Work Contracts, Four Walls and Robert Frost; or how law is being disrupted by the #FutureofWork

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down…

(“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, 1914)


[Reproduced from an article I published in The RCSA Journal, December 2015]


I’ve been intrigued by the conversation about the future of work and the way in which #Digital; #Mobile; #Social and #Just_About_Anything_Else_With_A_# have been #Disrupting the workplace.  It’s been a hashtag fest. And that’s been a good thing.

Although RCSA conferences over the past few years have been laying the groundwork, I was provoked most recently to think about this again after reading a couple of blog articles by Jeremy Scrivens[1].

The first one that caught my attention was titled, Future of Work is The Restoration of Authentic Community at Scale[2]; the second was The Future of Work is Business as a Community of Purpose and Belonging[3]. These articles seemed to be making some important points about the How, the What, the Why and the Who of the future of work[4].  Well, I retweeted them both, of course!  And then I asked myself, why are we talking about this as though it’s always coming; but never quite here?

Surely, if these disruptive influences can already be identified in some work settings, this Future of Work, this re-scripting of the fundamental narrative about Work and the Firm is already happening. So, what are we going to do about it? Because at some point we have to do something – beyond preparing (or borrowing from) another prophetic keynote speech! At some point, we need to assess what is happening – not just to the workplace; but to the foundations of what believe, or think we believe, about Work and the Firm. And then we need to adjust for it in ways that help to realize and release this positive and productive force that is the #FutureofWork.

Now, as a lawyer, it’s the adjusting that I find to be the most fascinating and challenging aspect in all this, because it makes us first take stock of what we’ve already got – a legacy of three centuries of enclosure that have shaped our thinking about what is normal for work relationships. Think about it. When we are setting up work agreements, we are often thinking in terms of locking in, tying up, tying down, and making water-tight a set of rights and obligations that are capable of judicial enforcement. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the so-called Four Walls provisions that appear in many of the contracts that we use on a daily basis. You know them as the provisions that say something like:

This agreement contains everything that we have agreed; and we have not agreed anything that is not in this agreement; and we will not agree anything that is not in this agreement unless we agree it in writing and put it in this agreement.

Everything that we have said in the past is of no account; and anything that we may say in the future is of no account…

Authentic community? Community of purpose and belonging? It seems that we have accepted the proprietorization (Spellcheck tells me that is not a word, so I had better make it #Proprietorization) of work relationships; and, in the process, we have lost sight of the connection of work to community – at least to the extent that the authenticity of our work relationships is now strained and overdue for re-evaluation.

And that re-evaluation is what I am having to do right now as I set to work on designing new ways to charter more open and permeable work relationships. It is a challenging and confronting exercise. I am having to find fresh language to script new narratives of work and of the firm. I am needing to think not so much in terms of ownership (possession, exclusion; fencing out) as in terms of stewardship (care, inclusion, fencing in). I am needing to think not so much in terms of obligation as in terms of co-operation. And I am having to find ways to charter co-operative relationships that are sufficiently elastic to accommodate disruption and change and yet firm enough to support productive engagements. Others of you, who work on contracts, are no doubt similarly engaged. It will take all our skill – and perhaps skills that we do not yet have – to get it right. And that is exciting.

OK, so perhaps, “Spring is the mischief in me” after all; and I could say, “Elves”. But it’s not elves exactly and I’d rather you said it for yourselves… with or without the #hashtag!

Andrew C. Wood

[1]  Work Futurist & Social Business Culture Catalyst - Director The Emotional Economy At Work

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