Continuing our Covid-19 reports from service teams around the world, from the Netherlands we speak to Service director Thomas Hollander and field service technicians Willem Bijlefeld and Lucien de Kreek, who share their experiences of the pandemic and what they believe was key to rising above its challenges.
“I needed to figure out what on earth we are doing.”
The common Dutch saying ‘doe maar normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg’ which literally translates to ‘just act normal, as that’s crazy enough’ provides a glimpse into the Dutch culture of valuing a sense of normalcy. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the field service team had to figure out what “normal” would mean in a new and chaotic situation.
“The first big change was a test to our flexibility. I took two days at home just to figure out what on earth we were doing. What the rules were, and what that meant for my work,” recalled Lucien de Kreek, who has worked as a technician for Arjo since 1999 and is based in the Northwest of the Netherlands.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, it felt strange, it felt dangerous – people were dying. My colleagues and I were a little lost,” agreed Willem Bijlefeld, who joined Arjo in 2001. “What do we do now? We weren’t allowed to go into the hospitals and care homes, we weren’t sure what to do.”
The answer soon became clear: Just reach out and ask.
“We know our customers well. In fact one of the hospitals I currently serve, I used to work there as an in-house technician, so I know the staff very well,” said Willem. “I just reached out and called them, and agreed together on what was possible.”
“That’s how I found out that at the care homes, they had completely closed off the common activity areas. No residents, visitors or staff were allowed there. I know that was where a lot of the equipment was, so I realised that could be a safe place for me to service the equipment with no risk of contact with anyone,” said Lucien.
“In hospitals, they always kept the Covid-positive patients in one wing, separated from everyone else. So I could go to the facilities, work on the equipment in a sealed-off area where no one else was coming or going, or a Covid-safe area,” Lucien added. “I also serviced some equipment in the garden, when the weather allowed and they could move the equipment outside for me.”
Left: When the weather permitted, movable equipment could be serviced just outside the care facilities. Photo from Lucien de Kreek.
Right: During a shortage of face shields, Willem Bijlefeld created his own makeshift goggles using masking tape and plastic cups to service a built-in flusher disinfector onsite. Thankfully, the protective gear shortage did not last long. Photo from Bryan Klomp.
Owning the customer relationship
As was the case around the globe, the service team was now handling stressed-out customers, heightened concerns for safety, and swift rise in demand for healthcare equipment. During this period of uncertainty, Thomas Hollander, service director for the Netherlands, believes there was one clear advantage for his team.
“Here in the Netherlands, every technician has long-term customers for whom they are the dedicated technician as much as possible. I feel this is one of our strengths,” said Thomas. “They are in charge of those relationships, of planning the activities for these customers, they know their customers so well and can make decisions to serve those customers best.”
“This means that our guys on the field own their contracts, their relationships, and so they owned the actions they took with each customer,” he added.
“It’s an advantage if you know your service area, and you know your customer so well, and you’ve built up a relationship of trust, because we could trust our instincts and understand what the customer really needed,” explained Lucien.
As it turned out, this flexibility was essential as the situation fluctuated according to time, geography, and need.
“A lot of the time the pandemic was a regional issue. For example at the beginning, in the north they were like ‘is there really a pandemic right now?’ while in the south they were in panic, case numbers were climbing fast,” explained Thomas.
“When the situation fluctuates like this, rental would go up because people wanted equipment fast, but only for a certain period of time. We also had limited capabilities in terms of the size of the team, of the inventory that we could manage. The global supply chain was delayed weeks, then months. So new equipment was needed, but was not arriving anytime soon,” he added.
“However, I can say that everyone in this team felt a responsibility to our customers, and they were all committed to supporting them as much as possible, as soon as possible. There was this feeling of, it’s not just the customer’s problem, it’s also our problem, let’s solve it together. Despite all the difficulties and shortfalls, we managed to retain the business in some areas, and even grow it in others. And I think that comes down to the team’s commitment.”
Ultimately, team Netherlands believes the crisis has strengthened their customer relationships.
“My customers and I are still on good terms. They can see that we have the flexibility to solve different problems in different situations. I think they see that we are still committed to a high service standard despite the challenging situation. I think we’ve done a good job,” said Lucien.
“We’ve been thinking out of the box to support them, to keep them and their patients safe, but also to protect ourselves. I think they understand this and our relationships are still good,” said Willem.
“I think we have been able to prove to the customers just what kind of partner we are. That despite challenges like these we are still committed to doing our job, and keeping our promises," added Thomas.
“Every morning we would go to work. It felt strange.”
Soon customers and colleagues alike became familiar with the safety precautions, which meant the service team could resume working on-site. However, with constant changes and heightened concerns, a sense of “normalcy” was elusive.
“Eventually we were able to visit the hospitals wearing protective gear, but then the administration work, which before Covid I would usually do in their lounge with a cup of coffee, now instead I would take it straight home and finish it there,” said Willem. “No coffee, no long chats, and you have to eat lunch alone in the van.”
“My wife works in a hospital as well, so every morning we would take my service van to the hospital to work together,” Willem added. “Meanwhile our neighbours were staying home, doing their best to avoid going out, and every day they would see my wife and I leave for work. It felt strange.”
“Sometimes we would arrive with a face mask and the hospital would ask us to change it to a new one before going in,” added Lucien.
“Sometimes the rules changed from one place to the next. One of my hospitals was completely Covid-free at one point, so it was no problem for me to visit them. But there was another hospital dealing with an outbreak, and I had to wear full protective gear to go in,” recalled Willem. “We avoided contact with patients, but sometimes I would catch a glimpse of the Covid patients fighting for their lives in the hospital beds, on ventilators. I felt terrible for them.”
