that's well worth a look at) had started holding \"Office Hours\".

Office Hours at 37 Signals is a two-hour window twice a week that the CEO publicly sets aside for employees and customers. During this time employees and customers can speak to the CEO on the phone or drop in to see him: no appointment, no agenda, no hierarchy of importance.

So why is the guy at 37 Signals doing this? Well I'm sure that you have heard over and over again that the most effective way to improve your business is to listen to your employees and customers. But let's be realistic, who actually makes the time to do this? Most CEOs probably intend to but are so busy, busy, busy, that their only interactions with customers and employees are when they are working on important and urgent issues.

It makes good business sense to set aside some time to devote to interactions with customers that aren't big or urgent but are certainly, to someone, important. But isn't the two-hour-twice-a-week standard set by 37 Signals a rather huge chunk of time to block out of the diary? Well yes, until you realise how much you have to gain from doing this.

On a practical level, Office Hours is actually likely to save you time. Imagine how much more effective you will be when employee drop ins occur in a two hour block rather than randomly throughout the week at the whim of the employee.

But of course Office Hours is much more than that, on a strategic level it may be the best investment you ever make. The winning ideas for many great businesses have stemmed from insights gleaned in unscheduled conversations with customers and casual conversations with employees; businesses have even changed their entire business model on the strength of customer insights. But if you are not making time to have those casual conversations then you are not being inspired by the themes and you are missing opportunities.

So here's a useful, practical and commercial take-away from Professors: Office Hours.