‘It is going to be really hard because I have put so much into it. It’s an incredibly magnetic place.’
Lucia Bramwell, Head of Housekeeping, on retiring
As Head of Housekeeping, ‘the human touch’ has been essential to Lucia Bramwell’s smooth-running of Trinity’s largest department. As she steps down after 13 years, she reflects on the challenges of changing working practices, her pride in the department, and the vital role of the Cambridge bedmaker.
‘A people person’ may be a cliché but in Lucia Bramwell’s case, it is true. Temperamentally, she seems to have housekeeping in her blood. Between 1968 and 1970, during her hotel catering and management training, she spent her holidays working in hotels – chamber maiding, waitressing, and on the reception desk.
I did a bit of everything. Meeting so many different people from all walks of life, it made the job so interesting. In apparently small, simple ways you could make someone’s day. With high expectations in the service sector I enjoyed the challenges of the job. I knew working with people was what I wanted to do.
She arrived at Trinity in 2003, after 22 years as Student Service Manager of a chain of language schools. She recalls:
The then Junior Bursar said to me: ‘On paper you have the experience. But this is a much larger organisation.’ He was absolutely right. The sheer size of the College – 1000 beds, with the then external houses. I didn’t really know where to start.
In fact, she instinctively did, together with the Deputy Housekeeper, Rebecca Mansfield, who had recently joined from Newnham.
Things were different then. There wasn’t much in the way of staff training and bedmakers did their own thing – on staircases they had worked for decades, in ‘their’ areas of College.
We had to go quite slowly. That lay behind all the changes. A senior colleague in Catering told me that the first year would be about observing, the second about learning and the third, putting everything into practice. I have never forgotten and often recalled those words!
‘It was a huge, wonderful challenge,’ she says, even if objectives were scarce.
I am quite a proud person so I wanted to do it, to come up with results.
Between them, Mrs Bramwell and Mrs Mansfield assessed the allocation of work to staff and made it fairer. Recruitment was made more systematic and rigorous. Training and inductions were introduced. Leave arrangements were made more flexible. Environmentally friendly cleaning products and recycling became the norm.
Did she meet resistance to all the changes? Mrs Bramwell smiles. Improving communication was ‘key to everything’ she says. She jokes that when she arrived, for bedmakers, moving between Burrell’s Fields, Great Court or Whewhell’s Court was like ‘going to another country.’
It’s been an ongoing challenge to implement some of the new working practices that organisations have had to take on board, and to nurture staff to understand that this is what we need to be doing.
With the introduction of a formal agreement between the College and each student, the Licence to Occupy, comes greater expectations, she says.
To improve communication and team working, Mrs Bramwell introduced an annual meeting at which the Junior Bursar provides an overview of developments at the College. Mrs Bramwell explains how any changes will affect the department and invites feedback from staff, whether that is ideas for improvements or airing any concerns.
I put a lot of effort into staff management – I can do that because I have a great team. We did spend a lot of time recruiting the right people. We have got a fabulous team now.
The Head of Housekeeping and the Deputy Housekeeper work with 75 bedmakers, three assistant housekeepers, two linen keepers, a seamstress and four handymen.
Bedmaking is not only about cleaning – as any member of the department will tell you. It also involves ensuring students adhere to regulations (as laid out in the Accommodation Handbook), reporting any maintenance issues and, importantly, keeping an eye on student wellbeing. They are the ‘kindly eyes and ears’ of the College, says Mrs Bramwell.
Bedmakers are the only members of staff entitled to enter a student’s room without notice. They get to know their students and are a friendly face. Freshers, particularly, will talk to their bedmaker about what might seem trivial matters. So bedders pick up on student behaviour and contribute to the great support network the College provides.
This informal pastoral role is one reason for the criteria and care with which bedmakers are recruited, says Mrs Bramwell.
We want people with experience and life skills – with an understanding of young people and their needs.
Frequently applicants come from the retail sector, fed up with long hours. Trinity’s bedmakers typically work a six-hour day. Mrs Bramwell says they genuinely care for their students – and that is what makes the job unique.
They want that sort of responsibility for their students. They receive lovely messages and appreciation. They are proud of their students.
Trinity’s bedmakers are diverse, with origins in China, Japan, Poland, Chile, Nigeria, Spain, Jamaica, Nepal, the UK, Lithuania and Thailand.
Newcomers are buddied up with another bedmaker to show them what is expected. After about a week – ‘when we feel they are ready’ – they will be given their own staircase, located with bedmakers who have a similar family situation, but not necessarily the same nationality. Mrs Bramwell is very clear about the use of English among her staff at work.
I don’t think people realize how much thought we put into it, to pick out their qualities for the right location.
Asked about her most important legacy, Mrs Bramwell says:
I would like to think I have helped to bring the Housekeeping Department into the twenty-first century by modernising and bringing structure to it and to be remembered as having achieved positive change.
The current Junior Bursar, Dr Rod Pullen, added:
Lucia was well established in her role when I came to Trinity 10 years ago, but under her leadership of an exceptional, cohesive management team the Housekeeping Department has gone from strength to strength.
Unsurprisingly, Mrs Bramwell has mixed feelings about retiring.
It is going to be really hard because I have put so much into it. I have put my life into it. It is an incredibly magnetic place.
With one son in Colombia and another in Italy, she will have more time to visit and see her grandchildren. She is going to learn Spanish and Italian (her grandmother was Italian), garden, organise some household renovation projects and probably start volunteering once a week. But initially, like all good managers, she is going to take stock, assess what needs doing, prioritize and plan…
Photography © Graham CopeKoga