Pilita Clark: What the oddly uplifting Covid jab says about business life

Companies should try to replicate the volunteers’ sense of purpose and goodwill

How did you spend your last Sunday afternoon? If you are of a certain age and live in the UK, there is a fair chance you did what I did and found yourself sitting on a plastic chair in a converted hall while someone stuck a needle in your arm and delivered a shot of Covid vaccine.

Like a bumbling drunk who finally gets a key in the front door on the 19th try, the UK’s vaccination programme has been an unexpected triumph after months of pandemic blunders.

For almost everyone I know who has had the jab, the experience has also proved to be something that few of us were expecting: strangely uplifting.

One could put this down to the relief of being inoculated, but I suspect there is more to it. In a week when the boss of one of the world's largest "purpose-driven" companies, the Danone group's Emmanuel Faber, was given the boot, it has been a reminder of what a complicated struggle it is to find a genuine sense of purpose in modern corporate life.

Who among us in the corporate workforce gets up each day expecting anything like that?

Consider what happened from the moment I arrived at the vaccination centre. A swarm of chatty volunteers descended to show me where to park, where to find the hand sanitiser, how to check in and where to stand in line.

“Won’t be long,” said one. And sure enough, I was soon in a chair as Tim, an amiable retired doctor, checked to see if I might keel over post-jab with an allergic reaction, while Verity, a young medical student, got ready to administer the shot. “I’ve done about 500 of these,” she said soothingly, as Tim offered to sing a song to divert my attention from the needle going in.

They could not have been more thoughtful and, outwardly at least, appeared happy to be spending Sunday doing this work.

As I sat waiting for anaphylactic shock to kick in (it didn’t), I realised the last time I saw something like this was in 2012 at the London Olympic Games. Again, scores of chipper volunteers kept the show on the road, giving up days of their time to guide the multitudes to the velodrome, pool or lavatory.

The act of volunteering itself explains some of the cheer. Studies have long suggested it makes one happier, healthier and more satisfied with life.

Pursuit of purpose is not straightforward

But the nature of volunteer work also matters. Helping out at the Olympics, and even more so a vaccination centre, offers the chance to be part of something that is larger than oneself; socially desirable and historically significant. Who among us in the corporate workforce gets up each day expecting anything like that?

The dull truth is that sitting in a call centre or approving a car loan cannot hope to compete. Yet the idea persists that companies of any sort can – and should – be purpose-driven.

There is a growing body of research linking purposeful companies with higher growth, happier workers and more satisfied customers. As Faber’s experience at Danone shows, however, the pursuit of purpose is not straightforward.

Danone is at heart a French multinational selling stuff like yoghurt and bottled water, but Faber pushed it to become a "B Corporation" – a business that meets high standards of sustainability, transparency and accountability. It was a huge undertaking for a group with more than 100,000 workers spread around the world. Younger staff responded enthusiastically to the call to help transform operations. Climate campaigners liked its reporting of "carbon-adjusted" earnings. But some managers insisted on a focus on returns instead of what one reportedly called "this ridiculous B Corp bullshit".

The larger problem for Faber was a group of shareholders who were unhappy to see Danone's returns lag far behind rivals such as Unilever and Nestlé, which also claim to have purpose at their core.

His departure was probably predictable. As things stand, the central purpose of a company is to make a profit. Yet it will be a shame if efforts to make businesses more socially useful are set back. Few groups can offer the meaning and purpose of a vaccination centre. But most can do more than strive for short-term profits alone. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021