“It was quite hard sometimes. When we had a strict lockdown, I was arriving at a hospital and there was a family crying in the reception hall because they weren’t allowed to go in to see a loved one who was very sick. And there I was with my big box of tools, walking right through,” said Lucien.
“We were going in as essential workers while family members weren’t allowed to see their loved ones. But the customers needed us. When their equipment doesn’t work, they can’t help their patients. We have to be there,” he added.
“Hip bumping is probably not for me.”
It goes without saying that the pandemic had an impact on their social lives as well.
“When men greet men in the Netherlands, we shake hands, and when men greet women or women greet each other, we usually kiss each other on the cheek,” explained Thomas.
“Personally I like to shake hands or hug. It’s also customary to kiss people on the cheek on their birthday, or to congratulate them for something. But during the pandemic, it’s no longer safe to do any of these things.
“We had a company presentation about Covid-safe protocols, where they advised us not to kiss, not to shake hands, and instead to bump elbows or wave at each other. Imagine you meet a friend and it’s their birthday, do we wave at each other, bump elbows? It just felt a bit weird.
“At that same meeting one of our colleagues, who normally seems like a very serious guy, suggested that we could bump hips! Some of them are doing that now. I think it’s hilarious, but hip bumping is probably not for me,” Thomas said with a chuckle. “Not at work at least!”
While it’s one thing to get used to new social protocols, being kept apart from loved ones is much harder to bear.
“My wife was pregnant and due in July 2020. At first we agreed to stay in touch with our family virtually because we thought the pandemic would be over in a few months. We quickly realised that would not be the case, and there is no way my parents would be content with just waving at their new grandchild through the window!” said Thomas.
“So my closest family members – my parents and siblings – agreed to create our own pandemic bubble. We would see each other as normal, but reduce contact with everyone else. No friends, no other family, and essential work meetings from a distance. We were successful I think, because thankfully we’re all still healthy.”
“I have three daughters, and for a long time they weren’t able to see their grandparents,” said Lucien. “In the Netherlands we celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5th, and that’s a really important day for seeing family. We agreed to have an online video conference. We projected our computer screen onto the wall, and managed to have a fun day.”
“My wife and I are risking exposure every day at work, so we have been avoiding contact with everyone else,” said Willem, who is based in Tilburg, near the southern border of the Netherlands. “My mother is 87 years old but recently decided to move to Sweden. My father is 86 and lives in Amsterdam, and he has Parkinson’s. It was difficult for me to visit him, and when I do I have to keep my distance. So far I haven’t been able to visit my mother. When the flights stopped it was no longer something I could do over a weekend.”
An opportunity for change
Two months into the pandemic, Thomas joined Arjo Netherlands and took over the reins of their service team. Proving he is not one to shy away from a challenge, one of his first decisions was to propose a team restructure.
“When I joined Arjo in May 2020, the pandemic was in full swing, and one of the first things I did was look at how our team was structured,” explained Thomas. “At the time service, installation, rental, everything was separate. I challenged my colleagues to rethink how we could run things more efficiently, because these teams could share a lot of the operational processes.”
The restructure involved combining the capital and rental service force, and saw Thomas’ team grow from 37 technicians to 50. While the country was deep in lockdown mode, this adjustment had to be executed remotely.
“This means that I’ve been trying to manage a team and communicate important updates through virtual meetings, where I don’t get to see ‘how you look out of your eyes’, as I would say in Dutch,” admitted Thomas, referring to the lack of non-verbal communication that he finds helpful to understand his colleagues better.
While the team has a standing appointment to gather and meet physically, the Netherlands has been particularly strict about physical gatherings, which has forced them to postpone the event multiple times.
“It’s finally happening on September 16, we’re going to have a service teambuilding day with go-karting,” said Thomas, “then in late September the Arjo Netherlands team is meeting for a barbecue.”
Sharing the Arjo values
If there’s one consistent takeaway from every country about the pandemic lockdown, it’s the importance of human connection. As with their colleagues around the world, team Netherlands is eager to see their friends, family, even their colleagues, in person again.
Lockdown restrictions notwithstanding, Arjo Netherlands continued to regroup, support and celebrate together, albeit virtually and remotely. This included Christmas gifts delivered to employees, and virtual meetings for the yearly kick-off, an event attended by the full national team.
“For the technicians I know in my service area, we stay in touch regularly. Sometimes to check on whether they have a spare part I need, then we’ll meet up and deliver it to each other,” said Willem. “But I haven’t met any new colleagues who joined after the pandemic, including Thomas.”
To date, Thomas, Lucien and Willem have not tested positive for the virus, and know of only a handful of colleagues who have. As more people become vaccinated, they are beginning to feel hopeful that things may soon return to normal.
Thomas was clearly looking forward to finally meeting the team he has been managing for over a year now, repeating the date of their upcoming gathering several times throughout the interview.
“At Arjo Netherlands, I’m one of few new faces, but so many stay on for years and years – even for decades, like Willem and Lucien. I think part of the reason is because of the strong work culture and brilliant team support,” said Thomas. “I want to meet and interact with the team more, and finally understand what they mean when they describe the Arjo culture, and our team values.”
“Maybe I’m going to be a disappointment to most of the technicians. It’s been building up for a year now, I have no idea if I can meet their expectations,” added Thomas with a shrug. “But I can’t wait for that teambuilding day! September 16!”
Thomas speaking at his first physical meeting with his expanded service team on September 16.
The team that plays together, stays together: Go-kart racing to end the Dutch service team's first teambuilding day since the start of the pandemic.