Featuring Peter Norlander, Associate Professor
Description Professor Peter Norlander views the pandemic as a dramatic and unifying event and explains how he uses the Great Depression as a framework for understanding how our future may unfold. 
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Season Season 6: Hopes for the Future


Mat Shiley: Welcome to the Q Talks podcast from Loyola University's Quinlan School of Business this season as we prepare to enter post-pandemic life. We are faced with the opportunity to examine ourselves and our society to decide what we want to keep, what we want to discard and what we want to remake. Join us as we discuss both our individual and collective hopes for the future. 

Rick Sindt: In today's conversation about our hopes for the future as we enter our post-pandemic lives, I sit down with Peter Norlander, associate professor of management and director of the Human Resources and Employer Relations Program. We talk about how he views the pandemic as a dramatic and unifying event and how he uses the Great Depression as a framework for understanding how our future may unfold. For Peter. Things are unpredictable and may take a long time. We probably will not get it right the first time. And Peter has advice for businesses and managers on how to have productive conflict in the workplace as we all adjust to our new normals. I hope you enjoy our conversation. So, 

Rick Sindt: Peter, thanks for joining us today to talk about our world as we enter life after the pandemic. The goal of our conversations in this series is to talk about what the big hopes we have for the future. And so I'd love to just ask you, as we enter this next phase, what are some things you're hoping for that can be either something that you hope changes or perhaps a tradition that you hope falls away from the past? What have you been thinking about lately? 

Peter Norlander: So the hope that I have for the future is that. You know, the pandemic was a dramatic event that was similar to like a wartime experience where we were suddenly dropping what we were doing in the middle of the spring semester, we changed how we did everything. And workplaces, you know, everyone in society had to do it. It came from the top. It was an emergency. It was dramatic. And what's settling down now? I mean, I think. The status quo was just completely disrupted in so many places. And as we're kind of settling into a new, next normal, it's really going to be now that we're going to start to see what happens in the future and the agreement that we're going to make about when can I come into the office and when can I stay at home? Between you and your manager. When is it important to be on Zoom? When can we be on a phone call? These kinds of traditions we've always had of, you know, having meetings having work processes, being in the office, being at home; that's what I'm hoping we can figure out now that things have settled down a little bit. 

Rick Sindt: Do you have any predictions or inklings about where you see things going? 

Peter Norlander: Well, I don't have great skills at prophecy, but I do think that, clearly, the hybrid type of model is going to be what's going to predominate, but most of the policies that existed pre-COVID for work from home, for example, were really reserved for elites and the use the upper uptake in work from home went from seven percent of the U.S. workforce having access to it to about thirty-five percent at the peak of U.S. workers actually working from home. And that, you know, won't just go away in people's minds, and people who prefer some of that time at home will be negotiating and bargaining with their bosses or quitting their jobs if they're not happy with having to go into the office when it may not be actually necessary or productive to do so. So, I hope I answered your question there. I don't have predictions, I do think it's very much workplace to workplace, and it's very much going to be about how much power do the workers have to get, what they want? In a sense. And how much are managers able to negotiate and manage the process of change? Because we can disrupt society with, I mean, society was disrupted with this pandemic and the ordinary way of things happening just had to stop for good reasons for a period of time. And now we're coming out of that and what we build next, I think my hope is that people will be better off in the long run if they renegotiate and start accepting that some things have to change. Not everything was going well or perfectly or ideally before. 

Rick Sindt: So I've been watching what's happening a little bit. I can glean off of the news and people talking about labor shortages and people who will quit their jobs if they're called back to the office. And it reminds me a lot of some–like armchair social psychology I know, which is that a group of people are more likely to request or demand something after they have like a taste of it, rather than conditions getting worse and then them revolting, let's say. I think the Affordable Care Act is a really interesting example of this, right? When it was passed, it was super unpopular and then once it was implemented and up and running, now it's like one of the most liked things that the government does. So I see parallels in that situation and what we're seeing now where people have this 15 to 18 months to experience what it could be like and now they're saying, "No, thank you. I would rather not go back to the way it was before." 

