It rained compliments when we asked our readers which TU/e secretaries deserve praise. They are renowned for their enthusiasm, collegiality and creativity. For their positive attitude and their elephantine memory. Because they work like a Trojan. The words of Ellen Konijnenberg, secretary to the examination committee at Industrial Design and University Council member, are typical of most reactions: “All secretaries, because they are vital, because by arranging all kinds of practical matters they ensure that processes run smoothly, because they often act as the memory of their manager and department, because...and so much more! And because just how much they do often only becomes evident when they are absent.”
For this job group, the guidelines of the VSNU, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, state, ‘The performance of secretarial and administrative tasks in support of the manager and/or co-workers of the institution or parts of it, such that he/she / they become capable of performing their own jobs, making efficient and purposeful use of time and resources.’ Ten core tasks are also described in detail. In practice, however, for most secretaries what the job involves is not set in stone. They take on whatever needs to be done. Moreover, the role of the secretaries at TU/e may change in the (near) future.
Secretary of the future
A workgroup was recently set up at TU/e to outline the ‘secretary profile of the future’. The aim is to see what the job will involve and what competencies it will require. The changes in the organization and the work processes, such as the increasing digitalization, are the motivation for getting this ball rolling. A vision is expected by the fall.
The majority of TU/e secretaries fall in scale 6 (see the infographic). Last year university professor Bert Meijer sent a letter to the editor of Cursor, in which he voiced his support for the secretaries. He noted that while they are being asked to do ever more tasks, this increase is not being accompanied by any appropriate financial reward.
“Oh yes, we really saved him, you know.” A twinkle in the eyes of Steef Blok, Director of the Innovation Lab. Alwin Maas, personal assistant at the Innovation Lab, joins in the laughter. By now he is familiar with his manager's sense of humor, and shares it. The two have been working together for eight years now and are ‘buddies’.
It is hard work at the Innovation Lab. Steef: “I expect commitment 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. I am furious if he only arrives at 8.35 a.m. Nothing is as annoying as a nine-to-five mentality. Flexibility is important.” Alwin: “I'll get an email on a Sunday morning at 7 a.m. saying ‘Where are you?’ But, if he needs me in the weekend, then something has definitely come up.” This flexible attitude was expected from the start. Alwin: “I remember it well, eight years ago. It was a Thursday and I was asked when I could begin. I said Monday and that drew the reaction, ‘Surely, if you want to work, you'll start tomorrow’. That's typical, nothing is impossible.”
The two have now forged a strong bond. Steef: “Work is such a large part of life and a place like TU/e sometimes swallows you whole. In order to work well together, you must be able to have fun. To put it even more strongly, I think it's vitally important that we are buddies.” And there's no doubt they enjoy themselves. Steef, grinning: “We both like shocking people. There was a group from the Rabobank here the other day. Alwin comes in and as a joke I introduce him as my husband. You should have seen the look of surprise on the faces of those guys.” Alwin, laughing: “And I asked him what we are going to eat this evening.” Steef: “To get a reaction like that from him, that's great.”
Laughing and crying
But it's not all laughter on the work floor. Steef: “We can laugh and cry together. And occasionally sparks fly in a discussion.” Alwin: “It's nice to have that freedom, to put the opposing point of view.” Steef: “I don't like 'yes men'. If he says to me, ‘Don't do that,’ then often I won't do it. That might involve someone on the work floor, but it could equally involve the Executive Board. He complements me. He's empathetic, while I'm not. We don't have a hierarchical relationship.” Alwin: “That's true. But he's still the boss.”
Anyone who thinks that by now Alwin has earned his stripes will be disappointed. “I sometimes think, ‘You know by now who you're dealing with.’ But I have to prove myself again and again. The bar is set high. But by the same token, I'm challenged. I set myself the goal of being there for him. To ensure, for example, that he has the right documents in time. And that's not always easy; he is very enthusiastic. We really have built this together, you feel you are both responsible. I've no doubt got a certain job description, but I rarely think about that. One day, you might need to arrange everything for a relocation, another day there'll be a conference. And I also make sure that Steef's wife gets flowers on her birthday.”
