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The Art of Puzzling: Why adopting a ‘puzzler’ mindset is key to navigating the future of work

Uncertainty has been a defining characteristic of the past year. Now, as the move to hybrid working gathers pace, what the future looks like is equally uncertain. It’s a puzzle every business needs to solve. So, could the same strategies we apply to cracking puzzles be used to crack the hybrid working conundrum too?

You’re in an office. The office manager offers you a choice of three doors. Behind one is a set of top-of-the-range noise-cancelling headphones. Behind the other two are paperclips. After you’ve chosen a door, the office manager opens one of the other two doors, behind which is a paperclip. Now the office manager gives you the chance to switch to the other unopened door or stick with your initial choice. Should you stick, twist, or doesn’t it matter?

The answer? We’ll get to that. But first, where are you on this journey?

For many of us, the idea of what work will look like in the future is hard to predict. While lots of offices have remained open at varying levels of capacity, vast numbers of us have spent the past year working remotely, keeping in touch with our teams with digital tools we knew existed, but rarely had cause to use.

Now there’s the possibility of face-to-face contact, of real-life meeting rooms, of desks in a shared space. Some of us are excited. Others apprehensive. And if you’re a business leader, you’re almost certainly feeling a little puzzled. What does the new way of working actually look like? How does it function? What’s it likely to cost?

It’s a complex problem with a lot of variables. And much like a puzzle, some lateral thinking – and maybe a bit of experimentation – is needed to crack it.

The hybrid conundrum

Everyone’s talking about hybrid. But most people who talk about hybrid mean flexible working, which is absolutely nothing new. We’ve been working flexibly for years.”

Dr Nicola Millard
Principal innovation partner

“My favourite hybrid example is the zedonk, which is half donkey and half zebra,” she continues. “The zedonk doesn’t spend three days a week as a donkey and two days as a zebra, it’s a completely different breed, all the time. And that’s what hybrid is: a completely different breed of work.”

It’s a fact that organisations the world over are coming to accept. More than 60% of business executives now believe offices will be very different post-pandemic[1], as hybrid heralds a new era for work.

The trouble is, ‘very different’ feels a bit vague when defining the future of your business. So, let’s get more specific about the features and challenges that characterise hybrid working.

Dr Millard puts forward a few key questions that leaders should ask themselves when thinking about hybrid working. These include:

  • how do you make sure your remote workers have an equal footing in meetings when they’re not physically there?
  • how do you manage an asynchronous two-speed company, where the office and the remote workspace operate on different timetables?
  • how do you balance overloading in the office midweek and underloading on Mondays and Fridays?
  • what strategies do you have in place to make sure people switch off when working from home? 
  • staff are 38% less likely to get a bonus and more than 50% less likely to get a promotion if they work remotely.[2] How do you address this?

These questions present a significant conundrum for business leaders, because the issues all feel interlinked – like the pieces of a puzzle. So, how can we solve this puzzle and address the uncertainty we feel about the future of work?

The principles of uncertainty

The good news is, uncertainty is nothing new. Way back in 2000 – remember the Millennium Bug? – McKinsey was writing about how to navigate uncertain times.

The whitepaper - Strategy under uncertainty - defined four stages of uncertainty, from ‘a clear enough future’ through to ‘true ambiguity’, proposing a series of different strategies you could apply to each scenario to best navigate it .

At level one – a clear enough future – standard strategy tools like market research and value chain analysis are enough to guide an organisation forward. But as we move up the levels, the strategic approach becomes more dependent on an analysis of probability.

By level four, we’ve reached ‘true ambiguity’. This is a scenario in which the future is virtually impossible to predict. It’s almost always transitory – as is the case with the current working scenario. Although these situations involve the greatest uncertainty, McKinsey suggest they may offer higher returns and lower risks than situations in levels two or three.

“Since no player necessarily knows the best strategy in these environments,” the whitepaper suggests that the best strategy is: “to provide a vision of an industry structure and standards that will coordinate the strategies of other players and drive the market toward a more stable and favourable outcome.”

Maybe the key to cracking the puzzle then, is to be bold in putting forward a vision of hybrid working. One that establishes an industry standard. That can guide your organisation and others forward.

Digital transformation can be that standard.

Digital is a great leveller

Dr Millard describes digital technology as “a great leveller” when it comes to hybrid working, and it’s easy to see why: it’s how we kept our workforces going during the pandemic.

Its impact and adoption have been nothing short of extraordinary. Now, as we enter this next phase of transition, we need to pause and reflect; what have we learned about how this technology is applied within our organisations?

We’ve defined six core principles that can guide on how best to use these tools.

1. It should always be people first, technology second
We should think about how our employees’ needs and behaviours have changed, how we can give them a consistent digital experience across multiple geographies, and how we can encourage the adoption of new technologies.

2. The choice of platform doesn’t really matter, they’re all brilliant
Choice will only grow. What matters isn’t a single platform – however good it may be – but how well you use it and how well you use multiple ones.

3. A great user experience is what’s needed – regardless of location
The future of collaboration is going to be cloud-dependent. Location will matter less. What’ll matter more is having super strong and flexible networks and continuous monitoring across your whole end-to-end call flow to keep experience optimised. If it isn’t easy, then your employees may turn to shadow IT, using personal devices and consumer services to get the job done, which will expose your business to even more risk.

4. It’s a new kind of work(place)
Whatever your feelings about remote versus office-based working, it’s undeniable that the future of working will be different to anything we’ve seen before. And that means establishing different rules to govern it.

5. Security mustn’t take a backseat to speed or user experience
When it comes to imagining hybrid working, security has to be built into the design from the start. Getting cybersecurity right is a skilled balancing act. You want to give your people the flexibility they need to work, while remaining secure - at all times.

6. Sustainability will be a dominant motivator for hybrid working
The pandemic has proven the viability of the environmental, social and governance (ESG) agenda for both stakeholders and investors. 

Cracking the puzzle of remote wor

Solving the future of work challenge can feel like solving a puzzle or cracking a code. But, as any great puzzle-master will tell you, it’s actually a far greater challenge than that. 

“The best puzzles require at least one conceptual leap,” says Steven Clontz, mathematician, professor and professional puzzler. “And generally speaking, the more difficult the puzzle, the greater number of conceptual leaps we have to make,” he says. 

“But real life isn’t as neat as a puzzle. A puzzle has been set in order to be cracked, it’s been scaffolded to make that possible. Real life isn’t like that.”

The truth is, as much as we may want a neat and simple solution to hybrid working, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Each organisation needs to explore what the future of work looks like for them and how they can use digital technology to support their vision.

And now, as promised, the answer to the puzzle at the top of the article. Remember the noise-cancelling headphones? Well, here’s how to give yourself the best chance of getting them.

How to crack the puzzle

Your first-choice door has a 1/3 chance of having headphones behind it – that’s still the case. The other two doors had a combined chance of 2/3 before the door was opened. But now that one door has been opened and a paperclip revealed, the 2/3 chance sits with the other door.

If you want the headphones, there’s more chance of landing them if you switch. And who wouldn’t want a pair of noise-cancelling headphones for hybrid working? Many businesses are thinking of investing in them for their employees.

It sounds like a good idea. Or could it be an expensive red herring, and the key to the puzzle is actually hidden elsewhere? We’ll leave that for you to work out.

For more insights on navigating the future of work, please sign up to our business leader insights series and download our thought leadership whitepaper.
 

[1]  ‘Beyond the office’ research

[2]  ONS study Homeworking hours, rewards and opportunities in the UK: 2011 to 2020 - Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)