Peter Norlander: Right. And you're absolutely right. It's psychologically devastating to be losing something that you've had rather than the prospect of gaining something that you never had. You feel the pain of loss more deeply than the joy of gaining something. So had a worker been able to work from home before, they may have even framed that as I need to go to the office because I'm so much more productive at the office, I have the dogs and so forth at home and it's distracting. I mean, the other thing with the example you gave there is there are ratchet effect when a policy comes in, it's hard to take something away sometimes. It is a, you know, once it's in, it's not going back down and we're not it's like we're once they once the kids have been to Paris, they're not going back to the farm that that old expression from the World War one area era, when people have these different expectations after this, really, you know, you can think of it as almost like an act of nature, act of God, a war, a force majeure event that breaks a social contract. Our understanding of our own obligations changed completely. And now we've got to figure out what in the new environment are going to be the obligations of workers and managers and how are we going to coordinate our work processes to enable work to get done? You know, valued employees to stay productive, and I think we've learned a lot of things just aren't working well with the emergency measures taken during the pandemic, such as Zoom meetings–and back to back Zoom meetings–and the ease with which these meetings are possible just makes it really difficult to get work done. And so people have yet been working from home, but a lot of the time working eight hours in meetings and then four hours in the night and on weekends to get the things out the door that they need to do. 

Rick Sindt: Do you have any advice that you would give business leaders trying to navigate this time as they figure out how to bring people back if to bring people back? 

Peter Norlander: Yeah, I would say listen to your people and search out the conflict in many ways, this is going to be a productive period of conflict. If we can stay focused on the tasks of what is required to get the job done, and we can focus on a conversation on how best to do it, opening up ideas from employees and managers. I got in a conversation I once had with the CEO he told me that he always liked the complainers and the people who made some noise because conflict can be very productive in discovering what the problems are and people are being quiet and they're not sharing their ideas. If they're not saying anything's wrong, then really, what are they contributing to improvement? So any advice I'd give would be, most importantly, to have a process that involves the people who are affected by whatever policy or proposal you would put forward on how to manage things in the future. I think there is so much complexity at the level of an individual job or a process that gets something important done that involves many stakeholders that it's important to get them around the table to talk about what are their needs in life outside of work, what are their needs to have a functioning work process to get the results done? And how do you structure a system that is both flexible and structured that enables continuous quality production of whatever service or product you're providing and enables people to get to a better quality of life that in a lot of ways the last 15 months have been taken from us, an ability to have freedom and autonomy and all kinds of things. 

Rick Sindt: I think there's a high chance that there are some work cultures that will be less open to conflict, and perhaps workers are going to start as like Bloomberg and other people have reported, like voting with their feet like they're going to leave. So, what are some trends you think managers or business leaders should be on the lookout for because perhaps they're not going to be communicated with in a verbal conflict manner? Perhaps it's going to be through behavior. 

Peter Norlander: So the framework of exit, voice and loyalty. This idea that if people are speaking up and in a way expressing their loyalty to a firm because they're hoping that it's going to change and the other option that people have is to just exit, and you may not hear anything from someone, but they may be really dissatisfied. So I've heard of these cases as well, and I know people who are just getting the email saying, "Hey, we're all coming back to the office effective this date," and that's a pretty dramatic way to do that type of thing if there's no consultation involved prior to that, no conversations between managers and employees even. That's pretty harsh and what trends I would look for, you know, macro-trends right now are really explaining a lot of what's going on in some ways. So, you have still labor force participation is way down from where it was before the pandemic, and I'm not talking about the unemployment rate, just that I'm talking about millions of women, millions of workers, pulled themselves out of the labor force and continued either to get education; so, people going on for a fifth year in a degree program instead of entering the workforce and a lot of parents pulled themselves out of the workforce to take care of children. 

Peter Norlander: So when the labor force participation rate is back up to where it was pre-pandemic and is increasing, that's when I think we'll know that the economy is hot again. There may be these temporary labor shortages right now, and people know that they have some bargaining power if they're walking off the job or they're just quitting and ghosting employers as some people call it but it's about how much bargaining power the workers are going to have to find other jobs that are better paying. I mean, right now, there's a temporary situation where that seems to be the case, that people can find better jobs, especially low-wage workers. You know, the companies such as Amazon, Walmart, McDonald's are doing an enormous amount of recruiting and are raising wages and offering signing bonuses. So people who are lower-wage workers may have a lot more opportunities outside of a firm than inside of the firm if they are not feeling heard or they're not being paid in a competitive way. 

