Interviewer Judith Arellano Torres
Images Bong Recio
It’s been ages, Bong! How did Rchitects fare in 2020? Let’s start with the lockdown on March 16th.
Actually, even before lockdown, we could see what was happening with the COVID-19 virus spreading. I had just made a business trip to Singapore on February 7, 8, 9, 10. I took Singapore Airlines. I wasn’t wearing a mask then. I rode the plane and said, “Oh, how nice, the seat beside me is empty.” The same was true for others—the seats on either side were empty. Going back, it was the same. I realized then that Singapore Airlines was taking steps to minimize the spread of the virus. So three weeks to a month before the announcement of the lockdown, we could see it looming on the horizon and said we better get our act together. We are going to have to work from home.
So we did some experimentation. We talked to our IT guys, and we tried it with three guys first for one week. We told them, “Okay, don’t come to the office this whole week. You work from the house.” We arranged all the links and mirrored their house laptop or desktop with the computers on their office desks. So we were watching what they were doing at home on their computer in the office. It was like somebody was sitting there, the drawings were moving, you could see them working on the plans while they were in their homes.
So we said, it looks like it’s working. Let’s try it with others. Now, out of the three, one of them didn’t have a good Internet connection. So we said, okay, that’s one of the issues we have to address. It remains a challenge until now because we can’t control the Internet service in our people’s respective places. But other than that, we’ve been able to sort it out. The IT guy goes to the office first thing in the morning Monday and turns on the server. Then, on Friday afternoon or evening, he goes back to the office and turns off the server.
You don’t work on weekends?
No, we don’t. Well, I do. Because I still work on the drawings manually, haha! And, of course, I communicate with the guys via email and Viber. They can work, but they can’t transmit drawings and the like.
Last August or September (2020), we realized our rent was lapsing and that from March, April, May, June, July, August, September, we had been paying full rent for an office space that we’re not using.
So we said, we don’t see this rounding the corner any time next year. The earliest would be mid-2021 if we’re lucky. We decided we were not going to renew our lease, and we were going to downsize our physical space because we see work-from-home continuing through 2021. We terminated our lease, looked for a new space, and our office shrank from about 700 square meters down to 200 square meters now. We have our IT team, our Finance, HR, we have a whole load of files, and some meeting rooms and some workstations.
What happens when the virus is no longer a problem?
Instead of going back to one big office for everybody, we’ll go for satellite offices. We want the office to be near where our people are.
The way this pandemic has gone, you don’t want people coming to the office because they’d have to take public transport and be exposed to the virus. Even in normal times, I have always been amazed at our staff who live in Antipolo or Laguna and commute long hours. They have to wake up at 4:00, 5:00 in the morning, no? So that’s our game plan when things normalize. We’ve already done a survey of the geographic locations of all of the staff. And we pretty much earmarked where the satellite offices could be if and when we implement this plan.
How do you inculcate and maintain the values that are important to you and communicate the direction you want for the firm when you don’t see each other and in the future when you’re dispersed in several satellite offices?
Every Monday, no-fail since the lockdown, I send a message to the office via email. Every Monday. I’m now on week 44 or week 45. So every Monday, I send out an email to the staff. I give updates on our projects, make a little kwento (share a short story) here and there, talk about what’s happening with the pandemic. Every now and then, I infuse it with humor, insert a comic strip or image that’s relevant to what I’m talking about—simple, light, at times serious.
Oh, how nice! Can you share samples?
Okay, I’ll send you some. I’ll have a look. So I’ve been doing that every Monday, which means I compose it by Sunday so I can get it out on Monday morning. I think it’s been great for the morale of the guys at the office. I get feedback, not from everybody, but I get feedback from people saying, “Thank you for keeping us in the loop all the time,” “Your messages have been inspiring,” “Even though we don’t see each other, your messages have kept us together”… So I think that was a good strategy considering the times. For them to hear from me every Monday kept the connection alive for all of us.
Have you hired anyone since the lockdown?
Funny, the month before the lockdown started, we hired two people. We had interviewed them already before the lockdown, and the commitment was there. And so, a month after the lockdown, they joined us. I never met them in person. I just found out from our HR, okay, these two just joined us, and they were both ladies. So I wrote to them, “Thank you for joining Rchitects. Sorry, we’ve never met.” Then to one of them, I said, “We’ve never met before, but here’s a picture of me in case you’re wondering how your boss looks like.” And I attached a picture of Brad Pitt, haha! And then she replied, “Sir, thank you, but I know what you look like, and I think you look better than Brad Pitt.” (Laughter) Good answer! This girl will go places. (Laughter) So yes, we did, yes we did.
