An unlikely call center agent works his way up the ranks—much to the bewilderment of friends and family—and uncovers a tension between control and community.

In early 2005, unsure of what to do with my life and in desperate need of income, I took a job as an agent in a call center. It was an inbound B2B operation, so each day I clocked in, sat down, indicated to my phone what “state” I was in—ready!—and took around 110 calls from businesses all over the country over the course of eight hours or so.

While I was surprised not to hate it, friends and family were closer to shocked. I had never seemed to anyone likely to enjoy a business or corporate environment of any sort, let alone a call center, typically considered the worst imaginable place to be: a labyrinthine “cost center” of cubicles whose low-wage occupants are basically despised by their employer because nothing they do makes money. Indeed, because it’s viewed—incorrectly—as nothing but an expense, a typical call center is micromanaged to wring maximum operating efficiency from the people and machines inside. Often, there’s no choice for leaders: failure to control costs can result in off-shoring.

But I loved the people I worked with, who were fun and sincere in their desire to help customers: an oddity that forever imprinted the import of culture on me. From the first day, goofy passion for service abounded in leaders and peers. It was not immediately contagious, but it gradually became a natural value. And helping people with even trivial things feels good. Weirdly, we had fun. I wound up working there for five years, moving up and eventually managing operations.

If you work in a call center, you have precise allotments of time for absolutely everything you do; all your activity is tracked by the phones, the computers, and badges, the doors, the cameras, and the IT systems in general. Each day, each week, each month, you see how your average call time stacks up, whether your QA scores took a dive, whether you’re using too much time on bathroom breaks, and so on.

Because of high churn, policies must be binding and comprehensive; mitigating the possibility of unfairness, corruption, or liability is a priority, so managerially disempowering “automatic policies” are favored. I saw many people get fired against the will of their bosses, an upsetting absurdity. But without these policies, favoritism, inconsistency, and simple human variance meant perceived or actual unfairness.

Of course, making policies for every potentiality is the essence of bureaucracy. When systems cannot be adaptive, they must be prescriptive. The system cannot be adaptive to the single mother a few minutes late because her daycare had a fire alarm. Otherwise, the young man who just doesn’t seem to wake up on time will sue when he’s let go because of the inconsistent treatment. Given how many people pass through a call center in a year, this means that lawsuits can become a major cost. So policies proliferate.

I hated these policies as an agent on the phone, naturally. As I moved up, I hated having to administer them, debate them with other managers, apply them. By the time I had nearly 100 people reporting to me, I was in regular wars with HR over policy enforcement. I knew and liked my people, so I made exceptions when I deemed it sensible, which was often. In doing so, of course, I was making the organization inconsistent, ‘unfair’; I was increasing its liabilities, and in a diffuse way the difficulty of it remaining viable and my friends keeping their jobs. Thankfully, no feedback loops were short enough for this to trouble me. Moreover, I generally felt that quality service demanded a humane culture which respected individual realities more than bureaucratic mandates. So I had my own rationalization for ignoring policies, and the performance of my teams—in my opinion—validated my approach.

Still, I always knew that my rationalizations, even if somehow true, were not why I did it. Mostly, I liked being liked. It seemed obviously more important than policies or promotion that I not disappoint the trust of people I considered friends. We had achieved something like a little community, many of us there for years, and desired accord with one another mattered to us deeply. Looking back, the tension between mitigating externalities through centralization and policy as opposed to decentralizing control in the hopes that successful, useful communities will form seems fundamental to me. In real systems of scale, there will always be real trade-offs.