It was a plot twist he was not expecting at all when in January of this year, ready for a new challenge, he applied to work at TU/e. Spiele, who has a background in business administration (having long ago started his career with the Netherlands Marine Corps before becoming a manager in various companies such as Facilicom, TNO and the German TÜV NORD and working on a range of tasks related to security & safety, including cyber security), was alerted to the vacancy for TU/e's Campus Manager Safety & Security via LinkedIn, he explains.
The broad range of duties and responsibilities appealed at once. “Safety and security, parking management, mobility and crisis management, and all that within the public-private environment of a university.” At the same time, an opportunity arose with an American organization, he says “which would have meant having to spend 70 percent of my time flying all over the world. Not that this was the deciding factor, but I've been away from home such a lot all through my working life. Discussing it with my family, I reached the conclusion that TU/e simply offered the best opportunities.”
This is bearing in mind that his family has been settled for more than twenty years in the Brainport region, more specifically the municipality of Son, neighboring Eindhoven. Spiele was born fifty-eight years ago in Enschede, and has also lived in Groningen, Amsterdam and Utrecht, but “Brabant is our base.”
He and TU/e proved a match. His expressed intention of making a long-term commitment was an important factor (the two previous holders of Spiele's position left TU/e after two years and nine months, respectively), but it was chiefly his twenty-five years of management experience in the field of integrated security that worked in his favor.
Monday March 2nd was the day he was due to start, but the Sunday before the telephone rang. “I will never forget it,” says Spiele. “My onboarding program was going to be a little different than planned, was the message. ‘You'll start with a crisis team meeting on corona.’” His diary was cleared and time was blocked, “except for a number of necessary introductory meetings in the first week”. Spiele speaks of a “cascade effect: the frequency of meetings increased rapidly, during the week, on Saturdays and Sundays, very occasionally face to face, mostly over Skype or in app groups.”
Controlled start to lockdown
One of the bigger issues soon on the table was: “How are we going to bring about an actual campus lockdown, in a controlled manner? And what does this mean for our Emergency Response Team (BHV) and security?” Various decisions were taken in consultation, including to send home TU/e's own Corporate Fire Department, which shares its fire station on the campus with the regional fire service. “If there's virtually nobody left on the campus, there is little added value in keeping the university's own fire service there.”
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After careful consideration of the changed circumstances and risks, the security organization maintained its regular numbers. “Colleagues compared it initially with the Christmas recess, when for two weeks the campus is all but closed. So this situation, in which they are practically the only people on the campus, is not new to our security team.” Nonetheless, according to Spiele, a switch did have to be flipped. “We are on campus as usual, doing what we've always done, working with multiple colleagues in the incident room, driving together in the surveillance car. In your daily work as a security officer, physical contact with your colleagues and others is sometimes unavoidable. What risks are we running in terms of infection and how are we dealing with them? These are issues on which we sought external advice, including from RIVM, and discussed among ourselves and reached agreement.”
For the rest, on the empty campus in recent months the duties and daily routines of the security crew have been much the same as usual, says Spiele. “Our people are doing their surveillances, making inspection rounds in the buildings, responding to reports of break-ins, fire reports and other incidents.” Initially, however, the incident room had the added task of dealing with all the incoming telephone traffic to the university. “It was manageable but the calls soon increased - both in number and complexity. In response, it was decided to scale up the reception services.”
Whereas his team's duties were largely in the 'business as usual' category, Spiele's initial months at the university were “70, 75 percent directly or indirectly corona-related,” he says. “Crisis, scaling up, scaling down, changes, being flexible, collaborating while adrenalin is running high, working long hours; that's simply who I am and it's what I like. It is one of the dimensions of my work I like best. But what made it extraordinary was that I was not yet familiar with this organization, with its language.”
Collaborating while adrenalin is running high, working long hours; that's who I am and it's what I like
Nonetheless, he feels he was able to work alongside others and contribute fully from the outset, “and that's also the feedback I've had from colleagues. Making a tentative assessment, based on my own observations and the feedback I'm getting, I would say that as a university we did very well. Naturally, we'll need to reflect at some point on what we might do differently or better next time.”
