Organisation - January 20, 2010

Backstage at the Forum

The Forum in Wageningen, a university building, is a hive of activity on a busy day, with almost four thousand people on their way to give lectures, attend practicums, study, eat or meet. Thanks to a small support team, the building is kept clean and runs like clockwork.

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Roelof Bijl is one of the concierges at the Forum. At 7 o'clock in the morning, he throws open the doors of the building and waits for me, enthusiastic and cheerful. 'We need to take the ashtrays outside before we do our round of the building.' Ashtray or no ashtray, the floor at the end of a day is littered with cigarette butts, Bijl admits.
After a cup of coffee, Bijl shows me the Forum's backstage. 'The building is full of technical set-ups; it's super-modern. From our control centre below, for example, we can see what's wrong with the printer on the eighth floor. If it runs out of paper, we can take a new stack with us upstairs right away.'
Several of Bijl's colleagues are sitting in the control room, starring at computer screens which not only show emails but also security images from inside the building. Bijl and his team have wide-ranging tasks, from attending to computers with minor malfunctions to the time immemorial task of giving in-house emergency services, such as  first-aid and assisting when the building has to be evacuated during calamities. 'One of the things which we still do for old times' sake is cleaning the school boards every morning.'
Counter
'Good morning, this is the receptionist at Forum, Renee.' Renee van de Weerd is one of those sitting behind the counter and greeting everyone a good morning. 'We are like a calling card.' Throughout the day, teachers and students approach the counter with all sorts of questions. 'Room booking? A small event? You can come along to the reception nowadays. We're pleased to help. Provided you keep to the rules, of course. This is, after all, a building for education.' During our interview, Van de Weerd also attends to the nitty gritties: new chalks, laser pointers, security passes. Can you tell me where room C313 is? We have a parcel for the library. Can I buy prepaid chip cards here?
The telephone rings. People wait for their turns at the counter. 'We can refer most of the queries to colleagues at the Student Service Centre, says Van de Weerd. 'On a normal day, about a hundred people stop by, but especially at the beginning of the year or at the start of a new term, we have to work non-stop.' In the meantime, a girl calls at the counter with a cup a quarter filled with coffee. 'I think the machine has broken down', she says. 'I'm afraid I can't refund you any money, but if you'd wait for a while, I'll get you a cup of coffee', says Van de Weerd. The girl leaves the counter, satisfied. 'Yes, that's part of the work too. Practically, no two days are the same and there's never a dull moment. We also form a good team with the management of the Forum.'

The Forum
The Forum has nine floors, with 111 lecture rooms. The basement is mainly used by canteen personnel and for storage.
CSU Cleaning Agency assigns seventeen cleaners to cover more than 29,000 square metres of floor area.
There are almost 4000 visitors on a busy day.
There are 1200 computers in the building; minor problems are being tackled by the concierges.
Although there are whiteboards and digital boards, there are still 48 chalkboards, one of the biggest nightmares for the cleaners.
The building is open for 80 hours per week.
There are 43 in-house emergency workers, of which 11 can offer first-aid.
Practicum support
The people in charge of giving support to practicums start work early in the day, just like the concierges. They work on the eighth storey, where all the practicum rooms are located. Adrie Groeneveld and Jurrie Menkman are backing up two busy practicum classes in this period. 'Cell biology 1 is one of the biggest courses of study, and maybe even the biggest one in the university, with more than five hundred students', says Groeneveld. 'Students attend one practicum every week for six weeks long. That means that practicums are being held throughout the day for three days in a week. Our job is to ensure that each practicum can begin on time and that all the materials are ready for the teachers and students.' Menkman adds: 'Last week, we had to prepare fifty petri dishes filled with agar for every group of twelve students. What a lot of dishes we had to fill!' he laughs. 'Luckily, there are always lecturers who are ready to give a helping hand even early in the morning.'
In the meantime, we have reached the basement of the Forum, where many of the materials needed for experiments are stored. Groeneveld: 'Each period has practicums different from the previous. We set things up according to the wishes of those who are in charge. When the teachers first moved from their old locations to the Forum, they were sometimes skeptical, but I think that got a little out of hand. We feel that it's important for teachers and students to like it here.'
After the basement tour, Groeneveld and Menkman continue preparing for the practicum which will take place that afternoon. 'I'm going to get two eppies from the fridge.' Groeneveld takes out two small tubes filled with a liquid from the fridge. 'As soon as one practicum begins, we go to tidy up the rooms where the work has ended, and we check the equipment used. That kind of work makes our job many-sided too.'
Cleaning
Dorien Massop is the fore(wo)man of the cleaners in the building. 'We work in pairs per storey. We have to clean the entire storey in a mere two hours and forty-five minutes. That's a really gigantic task.' The cleaners in the Forum take care of 29,000 square metres - and that's just the floor area. They have to clean the tables and chairs too.
We come across one of the cleaners on the seventh floor, someone from Africa. She begins to talk enthusiastically about the kitchens she cleans, and also about the good rapport with her colleagues. 'Dorien is a little like our mother; she makes us work hard but we can always count on her.'
We went down further to the fifth storey and stop at the rooms occupied by the creative people, namely, the landscape architects. 'You can't mistake it; there're a lot of handicraft here and also many signs of lunches having been eaten. Just picking up the plastic bags for the rubbish bin can sometimes be a little too much; doing the floor is much easier', says Massop. Visitors are only allowed to eat and drink in the G-rooms but not everyone keeps to this rule.' Sure enough, the room is full of plastic bottles, sandwich bags and coffee cups.
We walk further, cross the bridge and reach the Van Hall Larenstein area. Massop: 'I get the idea now and then that students at VHL are allowed to do anything, and no-one mutters a word against that. It's generally neater at the university side.' One of the cleaners comes towards us. 'Dorien, it's happened again.' We walk towards a room where a number of students have apparently held a chalk fight. Chalk everywhere, much of it trodden flat. 'Chalks are one of our biggest headaches; the powder gets out of hand. Teachers and students leaving the room leave foot prints all over the place.'
We continue walking, towards the coffee area. 'Look, someone tried to be funny', says Massop. Somewhat artistically, that someone had glued several coffee spoons against the window, probably with coffee with a lot of sugar. During our tour, we come across all and sundry: pizza boxes, pizza remains and soup cups in an area which has written across its door: Don't eat or drink
'Despite the mess, I like the work very much', Massop says. 'We work in a nice multi-cultural team and everyone works hard. I can bring problems to the building management, and it has a listening ear. Nevertheless, I would like to have more time to do the cleaning, or to have visitors leave behind less rubbish.'

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