Rick Sindt: Yeah, a colleague of ours was actually texting me earlier today and said that they went to Jewel and found the entire produce section basically empty of food. And one of the clerks told them it was because so many people have been leaving. They just don't have the staff at this grocery store to keep the shelves stocked, which I found rather profound. I was interested the other week to see Apple released their return to work plan a few weeks ago, and I found it interesting because they have set a schedule for when people will be in the office and when they'll be out. So the philosophy is like we come together to collaborate so everyone come in on these days and everyone work from home on these days. And I wonder what you think about that approach. 

Peter Norlander: I like that approach for a lot of reasons. Flexibility requires more structure. So if you want to give people flexibility to do what they want on their own time, you have to have some structure around that. And there's some research that shows that too. But the idea makes sense and you've got to pair them together and think about what your structure is. So Mondays are for meetings. We're going to come in, we're going to meet, we're going to schedule our week and then we're going to go off and do what we agreed to do and we'll come back next Monday and get back together again. That's an idea that that people can adopt according to their workplace needs. That may not work in every workplace. Of course, Jewel needs people there every day, right? That's a very different type of setting. 

Rick Sindt: One thing I'm interested in talking about is this, though there's been a lot of reporting that people are working more like you talked about because we're in meetings all day and then we have to actually get our work done. But I also think there's been this other revelation through this time that perhaps the 40 hour workweek is a bit arbitrary, and it doesn't actually take us 40 hours to do the work that we need to do, providing, you know, a good environment that's not overrun with meetings or something. 

Peter Norlander: We have so many inherited practices that are path dependent that are very hard to break the status quo. And in breaking any status quo, whatever it may be, there's always opposition because the way things have been run, they've got us to where we are. We think that changing anything is going to cause chaos or whatever and companies that before the pandemic adopted more flexible scheduling policies, they had a lot of scrutiny in the press and then ultimately reversal of policies, with Yahoo being a prominent example where a new CEO came in and brought everyone back to the office and got rid of, fired people who would not come back into the office and another company that had a results only work environment very prominently was, you know, then pulling that policy back. It was, I'm trying to remember what the company was 

Rick Sindt: Was it Best Buy? 

Peter Norlander: I think you're right. It's Best Buy. Yeah. So these reversals of policy going back to what everyone else is doing, it's really hard to be the lone person or company that's out there doing something radical. It's really hard to maintain because there's all kinds of pressure to say that one thing you're doing differently is why you're not meeting quarterly results or whatever it may be. But when this experience with COVID happened, I think, first of all, everyone kind of went through it. It's a cohort experience. We all kind of went through it in our own way. Everyone had an individual experience, but it should shake up the existing arrangements quite a bit, and 40 hours is completely arbitrary. The workweek is completely arbitrary. Why five days? Why not three days and for 10 hours a day or four days, 10 hours a day? You know, it's completely arbitrary, but I think it's a societal question in some ways when we're if we're going to change that, we need to really, it's going to take an act of Congress. In a sense, it's going to take popular demand from people because no individual firm was going to gain an advantage by, you know, having their people work less for more money with, you know, lower output. It's a societal contract. I think this happened before in the Great Depression. The Fair Labor Standards Act set that 40-hour workweek and then you get overtime for working more than that, and the way to settle a shorter workweek would be and to encourage flexible arrangements would do things like, you know, set a shorter workweek, require payment for checking email, then maybe companies would just shut the email off after work hours. So your schedule is this to this and after that, you're not going to receive email or send email, there could be all kinds of interventions that would change how work is done, but it requires everyone else to act at the same time. It's a collective action problem. I can't do anything by myself, but if we all agree, we could really structure things any way we wanted to. 

Rick Sindt: Do you have an ideal structure in mind given the research that you do? 

Peter Norlander: No, I don't. I thin I like these combinations of opposite ideas because I think there's a bit of a paradox here. You want the flexibility and you want the structure, right? You need to have structure in order to deliver reliable product on a timely basis and coordinating, have understandings, between everyone who's, you know, flexible. Ideally, everyone gets that same freedom. But you know, to be clear about when handoffs are supposed to occur, when meetings are supposed to take place, how they take place, what is the protocol for the meeting? I must say, like it's so much better than at the beginning of the Zoom when I get onto a call with a new class and everyone's muted and everyone mutes themselves. Everyone has adopted norms and social behaviors that at the beginning of this just made some of the technology so difficult to actually work with. Things have gotten a little bit better around the edges, but further progress is really going to require tough bargains between all the people involved in a work process. It's not going to be enough to say, "Hey, I'm flexible, I'm going to throw the problem over over the desk" when it lands on my plate, when I'm away because I'm flexible. Well, you've got to have structures that enable that flexibility so that things continue to happen in the right way. 

