‘On the Ground with CRTKL’ is a series across CallisonRTKL’s offices to explore how our people around the world are handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, we speak to leaders in our Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong offices. Photo: CallisonRTKL-designed Lenovo Campus Global Headquarters in Beijing, China.

May Wei: Vice President, Shanghai office leader
Darryl Custer: Senior Vice President, Hong Kong office leader
Yen Liu: Vice President, Beijing office leader
Fan Guo: Vice President, Beijing

As the first region in the world to experience the COVID-19 pandemic, how did you respond?

FG: When all of this began in Beijing, we were in the middle of celebrating Chinese New Year. At first, we didn’t realize the true impact of the pandemic – I don’t think anyone did. Because of that, it started a bit rocky.

It was important for me personally to maintain my ‘work mode’: get up, wash my face, get dressed and have a morning call with my team. In reflection, not being able to rely on physical proximity actually led to more meaningful connections; our digital communication became more intentional and purposeful.

DC: Hong Kong is a bit unique in that we got an early jump on working remotely due to protests in the city. At the same time, we were also moving offices from downtown Hong Kong to Kowloon, so we had been adapting to a flexible work environment anyway. This meant that when the actual virus began, not much had to change because we were inadvertently prepared.

The hardest part for us, now, is trying to communicate with international clients who don’t have this same infrastructure in place. We have had to really standardize our communication channels and overcompensate for language barriers – using drawings and other forms of documentation in lieu of being in-person – to walk through it with clients and stakeholders.

MW: In Shanghai, the connectivity and equipment in everybody’s homes can vary greatly depending on their proximity to the city. Because of that, our efficiency initially fell. Thankfully, we were able to lean on our internal IT group, as well as CallisonRTKL’s other global offices who hadn’t been affected yet, to bridge the gap. They helped everyone update their equipment and connectivity– and even set us all up on a WeChat group (a popular social media platform in China)!

In the international media, we’ve heard accounts of those in Asia beginning to return to a state of normalcy as you pass the peak of the curve. What does that look like on a personal level?

DC: More is beginning to open here in Hong Kong, but the rules continue to change as they monitor the situation. As an office leader trying to navigate that for the team, it’s been about empowering our employees to make the decisions that are right for them– whether that’s returning to the office or continuing remotely. We’re trusting our employees to be mature, professional and accountable while working remotely. Likewise, they’re trusting us to make the right decisions by them, to maintain business continuity, but also to keep them safe. We’ve seen a boost in morale and renewed faith in leadership as a result of that trust – I think that we can all see, from the top down, the firm’s position: there’s more to life than work.

YL: Even though we have returned to some normalcy, we’re still mostly living in our own homes. I think we must acknowledge that’s hard, that’s upsetting and that’s real. But after a few weeks, we’ve all developed our own coping strategies and have gotten used to the new normal. Like Darryl though, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how this situation has inspired an increase in both morale and efficiency – which I certainly did not expect.

FG: I agree, but I think it is also important to recognize that efficiency is individual—where some are thriving in this new working environment, others aren’t taking to it so naturally. In fact, I’m finding that it’s accentuating our professional traits.
If you’re prone to distraction at the office, you’re likely to face that ten-fold at home, so we’ve had to be extra mindful of how we’re all coping, how our clients are coping, so we can adapt our approach and bring out the best in each other.

MW: It’s certainly not just business as usual now, and I think it will take some time for everyone to feel ‘normal’ and safe again. We are starting to see the tide turn though – I am getting back into the office three days a week and most in Shanghai are doing the same. Optimism is returning to the market and we seem to be regaining momentum.

What have you found to be the most challenging in navigating the crisis?

MW: Working from home and social distancing has left many feeling disconnected and separated. When this happens, we naturally seek out reassurance. Professionally, I saw this translate into phone meetings.

