a black and white archive picture of mail sorters at work
Putting letters in the right box is a skill in itself. (Photo: Ben van Meerendonk/AHF, collectie IISG)

Former Delta columnist Dap Hartmann set out to report his unheated room, but that transpired to be difficult. He expresses his dissatisfaction in this letter to the editor.

Lees in het Nederlands

Yesterday, it was cold in my room (14°C) because the heating did not work. It has recently become a huge job to report problems like this. When the Facility Management & Real Estate Department was still called Support Services, you simply called ‘someone whose responsibility it was’. But since ‘Management’ entered the picture, ‘support’ and ‘services’ disappeared, and not just from the name. For the record, my complaint is not directed at the people who do the actual work at FMRE, but at the management. Managing is not a profession but something that you do alongside your real work to ensure that it gets done properly. A bit like the windscreen wipers in your car that do not actually help the car move, but are useful when it rains. As it only rains occasionally, windscreen wipers are usually not needed.

Until recently, even for the most trivial questions, you had to submit a ‘call’ in the Self Service Portal. My call would have been ‘It is cold in my room because the heating does not work’. That would have taken me 30 seconds. That time has passed. I am now required to work my way through a maze of questions to find the right department for my call. In this case, the process went as follows.

I had to login to the Self Service Portal with my user name and password. Then, choose one of these 13 categories:

Er ... I think ‘Facilities, campus and buildings’.

After selecting that, I again had to choose.

Er ... my room is cold. Does that fall under ‘At my workplace’ or under ‘Building and installations’? I tried ‘Building and installations’.

Again a menu:

The heating does not work. Does that classify as ‘Defect, malfunction or comment’? The other categories do not seem relevant, except maybe ‘I have a different question’. So, I click on ‘Defect, malfunction or comment’.

Then I got this menu:

A long list of options – including malfunctioning hinges, leaks, odour, and a damaged ceiling – that I had to read through before choosing the most likely option. ‘Report an uncomfortable climate’ seemed to me the most appropriate.

This brought up a form in which I had to answer a lot of questions:

I have no idea why this form is suddenly in Dutch, but at least I could finally report the problem. After 2.5 hours I received this message: ‘Because of work being carried out on the heating system, there is currently no heating supply’. Why were we not informed of this in advance? And why does it take 2.5 hours to tell me this? I am not asking for a solution to the Navier-Stokes equations.

Two hours later, I received an email: ‘As you may have noticed, the heating in the TPM building is not working properly’. No kidding! And, ‘We expect to provide our building with sufficient heating after this weekend. It may then take several days before our building has reached a comfortable temperature, so take into account that it may be cold at your workplace until then.’ That was Tuesday, so it would take one full week! I have no experience with managing, but I would have issued this announcement before the work on the heating system started. Or I would have done these ‘changes to the heating system ... to make the buildings more sustainable’ during the summer.

This incident illustrates the underlying problem: FMRE has created a system that makes it more difficult and more time consuming for employees to get support. Until recently, you simply sent a message to the service desk which forwarded it to the relevant department. The service desk was very experienced as they did this all day long. It is comparable to how I used to sort the mail into 48 pigeon holes at the PTT postal service. After a couple of days, I could chuck each letter into the right pigeon hole blindfolded.

(Photo: Ben van Meerendonk/AHF, collectie IISG)

Why do I have to go over all 48 pigeon holes in the Self Service Portal myself to file a report? I want one central point of contact where I can ask my question. The current system appears to be designed to discourage you to use it. From the management’s perspective, this is fabulous as fewer and fewer calls will be made, which will undoubtedly be interpreted as the result of improved service provision. Just like the decrease in stolen bicycles: fewer people report bicycle theft so fewer bicycles appear to be stolen. Eventually, there will be less work for FMRE and support staff can be laid off. Reduced costs! Another big success for the manager who will now be eligible for a bonus. This is what happens when you make the windscreen wipers the king of the car. Just so you know.

Dap Hartmann is associate professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Delft Center for Entrepreneurship (DCE) at the faculty of Technology, Policy and Management.  Between 2004 and 2018, he wrote columns for Delta and will soon return to that post.