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Return to the office – a Wicked Problem?

Businesses are seeking to tempt employees back into the office by offering all manner of perks from cash bonuses to free meals and ice cream(!). And yet, the Evening Standard reported recently that only 18% of workers across 30 large cities are returning to the office.

Kathryn Marshall looks at how business leaders are approaching this, and suggests that while there are no easy answers, some starting points will prove much more successful than others.

Never waste a good crisis

The Covid pandemic has changed the context of work for ever. The best organisations have focused on the opportunity, accelerating digitisation and benefiting from the reduced costs of travel and office accommodation. Leaders have found that their people can not only be trusted to work remotely, but that they have frequently shown heroic levels of effort and rapidly embraced changed ways of working that have kept the show on the road.

Hybrid working – a curate’s egg

The hybrid concept holds the promise of a simple way forward. “All we need to do” is to find the right balance between home/remote working and time in the office/onsite. However, the reality is more complex. The experience of home working is perfectly described as a “curate’s egg” that is, good in parts.

McKinsey’s research (CxO survey on return to the workplace May 2021) reports that employees are unclear about what they want. On the one hand they recognise the benefits of remote working in creating a closer connection to home and family. On the other hand, they find it drives fatigue and makes it difficult to disconnect from work, while their social networks have deteriorated and many report a lesser sense of belonging to their organisation.

"People generally want a mix of workplace and home working, and the possibility of more choice in their working routines, meaning hybrid working can provide an effective balance for many workers." - Chartered Institute for Personnel & Development (CIPD)

McKinsey’s research showed that, pre-pandemic, 62% of employees in a sample of 5,043 expected to work full time in the office and only 30% expected to work remotely. The recent numbers are 37% office and 52% remote. The trend is clear.

Their research also shows that employees are increasingly questioning how and why they work. A recent global survey reported that 40% of workers are considering leaving their current employer by the end of the year. Search firms have never been busier.

The C-suite response

More than 75% of 504 C-suite execs surveyed by McKinsey indicated that they expect core employees to be back in the office for three or more days a week. Having been pleasantly surprised by the “great work-at-home experiment” they nevertheless believe it hurts organisational culture. They are keen to see a new office-focused normal, not so very different from the pre-pandemic reality, albeit with more flexibility.

Perks notwithstanding, the return to office working has been slow and this speaks to a major disconnect between the views of C-Suite execs – many of whom were largely insulated from the worst effects of the pandemic – and their employees.

Tame vs Wicked

Professor Keith Grint has drawn the distinction between Tame Problems and Wicked Problems. The Tame Problem can be solved like a puzzle, through the application of logic and experience, while the Wicked Problem is more complex and intractable; there is often no clear relationship between cause and effect, and when the leader intervenes, the problem itself is changed.

The C-suite survey suggests that most leaders are treating this future of hybrid working as a Tame Problem. They are keen to decide and move on. Our view is that the reality is more akin to a Wicked Problem.

The “office return” is about more than rules governing office and remote working. The pandemic has caused many to ask deeper questions about the nature and purpose of work, even life itself. This presents every member of the C-suite with a daunting set of challenges and a long list of considerations. Along with their CEOs and HRDs, they’re now having to navigate their way through new levels of complexity and uncertainty, driven by the need to meet the demands of many different groups, each with their own agenda.

Shareholders are looking for a quick recovery in their investments. Politicians want vibrant city centres full of office workers keen to spend. CEOs want a return to profit and growth on the back of accelerated business transformation. CFOs are looking for a return on physical assets.

Employees, meanwhile, want to continue to enjoy a more balanced life, but with more socialisation. And, in the constant war for talent, prospective candidates are keen to join companies that offer more flexible ways of working and that culturally ‘get it’.

From disconnect to alignment

If leaders take a Tame approach to a Wicked Problem, it is likely to exacerbate the sense of employee/leadership disconnect and lead to further stress on our organisations. So how should leaders avoid the trap of taking the wrong approach?

First, leaders need to accept that they do not (and cannot) know now, the shape of the future of hybrid working. The McKinsey survey asked employees what they want and clearly showed they don’t currently know. They are, however, clear that the future needs to be different. Professor Grint suggests the way forward lies in asking better questions.

"The leader’s role with a Wicked Problem is to ask the right questions rather than provide the right answers, because the answers may not be self-evident and will require a collaborative process.” - Keith Grint: ‘Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: the Role of Leadership’

Input from all the stakeholders is therefore vital to the design of the new way of working. Leaders need to make this a genuinely collaborative process by using consultative groups, surveys and regular listening sessions to explore questions such as:

  • What work is better done in person as opposed to virtually (and vice versa)?

  • How will meetings be most effective?

  • How do we avoid a 2-tier system where office workers are more highly valued?

  • How do remote workers influence outcomes effectively?

And the leaders should be asking themselves things like:

  • Do our managers really understand why and how the business is changing?

  • Are they sufficiently equipped to lead themselves and others through change?

  • Have they been successful in leading virtually and, if not, why not?

  • What impact will leading in a hybrid world have on their roles and leadership style?

  • How will leadership teams of the future interact differently than today?

  • How do leaders communicate effectively in a hybrid world?

Establishing measures by which to baseline and track the impact of decisions and changes will enable fine-tuning and communication of (inevitable further) change. With the number and range of stakeholders to please, and given that this is a Wicked Problem, leaders will not get this right first time.

It all starts with purpose

The biggest impact of a hybrid-working environment is arguably on you as a leader. You have your own aspirations but must also navigate yourself and others through this changing environment.

If you accept that we are dealing with a Wicked Problem then the answers to these questions are, and will be, constantly emerging over time. In times like these you need to be clear about who you are as a leader and how your strengths will help you and your organisation make the right choices for a hybrid future.

How you choose to lead must be set first and foremost within the context of your organisation’s purpose, vision and values. With those things clearly established, and with the right culture and business strategy to support them, the complex and intractable problem of hybrid working may yet be tamed.

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash


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