New Social Contracts for the Workplace

social contract is an unofficial agreement shared by everyone in a society in which they give up some freedom for security. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau popularized the idea of the social contract in the 1700s, but it’s just as applicable today. A good example is when we go to the airport and go through security. We may not like it, but we understand that it’s a freedom we give up for the benefit of safety in our society. 

Social contracts in the workplace have primarily been between employees and employers where employees receive a living wage in exchange for their labor. This exchange would help employees achieve a stable life while employers would be able to produce their goods and services. As the workplace and what constitutes work have changed so has that philosophy of a social contract. Now, because of technology and the restrictions in place with COVID-19, that former social contract is being further challenged. 

When reasoning through this new challenge here are five areas that need rethinking:

1 – Working virtually most of time. So many companies resisted having staff work from home for years, but guess what? We learned through the pandemic that it works! Staff have worked harder and have not missed a beat. This experiment of working from home because of the quarantine has proven that working virtually works and people like it.

2 – Flexible work hours. Another lesson the quarantine has taught us – if we do need to commute or take an elevator or fit into the same office space close to our coworkers, then we can not all do it at the same time. In addition, having also having our children homeschooled taught us that we must be flexible as people do have full lives.

3 – Equity and diversity. This is a topic that has been talked about for way too long. Its time has come, and each organization should take some time now to agree that they will hire and promote a diverse team instead of hiring and promoting the same people who look like themselves. It is going to take real effort and a level of self-awareness to do things differently. You may want to seek help.

4– Social distancing, the handshake, and buffet lunches. Adjusting to these social rules is going to be a hard one for me. I’m a hugger. I hug most of my clients. I’m sorry to say I will not be hugging anyone until we have a vaccine. Handshakes? No way! So what is your plan? Will you bow? Greet others by touch elbow to elbow?  Wave? And forget about sharing platters of food for a while.

 5 – Wearing a face mask. Many spaces including retail stores, supermarkets, hospitals, doctors offices, office buildings, elevators, etc. require you wear a facemask, and yet some people feel it does not apply to them. The department of health in most states is giving recommended guidelines for the workplace so how will your company handle this?

Understanding that Social Contracts are mutually understood arrangements for the greater good, we know that what constitutes greater good today is significantly different from what it was four months ago. How are you going to participate? How is your organization going to participate? Let us know how it’s going at your place of work.

Kathi Elster – Executive Coach and co-owner of K Squared Enterprises.

Contact us at for any further help around this topic.