There now, how did these two new hires learn what values the firm stands for?
Same as before. HR interviewed them, they went through orientation where they were given the low-down, the employee’s handbook, and all of that. The department heads of design, production, and project management also interviewed them. It was only me who was not able to meet them in person. But over the past few months, I can see that they’re committed, very engaged in the projects they’ve been working on. I see via the emails and the Viber groups we’ve formed for the various projects they’re pro-active. I’m happy that they assimilated quite easily and relatively quickly with the work that they’ve been handed.
Architect Stephanie Tan Branquinho says she will get good storytellers and writers when she starts hiring again. That wasn’t something she looked for pre-COVID. But now, in the absence of face-to-face meetings where you can charm your way, writing skills are a must-have. Have you observed the need for specific soft skills you hadn’t prioritized before?
Oh, Judith, pre-pandemic, communication skills have always been an issue for me from the beginning. When you’re interviewing new hires, it’s not easy to weed the bad ones out right away. It’s only later, when they start getting into projects, that you realize, okay, there’s a lot of deficiency in how this person communicates.
I am such a—what’s the term my classmate used? He called me a “grammar Nazi.” Sometimes, I sit down with my people and tell them, “Guys, you have to improve your use of prepositions. For example, someone says, ‘This is dedicated for.’ It’s supposed to be dedicated to! Or they say, ‘Subject for.’ It’s subject to. Or, “I want to discuss this to somebody.” No, it’s discuss it with somebody!
I fully agree with her, communication skills are essential. I still correct some of my staff. This is my way of teaching them. Without being insulting, I’m helping them with their communication skills.
Tell me about Rchitect’s values.
It’s still the same commitment to the work. You have to have the same passion we had pre-COVID. And the way I see people working now, they’re delivering, they’re more pro-active. Despite the absence of physical meetings with them, they’re delivering. Everybody’s delivering.
Even the clients see that. Of course, with clients, it’s all about communications now, via email, by Viber. The turnaround time is faster now when we respond to queries from clients. I’m very happy to see the deliverables have not in any way suffered because of the lockdown and not meeting face-to-face.
And without cracking the whip.
My weekly messages to them have been one of the factors, I think. Seeing that Bong has been very committed to sending us every Monday, no-fail, this message of his. I think they know that that takes commitment. And they know I will expect the same commitment in whatever form of them as well. This is not something that I take lightly, and they know that.
When I interviewed you back in 2016, you said you have an open-door policy. People can always walk in and talk to you. How does that work in the work-from-home scenario?
We have our chat groups. If anybody has questions, they field questions to the Viber groups. Or they send me an email. But of course, this is all within the group. If they have any difficulties answering this or that, they message me and ask, “Sir, how do I reply to this?” Or “What do you think of this?” That’s how we maintain my quote, open-door policy with my staff. The openness has remained. Be it Zoom, Viber, and we have our internal Zoom meetings as well.
Do you have a cut-off time at night for your people to stop sending you messages, say, by 9:00 PM?
No, I have not imposed anything like that. Just so they know, even at 11:00 at night, I’m thinking of the project, and I’m sending them a message to be replied to the following day. Just so I can get it out there already. Even to clients, actually. I send them a message on the weekends, asking them a question. Then they know, “Ah, Bong is still working over the weekend, asking me these questions.” So no, I don’t impose any cut-off time. I leave that up to them. They also come back to me with questions, say at 8:00 at night, and I really don’t mind.
Aren’t these message apps a burden, though? Before Viber and these other chat apps, when clients had a question, they sent an email and expected a response the next day or the next working day, not within minutes.
This Viber thing has been around pre-lockdown. What’s really taking up a lot of time are the teleconference meetings. Because it’s so easy for a client to call a Zoom meeting at 10:00, at 4:00 because they know you don’t have to worry about getting in your car and getting stuck in traffic. The demand for teleconferences has escalated like crazy. I find myself in front of the computer the whole day. You’re stuck in the “Twilight Zoom,” is what I call it, Zooming the entire day, day in, day out. But I suppose it is productive in its own way because clients see you, they see how decisions are made, and that’s how they get their projects moving also.
You also talked before about the senior guys reviewing the work before you sign the drawings, and you also doing random checks and revisions. Isn’t it so much more difficult now that you’re apart and you have to describe the problem in words and type it out in a chat app?