I spent the first few weeks of lockdown on back to back calls, dialing into one video conference after another. We had to learn alongside our clients and colleagues what the right balance was; how we talk and communicate more efficiently and bring meaning to our conversations so we can work and make room for personal connection.

DC: I agree, it has been a bit of a challenge to maintain the same level of interaction with clients. We’ve been fortunate that our firm has the technological capabilities to maintain continuity and support our design process remotely, but not all clients were resourced in the same way. While I’m sure we’ve all had our own battles with home internet over the past weeks, we had to be mindful that everyone was working with different equipment and having varying degrees of success.

YL: While it has been difficult to communicate with clients, like many of us have mentioned, I also think that this has brought out a certain humanity in all of us. My clients and fellow coworkers have been more understanding of one another and willing to help each other out.

FG: Totally agree, Yen—I’ve found everyone is equal under these circumstances. I feel like, honestly, my team has grown closer and is acting more like one as a result. It’s been a great icebreaker to hear someone’s kid cry out or their dog bark in the background of a call. I like to think one benefit of this may be that we start to view each other as a bit more human.

What do you think the future holds for our industry in a socially distant world?

MW: In China, we’re especially good at mixed-use, high-density built environments. In the future, though, it seems like this market will have to evolve as social distancing becomes a societal necessity. I think entertainment spaces will see the most interesting transformation as global leisure trends take form.

DC: We’re a young office in Hong Kong – about half of our team is made up of emerging designers with less than five years of experience and are used to working closely alongside their mentors – shadowing them, unpicking their decisions as they go and generally bouncing off them. How do we achieve the same results in a digital environment? How do we recreate the learning experiences? I’m looking ahead to that and how we might evolve our teaching practices to the next generation of CRTKL designers.

YL: That’s been on my mind too, Darryl. Now, maybe, instead of sitting side by side and drawing on the same sheet of tracing paper, our teams will be donning 3D goggles and joining each other in virtual meeting rooms. That’s actually being trialed already in other parts of the firm, so it might not be an all too distant reality. People will always find a way to connect.

FG: I think we may also see business itself change. Sometimes interaction is essential, especially in a creative industry. But perhaps we’ll see greater collaboration between office and residential design, in the same way, our healthcare, hospitality and entertainment teams have been working together on interim solutions to the current crisis. Times like these make us more inventive and force us to shake off preconceived ideas, therefore leading us to solutions we might not have reason to discover otherwise. What an exciting prospect that is.

May Wei

Vice President, Shanghai Office Leader

May Wei, based in CallisonRTKL’s Shanghai office, is a senior architect who has developed an extensive understanding of different project types ranging from mixed-use developments to high-end office and residential. She works both as a designer and project manager across the entire project delivery spectrum from schematic design to construction document design.

Darryl Custer

Senior Vice President, Hong Kong Office Leader

With more than 25 years of international and domestic mixed-use design and project management experience, Darryl Custer has an acute understanding of business operations. He works with developers and design teams to lead projects through a coordinated process to ensure the product reflects the client’s goals and vision. In 2015, Darryl was announced as the Emerging Region Practice Group Leader for Commercial projects in South Asia and was designated with overseeing business growth in the region.

Yen Liu

Vice President, Beijing Office Leader

Yen Liu has extensive design experience in retail and mixed-use projects. His success comes from his willingness to listen to clients’ needs and develop custom solutions to their problems. With more than a decade of project design expertise, Yen has become a standout at identifying key issues at the beginning of a project and providing creative, workable answers that combine art and functionality.

Fan Guo

Vice President, Beijing

Fan Guo joined CallisonRTKL in 2002 and has since worked on projects all over the world, with a focus on the United States, Asia and the Pacific Rim. Fan’s expertise in commercial, institutional, residential and large-scale design brings her clients a strategic mind and a keen eye for detail, giving them an advantage in a rapidly changing market. Above all, Fan’s design philosophy is based on the idea that architectural design should be timeless, functional and environmentally responsible.