Male personal assistant
That Alwin, as far as we know, is the only male personal assistant at TU/e, isn't something they find at all strange. “Even when hiring him, I liked the idea of having a male assistant on a technology campus. It makes a change, doesn't it?” says Steef. Alwin: “Personally, the fact that as a man I'm a personal assistant isn't something I ever think about. Nor have I ever felt like the odd one out here.”
Their contact is not limited to the work place. They sometimes go to see a movie together, and Alwin has joined Steef and his wife and daughter at home for dinner many a time. Alwin, suddenly very serious: “I really fear the day when he wants to take things more slowly.”
Students, PhD candidates and co-workers are coming and going all day long at management assistant Emma Eltink's desk, on the third floor of Helix. Emma switches back and forth from Dutch to English as she helps one person after the next, providing an answer or finding the right form. She has now been working eight years with Emiel Hensen, Dean of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry and Professor of Inorganic Materials Chemistry.
From the telephone conversation before the interview it is already clear that Emma knows Emiel very well. “If you send an email, explain in detail what the interview will cover and what questions you want to ask, then you'll maximize the chance that he'll make time and agree to it.”
“Although it clicked at once, I had to get used to it,” says Emma, recalling the start of their working relationship. She came from a secretariat where she very often worked on her own initiative. Emiel was used to handling a lot of the work himself and, according to Emma, doing so meticulously. Laughing: “He can be quite demanding.” But the phase of testing the waters did not last long and Emma was soon taking all kind of work off his hands.
Emiel is especially pleased with the ‘feelers’ that Emma puts out within the group. “Certainly since I've been Dean, it's been harder for me to see what is going on with everyone.” Emma: “I notice quite quickly if someone's research isn't going well or if there's some other problem. Then Emiel can get them fired up with all kinds of ideas and they leave his office feeling motivated.”
As Emma herself says, she is pretty assertive, but Emiel has never found that to be a problem. “I like clarity. And she creates calm for me. I never need to worry about anything.”
They both feel that secretaries at TU/e should be appreciated more. Emiel: “They say that the amount of work has increased but not the complexity. But I see it differently.” Emma can only agree. Personal matters are something she shares mainly if they affect her work. Emma: “If something's happened, I'll mention it. Then he knows why I'm having an off-day.” And one of the best ingredients for a good working relationship is, they both say, humor. Emma: “Especially not always taking everything too seriously.”
For the rest, Emma would like to mention that she thinks Secretary Day is ‘utter nonsense’. “You don't have that for other professions, do you?” “But,” she hastens to add, “I'm quite happy to receive a bunch of flowers.”
The Mexican Mercedes Fuentes Velasco, a recent graduate of Sustainable Energy Technology, used to work closely with Mariëlle Besling-Dullaert on activities run by Technology for Global Development. They hug when they greet one another.
They saw and spoke to each other every week in the IPO building. Mercedes as a member of the activities committee, Mariëlle as a secretary at TGD. Their conversations were about organizing film evenings, lunchtime lectures or an exhibition. And now and then about personal matters. “She is very proud of her children,” says the Mexican woman.
“Sometimes I felt guilty that I was taking up her time,” admits Mercedes. “She has little enough time as it is to do her work.” “Don't be silly,” responds Mariëlle. “It's what makes my work even more enjoyable. Students are in a wonderful phase of their lives.”
Feeling at home
For her, the contact with many international students is another perk. “I've travelled a lot and for five years I lived in France. I know what it's like to have to get used to a new place.” Mercedes: “She helped me feel at home here. In Mexico I was used to talking to very many people at the university. Here, I can really talk to Mariëlle. What's more she is tremendously helpful. Last year I went to Indonesia and with her help it was much easier to get the paperwork done.”
Mariëlle: “I like to help people. But, of course, there are always limits.” Mercedes: “She was away for two weeks recently. Then everything falls apart here, you know!”
What an enthusiastic mail we received from Luuk Meeuwis, education officer at study association GEWIS, about Manon van Leeuwen - secretary at Mathematics and Computer Science. “What an excellent woman she is! She is always ready to help us as a study association.”
Luuk sums up: “She is helping to organize a large, international programming competition, she helps us reach co-workers when we want to invite them to an activity - a drinks party or an education debate, say. And for making appointments with the departmental board she is a natural contact point. She is always prepared to help us or to remind us of appointments we have made. Aside from all this, she is a treasure who always greets us cheerfully and her door is always open.”