Ah, yes, that’s one of my bigger frustrations now, Judith. Unlike before, where you could have a drawing printed, sit in front of your guys, and mark up the drawing right there, then you walk away and they know what to do already. I’m such a computer dinosaur, you know. So I have things printed in the office, then I have the drawings brought over to me at home. I mark them up here, take a picture, and then send it to the guys. That’s my own way of working on drawings together with the guys.
Or sometimes, during a Zoom and we’re discussing a project, and there’s one particular spot I want to revise, I do a sketch then hold up the drawing to the camera and say, “O, ganito, ganito, ganito. Gusto kong ganyan, ha?” (See this, this, this. That’s how I want it, okay?”) One-on-one interaction has been one of the things that I miss because of physical distancing.
Sometimes, they come over to my house. We sit outside in the lanai, spread the drawings, and do a work session there.
How often does that happen?
Not very often. Since the relaxation of the lockdown, I’d say four times? I see that happening more and more, but it’s really just one-on-one or one-on-two.
Are meetings with clients always on Zoom, and are you always present at the meetings?
Oh, no, no, no. I’m not always there. In fact, Raul Bumanglad, who heads our design team, is now handling a project where he has had to meet with the client face-to-face three times at their office. That still happens, yeah. Right now, we’re working on this project in Lipa City, the San Benito Farm. We’re doing some villas there now. Last week we were there for a meeting. Everybody who comes is tested on the spot before they may enter the resort. So there’ve been occasions like that where we have to go to the client. In this case, because it’s a big site and there were on-site situations we had to decide. Tomorrow we’re going again.
Because you need to see the site to design.
Yes, particularly sites with unique topography, like The Farm. It has undulations, ravines, there’s a creek, bla bla bla. But if it’s just a flat site in the city, no need.
Having a proper office inspires professional behavior and helps the firm to project the image it wants and its brand, which most employees aren’t able to do when they work from home. Do you impose a dress code during Zoom meetings? Do you ask them to use virtual backgrounds?
I’d like to believe that the brand has withstood the absence of face-to-face meetings. I have not imposed a dress code for Zooms, but I think the staff have learned enough on Zoom ethics that I need not remind them. I lead by example too. We did not set any protocols. Indeed, some use virtual backgrounds. Some of our Zoom meetings do not require video, we are good with avatars.
Okay. So you’ve noticed your people showing more commitment to the work now. How do you deal with underperformers?
We have the Human Resource Development department that does that.
How do they know people are underperforming, apart from not submitting on time?
Not getting the work done. Because we have Zoom meetings, we have commitments to the client that need to be delivered. Or the client says, “Why isn’t it so and so?” That reflects on the person handling the project. Then there are emails from the project manager who says, “Where’s the response to the RFI (request for information)? It’s been a week.” So that means the guy hasn’t responded. The department head talks to that person and asks, “Why hasn’t this happened?” or “Can you please follow up to make sure bla bla bla.” It can get to a point where I intervene and talk to the guy.
Did that happen last year?
It happened to just one guy, but his was a complicated situation. He had health issues, marital issues that compounded the problem. We asked him to take a three-month leave to get his life together. And then, on January 4th, he wrote us a nice email addressed to HR, copied me also, to say, “I’ve sorted out my life, I’m good to go again.” So he’s back in the saddle.
Does HR do their work by Zoom and Viber also? Doesn’t HR prefer face-to-face and up-close, personal interaction?
Yes, but during the lockdown, there weren’t many occasions where they had to do face-to-face. We haven’t had people leaving, we haven’t had many new hires, we haven’t had any big parties or events that they had to organize. So it’s just been coasting along, monitoring staff performance, monitoring holidays, monitoring birthdays.
Has anyone in the firm gotten sick?
Thankfully, I haven’t heard of any who’s gotten COVID. Mabuti na lang (Thank goodness).
How about depression? Has HR had to help employees with that?
I haven’t heard of anyone suffering from depression because of isolation or anything like that.
Maybe because you’re friendly and accessible.
Haha! I don’t know about that. Some have decided to go back to their hometowns because, like us, they figured, why do they have to keep on paying rent? They don’t have to go to the office anyway. So a few of them decided to go back home to the province and continue working from there. They have family there, so they’re not isolated.
So, no signs of depression. That’s great. Others I’ve spoken to say it’s an issue.
So far as I know, no one.
Must be your weekly messages!
I like to think the Monday messages help. I like to think they look forward to it, to see what Bong has to say this time. I think it’s done some good.