Rick Sindt: Yeah, this is a comment came to me that I wanted to bring up before when we were talking about the workweek and length and days. It also seems to me that without collective action to make those changes, it would happen in a very unequitable way. I can see people with very high-status, whitecollar jobs being the ones that are able to do their jobs three to four days a week. But then people who are more entry-level or service workers are not. They are the ones that are still expected to show up five days a week for eight hours a day to do their tasks. 

Peter Norlander: Absolutely. And that was the case with the remote work. Before the pandemic, it was seven percent of workers. It was these elites who had that option and freedom and availability, and it was not open to most workers. And there should be an effort to expand access to the opportunity created by new work arrangements and flexible work arrangements, including those but also security. That's the other thing to balance with flexibility. Employment security, the number of hours you're guaranteed in a week or in a period of time, a minimum wage, a bargain or a deal that packages security, with flexibility, with structure would permit things to continue to happen in a much. Would help things happen in a better way, but it's extremely complex and you know, some societies do make the bargain where they say we're going to take the entire month of August off. So that's like a France situation and France. If people work as many hours, would have a similar GDP per capita to the United States. People are in France and the economy is equally productive. But there's a choice and there are laws and there are cultures that just restrict the amount of work and it's up to people if they want that. And that's basically my position. I don't want to propose any particular outcome for any particular arrangement. It should be, though, I think, democratically determined and about meeting people's interests and ensuring that the work gets done and that's part of what the process should look like. That's where I'd be a little more concerned about those issues of equity like you said. 

Rick Sindt: So you were recently just awarded a grant from the Rule of Law Institute at Loyola to look into some employment trends. Would you like to share with us a bit more about that? 

Peter Norlander: Absolutely. So I began working on this idea several years ago, but I'm very happy that the Rule of Law Institute decided to fund this project to investigate the specific terms and conditions of work in a particular workplace. So when we think of the law in the workplace, we think of acts of Congress or court decisions or state or city laws. But for many people, I mean, there's, first of all, an implicit contract or understanding of what your job is and how you do it, what the lines of authority are and all of that. But there's a written employee handbook too, for example, and their employment policies around all kinds of things like remote work. And there are policies around progressive discipline and there's enormous variation across the United States in all of these policies. So, mandatory arbitration. Do you sign an employment agreement that requires you to go to arbitration and removes your ability to go to the courts if you face discrimination at the workplace? These are really important policy questions, and I'm excited to begin assembling a database and then investigating what clauses are in these types of employment documents. Now, this is a bit ambitious, but what I've begun working on in the last year since COVID has begun is developing essentially machine learning algorithms that can chew through a lot of documents and looking at text patterns, determine whether or not a particular document has a particular clause. So I gave examples before of, let's say, "work from home." 

Peter Norlander: So you think of the terms that are related to a job that offers work from home and you look for them and you look for similar patterns and you develop an algorithm that essentially can identify "Aha! That text in that job posting, for example, indicates that that job can be done from home." So I am working right now with the job posting data, a large dataset of U.S. job postings from 2010 to 2021 trying to figure out this whole idea of what jobs can be done remotely. You know, the pandemic showed really in this emergency situation, how many could in an emergency. But if you wanted to know whether a job could be done remotely, what would be the first thing you would ask someone, you know, would you ask them, what's your job? And then based on their job description, say, Oh, that's probably a remote job or not? Or would you look at something else? Would you ask someone, Are you a member of a union? Or are you a manager? Because those factors, those types of pieces of information, maybe more relevant to the outcome of remote work, so with the job postings data, I've been developing an idea of around what other things predict remote work than just that occupation seems to be like it can be done remotely or not? 

Rick Sindt: This might be a nice way to tie it all up because you're talking about this project, we've talked about how perhaps big changes need to be done at a legislative level, at a government level. I know you're a researcher and like to look at data before you make any conclusions, but do you have any predictions about where, how labor laws might evolve after this? 

