How our Shanghai design studio responded to the challenges presented by the Coronavirus emergency

As many parts of the world enter a prolonged period of restrictions on movement in response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus epidemic, China has just begun to return to something closer to normal life – restrictions there are being eased (although with no sense of complacency). Chapman Taylor’s Shanghai studio was the first of our worldwide studios to have to respond to the emergency and is the first to begin returning to studio working. We talked to the studio’s management team, Johnny Jiang, and Rainer Cai about their experience of the crisis over the past weeks, the measures that were taken to protect people, how they adjusted to remote working and what positives they were able to take from an otherwise challenging time.

Tell us about the initial stages of the Coronavirus emergency and how it affected the Shanghai studio.

JJ: When emergency measures were introduced in China to deal with the spread of infection, we were lucky to the extent that most people were already at home with their families for the Chinese New Year celebrations.

We had been working on some major project designs and some competition concepts, and we wanted to ensure continuity even though many people were now required to stay at home. We therefore made sure that everyone had what they needed to be able to work from home, and each team manager arranged for efficient communication and collaboration within their teams.

JL: The basic rule was that people from outside Shanghai had to stay at home for 14 days and then had the choice of whether to come to the studio or work from home. We made sure that nobody felt under any compulsion to come to the studio at any time, and that those who chose to do so could work safely and flexibly to protect themselves and others from the risk of infection.

The timing of Chinese New Year was very fortunate because the holiday is something of a semi-lockdown anyway – people tend to stay at home with their loved ones. It gave us breathing space to implement the measures needed, to organise ourselves and to get all the equipment required.

Everyone here understood the gravity of the situation straight away and acted accordingly. Our productivity took a dive in the first few days, but, by the end of the first week, we had returned to being busy and efficient.

How did you organise remote working for those who needed to stay home?

RC: We arranged daily meetings for each project team, held at different times, to keep everyone in contact with the studio’s management team – this was very important to keep everyone informed about what was going on in their projects, what aspects of the project others were working on, which parts were finished and what the next task for each team member was.

IT support was crucial – our team members were able to access our central server and carry on working as if they were at their desks in the studio.

We used WeChat and other formats and apps, which proved extremely useful for keeping lines of communication open, not just between individuals, but also for group discussions.

In terms of ensuring that people stayed healthy, what measures did you take?

We had great leadership from Main Board Directors Chris Lanksbury and Michael Cottam in London – we were talking to them about the emerging situation from day one and they helped us implement the measures we felt needed to be taken. Their PA, Angela Halfter, worked very hard to ensure that our studio received appropriate, heavy-duty face masks, which were delivered all the way from Northern Ireland.

In addition, one of our colleagues, Jessica, had over 1,000 lighter, surgical-type masks shipped to us from her home country of Indonesia – we wore (and continue to wear) these around the studio in the periods before and since lockdown.

RC: Within the studio, we ensured that we were physically distanced as much as possible and some people worked flexibly so that they were in at different times and avoided rush hour commuting. We also regularly deep cleaned the studio throughout the day to further minimise the risk of virus transmission.

The masks were distributed to people as they came in to work, before the lockdown period. Two colleagues from Hubei province, the epicentre of the Coronavirus emergency, could not come in, but had the equipment themselves – we expect them to return to work soon.

The Chapman Taylor global network ensured that we had all the masks, sanitiser and other equipment that we needed, for which we are very grateful.

Tell us some more about how you coordinated your work on projects when working from home.

PM: The biggest project we have been working on is a major masterplan near Beijing, which is a great challenge anyway – so we had to ensure that working on that scheme remotely was no more complicated than it needed to be. Regular, efficient communication as individuals and as groups was key, allowing us to continue our work as if we were all in one place.

JJ: There were inevitably some difficulties because of the disruption involved, but our clients were all fully aware of the potential for unforeseen issues, being in similar positions themselves, and had been expecting restrictions quite some time before they were introduced. They were flexible with their expectations, which gave us the time to ensure that we organised as efficiently as possible and could carry on producing a world-class level of service.