Spiele does not wish to draw on his personal observations to pre-empt possible improvements. Although he will say this, “We had no script for a pandemic; we acted pragmatically based on other scripts we did have, in consultation with all the departments involved. A huge number of people worked extraordinarily hard and achieved a great deal, in online education and proctoring to name just one field. We should be really proud of that - and I am proud to have played my own very small part.”
Full campus etched on his mind
Something else he says he is very happy about is that in the first days of his appointment he saw the campus functionally normally. “That picture of the campus in full swing, with ten to twelve thousand students, researchers and others, is etched on my mind. After that I was sometimes on the campus for my work, but it was an almost empty campus - a surreal situation.”
The phenomenon of working largely from home, for Spiele as for so many of us the new 'norm', meant for him “no real change. I was already very used to using all kinds of digital tools. The most unfortunate aspect I found, and still find, is that I haven't yet got to know our employees very well personally. Personal contact is really important to me, I want to get to know my people better as soon as possible, which will also help me facilitate and assist them better.”
Fortunately, however, split over two sessions, he did have the opportunity two months ago to meet his staff live and individually; first security staff, then the fire department. “At one meter fifty, but I was delighted. I presented myself and they were able to put all their questions to me. We talked about slowly getting the campus back up and running, about what that will mean for them and their work, about system-related matters. In addition, I outlined my vision of safety and security, and clarified where we are and where we want to get to.”
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This vision will appear in the long-range plan for the period 2020-2024, which should be ready this fall. An important theme in this plan, Spiele explains, is the planned transition to “a more information-driven and data-driven approach to both security and the program related to integrated safety”. Health & safety and environment, safety, security, cybersecurity and privacy: at present TU/e has a dedicated department for each of these areas, says Spiele, but the plan is to integrate these themes, and to apply a more preventive and proactive approach to them. “This requires a very different way of thinking and working. What does this mean for our processes, systems and our competences? That's what we now plan to explore.”
For the short term, Spiele's main message for his people was “that we still do not know how COVID-19 is going to affect us. How is it going to affect the campus? Will we soon have twelve to thirteen thousand people milling about, and if so, what are the implications of that? We have no absolutely no way of knowing. So it makes sense to consider various scenarios.”
When asked what he personally expects, Spiele says, “Whatever happens, in the first quartile I expect we will still be running a combination of face-to-face and online education, for example with digital lectures and a number of taught activities and exams on the campus. I certainly don't see the campus being fully back up and running in the fall, however much I would like that. With the current requirement to maintain the appropriate distance, that's simply beyond our infrastructure; we just can't accommodate so many people.”
And that raises all kinds of issues. Certainly if you think ahead to the start of the new academic year in early September. And indeed even for today, given the increased scope being created for, among other things, events. “What can we do and when? How can we ensure we remain diligent?”
Even though he has had little opportunity to experience the university ‘running normally’, Spiele says he has gained a good impression of TU/e. “What strikes me is the huge sense of engagement, loyalty and passion felt by everyone I speak to. It is also a critical environment and, let's not forget, a dynamic, complex organization, with its eleven TU/e services and nine departments.” As a result, TU/e is an organization unlike any other he has previously worked, “but I'm quick on the uptake. I observe and act based on my own findings.”
His top priority for the coming period is to establish a stronger bond with his own staff, Spiele explains. “I think I've built a good relationship with our most important stakeholders, with the Executive Board, the managing directors, the departments. Now it is high time I did the same with our own teams. That's where I really want to invest.”
In the meantime, the crisis with its countless challenges has given him “an extraordinary amount of energy and drive. From a professional standpoint, the crisis makes for a rewarding, high-stakes environment. This is what you train for, what you run practice drills for, this is what you make policy for - and all this, to some extent, plus all your past experience, gives to something to fall back on. But to some extent you are also driving blind; I agree entirely with Rutte on that. Every day there's something to learn, and that appeals to me.”