What can call centres teach us about meaning?

During my 20’s I had a string of odd and rather mundane jobs, the pick of which was working in a call centre in Bradford answering in-bound calls. My phone had two settings: ‘on’ or ‘off’ – and if it was on I would receive a repeated string of calls with various queries, with no let-off in between, each one ringing through as soon as the last was ended. It was like being water-boarded with monotony.

Soon we worked out how to break the system. If we were going to the toilet, or to speak to a manager, we could sort of ‘pause’ the system for a few minutes. Anything over 3 minutes and we’d be flagged, but under and you could get away with it. So we started taking three-minute micro-breaks every 20 minutes or so, hundreds of us, all checking online news or our emails. And this was pre-Facebook. Imagine the monumental waste of hours had there been Facebook.

By making the job as tedious and meaningless as they possible could, our employer had inadvertently created a powerful incentive system. One where not working, even at a risk, was preferable to working. And thus we were utterly unproductive. Even when you took calls you were just desperate for it to finish so you could go back to that article you were reading on Lycos, or putting the finishing touches to your Geocities* homepage.

I vowed never in my life to create jobs like that.


But it seems my call-centre colleagues and I were not alone. In fact productivity in the workplace has been on the decline since the 1960s. This study from Andrew Smithers in the Financial Times shows the crisis we are facing on how much labour capital we need to put in, to get GDP out.

This is even more remarkable when you consider the technological advancements we have made over that period. Technology should, in theory, boost productivity, as it automates repetitive tasks and speeds up complex ones. But this theory is not borne out in the numbers.

The cost of this fall in productivity is staggering. A 2012 study suggested that time spent on personal communication and interests at work costs costs US businesses $134bn per year: http://www.ibtimes.com/workers-wasting-time-cost-us-employers-134b-lost-effort-infographic-903334. This is a crisis. And this doesn’t change that much globally. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a big part of the solution to the global recession and deficit could simply be just getting people to focus on their jobs a bit more.

Of course, there are lots of theories as to why we are so unproductive at work – a decrease in the investment in people, diminishing returns on tech or even measurement anomalies. But surely the most obvious answer is that people just don’t care about their jobs that much?

Gallup’s ‘Annual Employee Engagement Survey’ backs this up. It claims that only 13% of employees are engaged at work, with 24% ‘actively disengaged’ with what they do. When people don’t care about what they do then they cease to put themselves into it. That’s why technology improvements don’t work – it’s like complaining that the monkey you keep in the basement isn’t writing the works of Shakespeare, then buying him a more expensive typewriter.

The fact is, every theory of being from Buddhism to Freud makes the same assertion: that having meaning in our lives, a sense of purpose, is what we ultimately aspire to. Of course, how meaning is characterised is different for everyone, but the common thread is that we want to feel our lives, and the things we do in our lives, are worthwhile.

And this sense of purpose is even more important for Millennials and Generation Z. A recent Deloitte study found that for 77% of socially connected Millennials worldwide, a ‘sense of purpose’ was the reason they choose an employer. As Millenials rapidly become the dominant force in the workplace, failing to capture this desire to do something meaningful could make hiring and keeping the best people impossible.


You might think, ‘well that’s not a problem at my business, we have a really strong sense of purpose and create great jobs’. But statistically, you’re probably wrong. When a Cranfield University report in October 2014 asked business leaders, ‘does your business have a clear social purpose’, 86% of CEO’s said yes, whereas only 19% of future leaders said yes. This disconnect is causing huge problems in corporations across the globe, as boardrooms battle with their own employees on the core of what the business stands for.

Interestingly, for young people ‘purpose’ has a far broader meaning than the narrow view taught in most management courses. Purpose for young people means a wider social purpose – the act of creating value that not only benefits shareholders and employees, but also society and the environment. The same report noted that 80% of emerging business leaders believe that societal and environmental impact will be the most important indicator of future business success, with only 35% seeing profitability in the same way.

You might not like this. You might not agree with it. But this is the view the brightest and most ambitious people in your workforce hold, so it might be time to pay attention to it.


As my career progressed I worked in some great places, with wonderful perks and challenging, intellectually stimulating work. But the lack of ‘meaning’ bothered me still. I was gaining a clear sense of what I had to do, and how to do it well. But it wasn’t clear to me why I was doing it, except to generate wealth.

For many people forging a career in business, finance, technology, logistics, or many other sectors, the fact that the primary point of their job seems to be making money – usually for someone else – is bothersome. And for companies, putting money first is expensive. It creates highly transactional relationships with employees, meaning the head off to the highest bidder at the earliest opportunity.

For young people today, money is an important part of business, but not the sole purpose of business. And their jobs need to pay well, but need to feed their soul and imagination too.

So becoming a business that means something, that makes a real and positive difference to the world, to society, to people – engaging your workforce in that mission and making them feel like they matter, that’s what counts.

* If you don’t remember Geocities, or never experienced it, it was a very ugly early version of the Internet. This blog post pretty much sums it all up: http://gizmodo.com/5983574/remember-the-hilarious-horror-of-geocities-with-this-website