JL: It was very satisfying to see how everyone pulled together – not just our own team members, but also our clients, stakeholders and others. There was a strong sense of being part of something bigger, and there was a lot of understanding and flexibility shown to support each other during what we all knew was a grave situation.

How did you maintain a good team spirit throughout this period?

Regular contact via the various messaging apps and other platforms was vital – we kept everyone together, albeit from remote locations. We also sent out internal emails at the beginning and end of each week to update everyone on what was going on. It has been very encouraging to experience the quiet sense of solidarity from everyone in the studio throughout this emergency.

The situation has now improved to some extent – people are coming back to work?

RC: Yes, people are returning to the studio, but we are not being complacent – stringent protection measures are in place, everyone is wearing masks and the studio is still being cleaned at regular intervals.

PM: There are very few new cases of the virus emerging within the city now – nearly all the new cases involve people, whether foreign visitors or returning Chinese nationals, who have travelled from other countries. This is now the main concern – to ensure that there isn’t a second wave.

However, shops, cafés and restaurants are returning to life and people are beginning to feel cautiously optimistic. No chances are being taken, however – people are still protecting themselves and socially distancing for the time being.

What advice do you have for people in other countries who are now entering a period of restrictions themselves?

JL: Try to appreciate the time you get to spend with your family or housemates, if you can – we don’t often have the opportunity to spend extended time with those close to us. If you live by yourself, try to keep in contact with others as often as you can.

JJ: It is important to make sure that, if you are working from home, the environment in which you work is as conducive to concentration as possible. It is easy to be distracted, and sometimes unavoidably, but it is good to be able to have a space where you can focus.

I also think that it is a great opportunity to enjoy time with loved ones, but also to catch up on books and other forms of enjoyment in the spare time you have.

Obviously, it is important that you protect yourself as well – stay at home until the situation gets better.

RC: If you can take advantage of the circumstances, then do! For example, I have used the period to establish our new bidding document model, the government requirements for which change every year. I admit that I did this in the studio because, quite frankly, it was too boring staying at home – but I ensured that I was working at a distance from others.

Above all, stay safe! Don’t panic, but do be sensible.

What positives have you been able to take from this time?

JJ: The way that we have been required to hold meetings virtually has demonstrated the great advantages of using technology to save time and improve efficiency. Before this period, some businesses insisted on meetings, workshops or presentations always being held in person, which can involve a lot of travel and unnecessarily wasted time.

Remote meetings have proven to be much less costly and time-consuming and a great productivity booster. I hope that this is now more widely recognised and becomes a permanent feature, while recognising that in-person meetings can still be very important.

JL: On a normal day working at the studio, a lot of time is spent travelling to and from work, and the commute tends to book-end the working day. When we were working from home, however, we found that many team members took advantage of not having to commute by starting work earlier and finishing later.

Many also enjoyed having tasks to accomplish while they stayed inside and felt happy to work late into the evening, although under no obligation to do so. So, from a productivity point of view, the emergency period was quite positive in many ways.

I feel that we at Chapman Taylor’s Shanghai studio have come back stronger than ever – the challenge that this period has presented has imbued us with a stronger sense of solidarity and common purpose.

Johnny Jiang (MArch MDA (Master of Design Arts))

Director, Shanghai and Beijing

Johnny has considerable experience in architectural design in both Germany and China and has led many important, large-scale urban design projects, including both architectural and interior design.

He plays a leading role in some of the Shanghai studio’s most significant urban design projects, and is skilled at combining innovative concepts with the requirements of China's market and the local context. Johnny’s leadership during the construction process, and his strict control of project quality, have been widely praised by clients and partners.

Johnny joined Chapman Taylor’s Shanghai studio as a Director in November 2018.

Areas of expertise:

Architecture / Interior Design / Urban Design / Masterplanning / Mixed-use

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