Shall we make the ‘chalkboard’ our first topic and get it out of the way? Henk laughs. Over the years it has become a running gag between him and his colleagues. As soon as anyone even mentions chalkboards, his colleagues will be grinning and saying, 'Henk's the man to talk to about that'.
This goes back to something that happened many years ago. In a major, very expensive project, and with the agreement of the university's teaching staff, the chalkboards were replaced in Auditorium's amphitheaters. Within a matter of weeks, the replacement operation was being undone in a number of rooms after, according to Henk, a handful of professors and lecturers had appealed to the Executive Board for the return of the chalkboards. “I kind of went berserk; I was furious that so much money was being wasted. But at the end of the day it's the Executive Board's decision.” Laughing, he says, “After that I said to everyone, ‘I will absolutely not discuss chalkboards again’.”
In the dim and distant past he wanted to be a baker, he says. But it soon dawned on him that “Everyone will be off when I have to work. So what will that mean for the rest of my life? What will I do?”. He switched to the graphics sector, and spent years working at a book bindery in Eindhoven, until he started to get itchy feet - Henk was in his early thirties - again.
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His brother was working in security at TU/e and knew that the university was looking for a custodian for the Auditorium. The variety in the work held instant appeal, he says. “What's more, during the job interview they said they were looking for a custodian who couldn't only open and close doors and attach a microphone to its stand, but who also knew where the microphone had to be plugged in. That made me laugh; back then my brother-in-law was a guitarist in a band, I was connecting dozens of these cables every weekend.”
Nonetheless, the career switch he was planning did give him some sleepless nights. “We had just bought a house, our second child had just been born, and there I was making a switch like this. I prefer certainty.” But, as he explains, “I also knew that at TU/e you would have to pull some really crazy stunts before they'd fail to take you on permanently after a year.”
Glass of water for the professor
He didn't pull any crazy stunts. Although he was not afraid to speak out if he thought something could perhaps be done differently, despite being a relative newcomer. The glass of water for professors, for example, that had to be fetched and left ready in the lecture theater ahead of a lecture. “Having us provide clean glasses made sense - but couldn't they simply fetch the water themselves as they entered the hall; the sideboard is just around the corner?”
This issue fizzed and faded, says Henk, “it wasn't long before most found it entirely normal to fetch it themselves. Not that there weren't a few souls among the somewhat older guard who were a bit more inclined to stay firmly seated on their thrones; who would look straight at you when passing by but never say a word.” Over the years, however, what he has sensed above all else is gratitude for the help and support he and his colleagues lend. And whenever people have been very much at odds he has always looked for a solution or a happy medium, “while keeping sight of the human side of things.”
He continues, “Later too, as team leader, I always said to my colleagues: put yourself in the shoes of the person you are helping. Lecturers may sometimes get out of bed a little late, they've not yet had their coffee, they arrive at a lecture theater with only five minutes to spare, and they may promptly explode if everything isn't ready for them. In that case we are simply the last straw; the cause of their anger lies elsewhere. You could say, ‘They have only themselves to blame, surely they should have arrived earlier?’ But that's not for us to say. If any lecturer experiences this kind of situation on a couple of occasions, they'll learn, you can be sure of that.”
This is not to say that he wouldn't “kick up a stink” if he himself or a colleague were treated unfairly. “It's not been unknown for someone to arrive back at the office looking tearful: ‘You wouldn't believe how I've just been treated…’. Which would prompt me to ask, by whom? In which lecture theater? And, what time does the lecture end? I'd be there after that lecture. I won't stand for that.”
A turbulent time began, according to Henk, shortly before the turn of the millennium, when TU/e embarked on a massive reorganization of its auxiliary services under the banner ‘AVA’ (Added Value Analysis). The main drive was to get people working more efficiently, Henk explains, who, by his own admission, was hardly surprised. “I came here from industry and spent the first three months adjusting significantly. People were soon warning me, ‘Keep up this pace and you won't last long here.”
Henk and his colleagues, until then part of Internal Affairs (DIZ), were integrated into the new Facilities Company. The university's custodians and audiovisual technicians were merged; it was the birth of the service staff. “For us it meant adding another (welcome) string to our bow; we had to learn audiovisual engineering. But the AV people who now had to take on custodial tasks saw it as a step down.”
After several years of people and tasks being reassigned around, peace returned, he reflects. Internal Affairs was reinstated, headed up by Martin Boers, and at some point a vacancy came up for a new team leader for the service staff. “My colleagues said, ‘You must go and do that’. It was nice to hear them say so but also tricky because in that position I would not longer be their colleague, but their manager.”