Dealing with students adds to the enjoyment she gets from her work, says Manon, who has been working at TU/e since October 2016. “It is really fun working with young people.” Luuk started his board year in July 2017. “If you have any questions, go to the departmental secretariat,” his predecessor told him.
Time for a chat
Their contact consists mainly of discussions about matters that need to be arranged, but there is always time for a chat. And Manon is happy to do that bit more. For example, she spontaneously offered to help out at the programming competition in the fall. “That's on November 18 and 19, isn't it?” says Luuk doubtfully. “On November 24 and 25,” Manon informs him. “You see, she simply knows better. Increasingly, it turns out she has already arranged something for you before you've asked for it.”
Manon: “If they need to get in touch with someone on the board, they often come to me. Then I know they've got good reason to come and I take them seriously.”
Alfons Bruekers, managing director at TU/e innovation Space, and secretary Loes van de Kimmenade are, as they themselves say, ‘in the honeymoon phase’. Her secretarial position crosses TU/e service and departmental boundaries, but that only adds to the 'dynamism and interest' of their cooperation, which began in February.
The variety, the chance to become a 'spider in the web' in her own right - which she's well on the way to accomplishing, according to Alfons - were the most important reasons why Loes applied for the job. “It is a process in which we are still building and developing a great deal, and that is very enjoyable. I am learning a lot, including how things are done at TU/e, because this is my first job here. The cooperation within innovation Space is very agreeable.”
“My first impression is very positive,” confirms Bruekers. “I think she's a triple-S secretary. And by that I mean smart, speedy and solid. She moves quickly from one thing to another, and she takes care of my concerns, which is exactly what a good secretary should do. Don't tell the Board President though, or before we know it she'll be snatched away! At first, we thought we could farm out some secretarial tasks to the various departments. That worked very well to get things started, but in the present phase we really need to have our own support and a conduit between the various parties.”
They describe their working relationship as ‘relaxed and businesslike’. They regularly communicate with each other, and with others, via WhatsApp. The intermittent discussion moments that they first scheduled turned out not to be necessary. Bruekers: “We sit next to each other, within sight of each other. So the lines are really short.”
When we asked which secretary deserves a compliment and why, one secretary in particular was mentioned in a great many reactions: Marcia Bakermans-von Piekartz. She is the secretary at Mechanical Engineering and she has a special place in her colleagues' hearts.
For example, program coordinator Marike Koopmans lets us know that ‘she is the department's heroine’. “I started working here last January and it is so nice to have someone who totally shows you the ropes at TU/e.” Joyce de Vaan (communication and recruitment activities) calls Marcia a ‘super secretary’. “Always a cheerful word, helpful, has good insights into the organization, always manages to involve the right people, and she is simply a very fine person.”
Academic adviser Lonneke Boons thinks that Marcia deserves a compliment ‘because she works so hard, is always at the ready, and makes sure everything runs smoothly’. Director of Education Camilo Rindt adds his two cents: “Aside from the fact that she always keeps very well-ordered lists, which mean that 'we in the team' don't have to keep track of anything, she is always laughing. Come rain or shine, she is always good-humored. And she doesn't hide it.”
Marcia Bakermans reacts enthusiastically to all the compliments. “What an outpouring of appreciation. It takes a lot to make me speechless, but I am right now! I have been working here for the past eleven years with a great deal of pleasure as secretary to the program director for Mechanical Engineering. Since last year I have also been secretary to the head of Team ESA at the department. I really enjoy coming to work, and the atmosphere here at Mechanical Engineering has a lot to do with that. We are a tightly-knit team and with the recent changes within our group we have shown that we are very flexible and welcoming. It's with good reason that my motto is: ‘If individually we keep seeking more, collectively we'll end up with less’.”
“I also really value the contact with students - it keeps us young. They recently changed the name of their marshmallow challenge to the Marcia Challenge.
What am I less happy about …? That's a tricky question. I live my life positively and spend as little time as possible on negative things. But if I had to name one thing, it would be the poor appreciation that as a rule secretaries feel in their purses. Colleagues are full of praise, managers are sympathetic, but it never leads to an increase in job scale where capability has been proven.”
The main photo shows Tine Trommar, who used to work as a secretary at the department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry. This picture - part of the TU/e archives -was taken in june 1959 by Jan van Hooff.