COVID-19 a chance to rebuild worker trust, inclusiveness: Kochan

Press/Media: Public Engagement Activities


A leading international IR academic has called for optimism and political courage to forge a new post pandemic social contract designed to build more productive and resilient economies while rebuilding worker trust and making workplaces more inclusive.

Addressing a recent webinar, Professor Tom Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management, acknowledged significant reform challenges, particularly in his home country of the United States with its low minimum wage and poor health and employment safety nets.

But he says there are also reasons to be optimistic, including a developing culture of innovation and entrepreneurship and a new era of activism, particularly among young people. He told the webinar, presented by the International Consortium for Research in Employment & Work (iCREW), the Centre for Global Business, Monash Business School, Monash University; the Australian Labour and Employment Relations Association and Victorian IR Society, that the flatlining of wages growth from the 1980s onwards contributed to an increasing anger and frustration in society as families perceived they were not benefiting from economic growth and were threatened by technological change such as automation.

The COVID-19 global pandemic, he said, has highlighted longstanding weaknesses including deficiencies in health and employment safety nets, the vulnerability of casual and gig workers and issues of inequality and discrimination. "The stark effects of a of a sudden 22 million people being thrown out of work in the United States in April and May and June really showed us the weaknesses in our safety net," Kochan said. "It starts with the fact that when you lose your job in the United States, you’re likely to lose your health care. . . That's something we’ve inherited and carried forward from the years after World War II to today and it may have worked well in the past but certainly is no longer acceptable."

Kochan said the current period of crisis offers an opportunity to open a broad debate about substantial legislative reform to improve labour standards and conflict management, facilitate agreement-making and provide mechanisms for workers to gain a greater "voice". He said it is not just important to address these challenges but also emerging issues such as how best to manage workers working from home and how to maintain creativity at work and care for workers' mental health as they grapple with less personal interaction.

He warned against reliance on monitoring software, which could frustrate workers and undermine trust but said remote technologies could offer ways of substituting for the informal interactions in the workplace that help to propel productivity and problem-solving. "We have to find ways to use the technology that we are experiencing here today more creatively," he said.

"So that we can manage to substitute for the personal interaction that we all have when we see someone at work and we see that they've got a great idea and they're all excited and they come down the hall or to another desk or another office and start to talk about it and we debate it a little bit and it gets stronger or it gets modified or it gets reinforced." Professor Kochan said he is particularly concerned about the rise of extremist groups, the backlash against vulnerable immigrant workers and continuing institutional racism.

He sees positive signs in the increasing activism of movements such as "Black Lives Matter" and action against climate change and in the way young people particularly are finding new and creative ways to mobilise support and educate through social media and artificial intelligence tools. "We're seeing creative use of these kinds of mechanisms for mobilising and raising our voices all around the world," he said.

"We have to figure out how we can incorporate them into our industrial relations and employment relations system and welcome them in parallel with existing organisations, labour unions, collective bargaining works councils, representation on corporate boards."

Kochan called for academics across a variety of fields from technical engineering to social sciences and the humanities to move past "narrow professional pursuits" to address the big social, economic and political problems of the time through collaboration.

"All of us working together to try to find a way to deal with the inequality issues to make sure that we use technologies to advance the world of work, to create higher quality jobs and to create a more equitable distribution of the welfare or of the benefits that that we achieve."

Professor Thomas (Tom) A Kochan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), MIT Sloan School of Management and Moderator Professor Margaret Gardner AC, President and Vice-Chancellor of Monash University discuss how to move forward by incorporating these issues into a new social contract at work and in a society that is more productive, equitable, inclusive and resilient. Tom Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor and the Co-Director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He focuses on the need to update work and employment policies, institutions, and practices to catch up with a changing workforce and economy. His recent work calls attention to the challenges facing working families in meeting their responsibilities at work, at home, and in their communities. Through empirical research, he demonstrates that fundamental changes in the quality of employee and labour-management relations are needed to address critical problems in industries ranging from healthcare to airlines to manufacturing. His most recent book is Shaping the Future of Work. His many other publications include such books as: Up in the Air: How Airlines can Improve Performance by Engaging Their Employees, with Bamber, G.J., Gittell, J. H., & von Nordenflycht, A.; Healing Together: The Kaiser Permanente Labor Management Partnership, with Eaton, A., McKersie, R., & Adler, P., both of the latter books are with Cornell University Press. He a global affiliate of the International Consortium for Research in Employment & Work (iCREW), Centre for Global Business, Monash Business School, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

Professor Margaret Gardner AC, President and Vice-Chancellor, Monash University chaired the webinar. Professor Margaret Gardner AC attained a PhD in Industrial Relations at the University of Sydney, was a Professor in the field at Griffith University and was a Fulbright Fellow in the USA, including at MIT. She is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Chair of the Group of Eight – a coalition of world-leading research-intensive Australian universities; a Director of Infrastructure Victoria, and of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. She has served as President of: Association of Industrial Relations Academics of Australia and New Zealand, as Patron of the Industrial Relations Society of Queensland, and on various other boards and committees, including the Australian-American Fulbright Commission.

This webinar was organised by the International Consortium for Research in Employment and Work (iCREW), Centre for Global Business (CGB) at Monash Business School, together with the Australian Labour and Employment Relations Association (ALERA) and the Industrial Relations Society of Victoria (IRSV). The webinar convenor was Professor Greg J. Bamber, President ALERA; Director, iCREW (CGB), and Professor in the Department of Management, Monash Business School. Dr Marjorie Jerrard, Senior Lecturer in Employment Relations, Department of Management, Monash Business School is Deputy Director, iCREW.

Professor Chongwoo Choe is Director, CGB; Shahab Sazegar is CGB Coordinator.

The leading on-line publication published a report of the webinar on 3 December 2020. Article extracts included here with permission from Judy Hughes & David Vincent of


To see the Building a New Social Contract webinar, click on this link:





Period27 Oct 2020

Media coverage


Media coverage

  • TitleCOVID-19 a chance to rebuild worker trust, inclusiveness: Kochan
    Degree of recognitionInternational
    Media name/outletyoutube
    Media typeWeb
    Producer/AuthorInternational Consortium for Research in Employment & Work (iCREW), Centre for Global Business, Monash Business School, Monash University, Melbourne
    PersonsGreg Bamber


TitleInternational Webinar: Building a New Social Contract
LocationMonash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Period27 Oct 2020


  • COVID-19
  • race relations
  • Black Lives Matter
  • activism
  • Voice
  • unions
  • USA
  • trust
  • inclusiveness
  • social contract
  • workers
  • productivity
  • economies
  • employers