Nonetheless he applied, was hired, and has spent the past nineteen years in the role, working as coordinator of visual support and team leader service staff. Managing staff took some getting used to, he admits “I had to boost my self-confidence in that role; among other things, internal training courses helped.” Also working in his favor, Henk thinks, is that “I've always been a people person; like honesty, it runs through me. If I ever had the impression that people weren't being completely open with each other, I would sit them down together and we'd always sort it out, in one or two sessions.”
And he has this to add: “The responsibilities are all mine, and at the end of the day I make the decisions. But sometimes you simply have to acknowledge that your estimation of the situation and your approach were wrong. When that happens, I just come right out and say it. ‘Bert, Hans, whoever it may be - you were right, back then’.”
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A more recent challenge has been the digitalization of the Auditorium since 2012, one of the benefits of which is the 'digital looping' of sound and images, potentially between all the lecture theaters. This enables students at well-attended lectures to follow their lecture from a different theater; a possibility that has since been replaced in education by the streaming and recording of lectures. Some, like Studium Generale, are still making grateful use of digital looping; it caters for their entire audience when, say, the turnout for a lecture is unexpectedly high.
For the past two years Information Management & Service (IMS) has been expressly involved in audiovisual support, Henk explains. “In part because at Internal Affairs I'd let it be known, ‘I can't do this on my own anymore’.” Over the years, his responsibility for audiovisual facilities had mushroomed from the Auditorium (“somewhat my baby, I have to say”) to a total of 12 buildings with no fewer than 85 lecture halls. “It was too many, at a certain point I was on the brink of a burn-out.”
This prompted the phased transfer, starting in 2018, of various tasks to IMS. Another department, with its own culture, approach and methods, “that took some getting used to”. But with plenty of discussion, an open attitude and giving the other side scope to “trip up a couple of times”, the parties involved will work things out for themselves, Henk says. “For heaven's sake, let's pull together and organize things so that education and research are supported as they have been used to being supported and as they should be supported.”
Personally, he himself is now winding down, entrusting his tasks to others, putting instructions on paper. “It helps me feel I'll be leaving a tidy operation behind me, in the hands of a good and reasonably self-managing team.” Necessary because, as Henk tells, his position will not be filled right after he leaves, “pending developments at DIZ.”
He expects to be able to close the door with a quiet heart when he leaves at the end of the summer, “although they will inevitably slip up at some point”. The main thing he hopes to pass on to his team is that every element, every client, every event needs its own approach and service. “Not just technically, but also in terms of people.”
The staff are selected for this flexibility, he tells, likewise for their resilience to stress. On plenty of occasions he has been asked, especially in sticky situations, how he manages to stay so calm, “while in my mind it was all systems go. In precisely those situations I have always tried to reassure people. if you come across as nervous, you only make it worse for the client.”
And, as he goes on to say, “you have to be able to shift gear quickly. I'm always looking one step ahead, trying to foresee the consequences of a decision I'm about to take. Meanwhile the telephone is always demanding attention and your in-box is always bulging. You learn to cope with that, but it does mean you are constantly ‘switched on’.”
Since he decided to bring forward his retirement by nearly a year (on September 14 of this year instead of August 18, 2021), he has been gradually ‘switching off’, passing on his various tasks and letting go, Henk says. He's happy to admit, “It's time to go. There comes a point when you have seen enough changes, swings of the pendulum, managers.” Besides, he notes, “I am 65, still have my health - and am very much aware of having seen people younger than me pass away. Yes, that's certainly something we've talked about here, at home.”
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Only if you carry him out
‘Home’ is a duplex (semi-detached for the Brits) in Veldhoven, the former church parish of Veldhoven-Dorp to be precise, a place that Henk readily admits he'll never leave - “they'll have to carry me out”. From his base here, he enjoys his family, his two grandchildren aged seven and eleven, takes cycle rides through the region's countryside. He is also happy working in his garage, polishing and doing maintenance on cars, like the Toyota Starlets belonging to his wife and daughter. Music on, all the time in the world, “that's when I can truly express myself, be myself.”
The friendly hints he's received, people testing the waters - Would he perhaps like a position as a beadle or exam invigilator at TU/e sometime soon? - for now he's parking all these ideas. “I won't be sitting at home twiddling my thumbs but I will be in ‘off’ mode for a while. And when I'm back ‘on’ it will be in my own way and when I'm ready.”
He concludes, “I don't mean it in a dramatic way, but now that I'm retiring I am embarking on my last phase. Yes, that sometimes goes through my mind. But all in all, I'm okay with it. After fifty years of working, I have certainly done my bit for society, don't you think?”