Peter Norlander: No, none. Absolutely not. And I'll tell you why, because historically–I've been thinking about it–the relevant example might be, for example, in the Great Depression, when the New Deal legislation was passed, starting around 1932 and 1933, an enormous change in the rights and responsibilities and obligations and authority of management and unions and capital was settled, not even in the single act of legislation because what happened was there's the National Industrial Recovery Act, which the Supreme Court says is unconstitutional, that has one configuration. The National Labor Relations Act has a different set of solutions. The Fair Labor Standards Act has a different set of solutions. And what the Supreme Court decided was constitutional and not and what was accepted by ultimately employers and employees and their representatives. And it took 15 years to figure out what they kind of now call the New Deal industrial relations system, which lasted from roughly 1947 through the late 1970s. And it fell apart for a number of reasons, but that that type of process takes an enormous amount of time. It will not be in a single act of legislation also, and it may not even happen in the sense that there are other major trends that have been taking place that may make legislative action and societal action in the United States difficult, but firms instead are going to be leading the way in some areas on developing sophisticated policies and that is going to be interesting to watch too. And firms in some ways, now in this global era, they have as much power as legislative bodies in some ways and in many ways, more because they are autocratic. 

Peter Norlander: A firm CEO can say, "This is the policy and we will be doing this starting tomorrow," and that is the take it or leave it offer, essentially, and they can implement that around the world. They can implement that across their subcontractors. If they're powerful enough, they can have all kinds of effects on how work is done. The skepticism I have about the United States right now is just the partisanship and also the lack of consensus. So, I think the development of the New Deal system, it actually had quite a degree of input and buy-in from management, from capital, from labor. It was almost like a corporatist or tripartite agreement between government and unions and business. And you just don't have that type of thing. And I mean, they did things like, we're going to get 40 people in a room together at the White House and decide what should be done. That would never be acceptable today. And you can see a lot of the weaknesses of that system I just described and in who's excluded. Who from, you know, was excluded from a Fair Labor Standards Act: farmworkers and homeworkers. So, largely minorities and women lack the protections of the labor laws and employment laws that were developed in that period. There's no way to know how it's going to go, so I'm excited to watch and study. 

Rick Sindt: Yeah, that's a great place to close. It seems like your synopsis is things could change, but it might take a long time. 

Peter Norlander: Yeah, that is a good synopsis, I think. And it's well, it's unpredictable, that's the other thing. Let's go back to that example of the new deal industrial relations system. And what happens is not just this Great Depression. It's World War Two. I mean, this is like catastrophe upon catastrophe and society is shaken and everything needs to change, women have to enter the workforce, production has to be streamlined. Disruptions coming from strikes and what people walking off the job just wouldn't work during a wartime effort. So there were practices to make sure that work continued to get done and people kept coming to work and pay was at a level that was acceptable to keep turnover down because you needed skilled people, you couldn't have mistakes in production. There's  a totally different set of things in the environment now and the pandemic by itself. While an enormous event in all of our lives, it seems like we're already kind of slipping back to the old normal in a lot of ways and as an impetus for change–you know I mentioned before, 35 percent at the peak were working from home, it's now down to around 24 percent–so, clearly, like millions of people who were able to work from home are no longer able to work from home. And will that continue to be the case? So, you hear these isolated reports in the media of people quitting and that kind of stuff. I think we may be getting back to the old normal without all that much change because that status quo has an enormous just continued exertion on how things work unless people are really dissatisfied with the status quo, and there's a pretty broad consensus about it, I think it's really difficult to get these big changes to be institutionalized. It's going to take a long time. It's going to be hard work. You know, it's not things don't just change themselves. 

Rick Sindt: Yeah, definitely. Peter, thank you so much for talking with me today. This was a fun conversation to have. 

Peter Norlander: All right. Thank you, Rick. And appreciate it. 

Mat Shiley: Next time on cue talks. 

Speaker4: About service, it's about meeting the students where they are and helping them and facilitating their learning. And so how is it that I can be engaged? Twenty four seven three sixty five. Sorry, the nine to five is no longer. And so how is it that you can support and be available and get to know them wherever they're at? 

Mat Shiley: This has been an episode of the Q Talks podcast where we seek to marry the wisdom of the queenly community with the issues of today. Special thanks to our guests, as well as Marczak NOAC, interim dean of the Quinlan School of Business, for his continued support of this podcast. Mat Shiley, our student producer for editing this episode, as well as Loyola's School of Communication and WW for the continued collaboration. Before you leave. Take a minute to support us by sharing with friends or reading and reviewing our episodes to help expand our reach. Thanks for listening, and we hope you join us next time.