Is the post-pandemic return to work a wicked problem?

By Scott Smith

Now that many Canadians have been working from home for more than a year, the return to work will be a challenge for businesses and public sector organizations.

The sudden and dramatic changes wrought by the public health response to COVID-19 reverberated through cities, government, utilities, schools and families. Remote working, stay-at-home orders and online learning all had widespread effects on how we live.

For those who worked in urban office buildings and the network of businesses and services that support the office worker/commuter culture, the way forward may not be a return to the past.

What is the new normal for offices? How Canadians will “return to work” is frequently discussed but remains a big unknown in the fall of 2021. 

As strategic design professionals, we see the return to work as a wicked problem. A wicked problem has particular characteristics:

  • it is multidimensional, often with one problem nested inside another problem;
  • the requirements are often contradictory and change over time;
  • there are multiple stakeholders; and
  • it is challenging to solve or sometimes unsolvable.

The predominant social and cultural issues of our time are generally considered wicked problems: racism, homelessness, poverty. But wicked problems can also appear in businesses and organizations. When they do, it takes a particular skill set to find a solution.

Design thinking – the non-linear, iterative, human-centred approach used by designers and researchers to solve problems – is uniquely suited to tackle wicked problems. People with design thinking backgrounds are particularly talented in understanding a problem and developing solutions. But we are humble enough to put any proposed solutions through an evaluation and iteration process to arrive at the best solution.

Strategic designwhat we do at DFFRNT – is design thinking applied at a higher level. It comes into play when companies want to change the very nature of their organization; when they want to go beyond “Let’s just fix the customer interface,” to “Let’s understand our customers and design solutions of value to them.” We understand what it takes to fix the underlying structures that support a product/service or pivot a company from one direction to another.


The post-pandemic return to work issue is multidimensional (consider how it relates to urban planning, public transit, commercial real estate, daycare, Joe’s coffee shop). Its requirements change over time, and they may be contradictory (employee needs vs. business needs). There are multiple stakeholders, but for any given business, the number of stakeholders will be small.

Our conclusion: The question of returning to work is a wicked problem that can be managed best through a design thinking approach of understanding first, from all perspectives, defining and iterating solutions, and testing their effectiveness. The design thinking activities employed by DFFRNT are particularly well-suited to attack and solve these kinds of problems.

Check out our projects to see how we have applied strategic design to large and small challenges in the corporate world and the public sector.

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