I agree, I agree. I know how you write, how you joke and send doodles. You are so cool! I would be so happy to receive such messages; they would mean a big deal to me.
Last time, we spoke primarily about succession and raising Rchitects’ next generation of leaders. Succession isn’t something one thinks about right now, no?
I know, I know. I know. Really. Just staying alive is one big challenge in itself.
Have you lost work?
Like most everybody else, business has been a challenge. Like everybody else, projects were stopped. A couple of months after lockdown, some came back on stream again, thankfully. Some new ones came in also, but not nearly enough to pre-lockdown level. The challenge, of course, was to keep the firm afloat and make sure everybody still had a job. We have not laid off people. This is the worst time to lose a job because you won’t find a job anywhere else.
How about clients who don’t pay?
For a while, yes. It’s a chain reaction, eh, Judith. With everything that’s happening in the world, it’s a chain reaction. Office buildings, let’s say, don’t have as many parties interested in getting spaces there. So the financial numbers are no longer the same as when they started.
How do you handle conversations with clients about payment?
I just have to be very kulit (persistent, steadfast) about collections.
You are makulit (tireless, tenacious)?
Yes. You have to be. If you’re not, clients will feel you’re not that interested in making the collection. But if you’re makulit, they know you’re serious.
When clients say they’re having a hard time too, how do you respond?
I understand. But when clients say that, they give me a timeline. They say, “Can you give us another month?” So after a month, I send them a reminder. It’s not an open-ended thing where they say, “Sorry, we cannot pay you,” and that’s it.
Some will say, “Can we stagger the payments?” That works for us. We had one client that did that early on. “Bong, we cannot give you the full payment now because we are also affected. Can we pay you staggered?” and then, they give us the schedule. Sure enough, according to schedule, we get partial payments. “And if things normalize and things get back on track, then we will pay in full whatever was the balance.” And that has already happened with two clients. You really need to be on top of things to make sure the collections come in.
Does this mean you are even more makulit now than before?
Yes. For projects that have been put on hold, let’s say we’ve completed DD, the design development phase, then we get paid until the DD phase, but we cannot collect or move forward until the project gets back on track again.
What is it that your clients are on the lookout for?
Construction cost, the market, sales. If the market has started responding again. Sales of condos, for example. Are people interested in spending again to buy property?
That’s true of the middle-class market, don’t you think? Because if you had a deep pocket, this would be a great time to buy. Isn’t it a buyer’s market now?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, I would think so. Once construction was allowed, the luxury projects went back on track again, like Park Central of Ayala has continued. We are working on a project for Shangri-La, the Aurelia in The Fort. Those are luxury residences; they’re back on track again. Many of these were pre-sold before the pandemic. So, except for the lockdown, work is uninterrupted.
Five years ago, you also discussed balancing the desire to reward people with guarding the firm’s financial security, doing salary reviews every six months, and assessing people against a matrix for upward movement.
That’s all out the window for now.
2020 has not been a year for bonuses, huh?
Yeah, even overtime. If you want to work overtime, that would be great, but we’re not paying for overtime.
Who explains these matters to the employees?
HR does that, with a push from me also. I think Filipinos realize, and not just us, it’s the whole world—they see what’s going on. Some are just thankful they still have work. We’ve had two resignations, young guys. One of them was going to help out at the family business.
You can make 2021?
I think so. It’s a bit of a struggle, but I think we’ll survive 2021. Hopefully, things will get better. I mean, I just have to be optimistic things will get better in 2021. Maybe we’ve seen the worst already. Hopefully, things can only get better.
For the new projects that have come in, are there substantial differences in how the buildings are designed?
Yes, yes. Designing spaces now goes through a different thought process. When you talk about retail spaces, it’s no longer the concept of a box mall, but more like a Greenbelt model with a lot of open space, greenery, alfresco spaces, and very few air-conditioned areas. That seems to be the thinking among developers now. Office buildings, of course, are putting in all this technology in the air conditioning and so on to make sure they deliver a safe space.
That must result in better spaces, right? There’s no downside to enlarging public areas and paying more attention to natural ventilation.
Yes, it’s a good thing because there’s no telling when another pandemic will happen in the future. Eventually, things will go back to normal. It’s only human, eh. You want to interact with people, you want to make beso-beso (air-kiss or the French la bise) with people, people want to see and be seen. That will all come back. A certain level of online shopping will remain the way it is. But going to restaurants, dating, shopping, that will eventually come back.
