What the strangely edifying Covid jab says about business life


How did you spend your last Sunday afternoon? If you are of a certain age and live in the UK there is a good chance you did what I did and find yourself sitting on a plastic chair in a converted room while someone one put a needle in your arm and gave you an injection of the Covid vaccine. .

Like a clumsy drunkard who finally gets a key in the front door in the 19th trial, the UK’s vaccination program has been an unexpected triumph after months of pandemic blunders.

For almost everyone I know who has had the jab, the experience has also turned out to be something few of us expected: strangely uplifting.

You could attribute this to the relief of being vaccinated, but I suspect there is more. In a week when the boss of one of the world’s largest “goal-driven” companies, the Emmanuel Faber of the Danone group, was given the boot, it was a reminder of how difficult it is to find real purpose in modern corporate life.

Consider what happened from the time I got to the vaccination center. A swarm of talkative volunteers came down to show me where to park, where to find the hand sanitizer, how to check in and where to line up.

“It won’t be long,” said one. And of course, I quickly found myself in a chair as Tim, a kind retired doctor, checked to see if I could tip myself over after the stroke with an allergic reaction, while Verity, a young medical student, braced herself for. administer the vaccine. “I’ve done about 500,” she said in a soothing voice, as Tim suggested that I sing a song to distract my attention from the entering needle.

They couldn’t have been more thoughtful and, at least outwardly, seemed happy to spend Sunday doing this work.

As I waited for the anaphylactic shock to kick in (it didn’t), I realized that the last time I saw something like this was in 2012 at the London Olympics. Once again, dozens of volunteer shredders kept the show on the road, giving up days of their time to guide the multitudes to the velodrome, pool or washroom.

The act of volunteering itself explains part of the joy. Studies have long suggested that it makes a person happier, healthier and more satisfied with life.

But the nature of volunteer work also matters. Helping out at the Olympics, and more so at a vaccination center, offers the chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself; socially desirable and historically significant. Who among us in the company staff gets up every day expecting something like this?

The sad truth is that sitting in a call center or approving a car loan cannot hope to compete. Yet the idea persists that businesses of all kinds can – and should – be driven by goals.

There is a growing number of search connecting determined businesses to higher growth, happier workers and happier customers. However, as Faber’s experience at Danone shows, the pursuit of the goal is not easy.

Danone is at heart a French multinational selling products like yoghurt and bottled water, but Faber has pushed it to become a “B Corporation”- a company that meets high standards of sustainability, transparency and accountability. It was a huge undertaking for a group of over 100,000 workers spread around the world. Younger staff have responded enthusiastically to the call to help transform operations. Climate activists liked his reports on “carbon-corrected” benefits. But some managers insisted on focusing on returns rather than what would have called “That ridiculous B Corp bullshit.”

The biggest problem for Faber was a group of shareholders who were unhappy to see Danone’s returns far behind rivals such as Unilever and Nestle, who also claim to have a goal at their base.

His departure was probably predictable. As it stands, the central goal of a business is to make a profit. Yet it will be a shame if efforts to make businesses more socially useful are delayed. Few groups can offer the meaning and purpose of a vaccination center. But most can do more than just seek short-term benefits.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark





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