Retailers will find a way to re-brand and market themselves so people will come back and want to buy their products in stores. When you buy a pair of shoes, you want to hold it, test it, and look at the details, right? Instead of going to Lazada (an e-commerce platform) and looking at the pictures there.
Right, right. Although I haven’t bought a single pair of shoes, bag, or shirt for close to a year.
Haha! A month after the lockdown, I decided to shine all my shoes one day, so I did. Then I realized, I ain’t going nowhere! Three months later, I looked, and they were getting moldy again!
What positives have you uncovered in this challenging time, and, lastly, what excites you about 2021?
Architects working from home—at least, our staff—have found a way to better manifest how good they are despite the boss not always looking over their shoulders. Pre-COVID, the boss was always there, so you were always trying to look busy. But this work-from-home arrangement has demonstrated each individual’s capability to work independently rather than having to be supervised all the time. There’s still supervision, but independence has come into play more and more significantly—the independent thinking, the independent decision-making by individuals regarding the work.
For 2021, just like any architect, I’m excited about new work coming in or re-starting work that was put on hold in 2020. That is what we’re looking forward to. Getting back on course, being in the thick of designing, and getting to help the economy back on track again.
There are many concerns; there will always be concerns. Still, as in any other situation, the challenge is how to get around it or over it in ways that maybe you did not think you could do before, but you’ve now become a little bit more imaginative and creative about how to solve these challenges. •
Editor’s note: Recio shared with us three Monday emails he sent to his people on Weeks 3, 31, and 41 since the company started working from home. The emails have been redacted to remove confidential project information.
Subject: Week 3
Good morning and welcome to week 3.
Over the past days, we have been bombarded with truckloads of information on social media, ad nauseam. While we want to keep informed at all times, it is also important to keep focused and not get rattled. Information overload may, at times, not be a good thing.
Me? Today being a Monday, i am back hunched over my tracing paper.
Every evening, during my ruminations, i thank God for a great team like you guys.
Subject: Week 31
Dear Ri family,
Last week, Reds and i (and I guess the other rockers at Ri), mourned the passing of Eddie Van Halen (of Van Halen fame), who at one time was considered the world’s best guitarist! If you do not know why he was given this distinction, go to YouTube and look for his guitar solo, “Emperor.” I rest my case. I bring this up because, aside from my love of music, it was a distraction (although sad), from the hum-drum news that we have all been drowning in on the pandemic and our politicians. And Donald Trump!
This week, more staff came to the office to collect their belongings. I think the design team was there on Wednesday and understand that Raul treated everyone to lunch, with proper distancing, of course. No pictures, Raul? I have also pretty much emptied out my office, and am now faced with the problem of where to put all my books. Magazines i could part with. But my books? Never.
We were informed two weeks ago that… reason not disclosed. Shortly after, we were asked if we could take over the role of… After much discussion, we…
Today, 0ctober 12, is our do or die for the completion of… It has really been an uphill battle, but Aleli, Grace, Fred,Vince, Ima, Calvin, Reds, Jericho, Gabs and Carmille, have been steadfast in their determination for a successful wrap up…
I have asked Dennis to move forward with the dimensioned plans for… The client has not asked but… we need to be ready last week!
…projects are moving along. The … may be going through some possible changes to improve… and the addition of… … have already made an initial presentation but will still be going through updates after … has given their input. On … we are freezing plans for the … our landscape architects presented what I think will be quite a unique landscape experience…
The … is now at the coordinating stage of archi and engineering drawings… Felisa has taken the PM role for this project, with the guidance of ….
Raul and John continue to work on the … program. The project has expanded since two weeks ago, and we will have to… Clients will go for an exemption on the … or at least lobby for an increase.
Work in the… will begin soon. Lui has sorted out the arrangements for the… room, with… stacked up on… I think this room will look like some sci-fi set when it is finally completed. I will be posting progress pictures.
It is not every day that you see the word “architect” used in the funny section of newspapers, so I always get amused when i come across one. I would therefore like to close with some comic relief from “Peanuts”:
Stay dry everyone and, as always, stay safe.
Subject: Week 41 – Christmas Message
Good morning, all!
I know i said i would skip my week 41 message, but a Christmas message was too important to pass up. I couldn’t resist.
Again, a big thank you to Eloisa and Rica for organizing our Christmas Zoom party, replete with games. And to everyone who was so all-out with their Christmas hats. Congratulations to the winners! I couldn’t believe the energy from everyone. We went at it for at least 3 hours and it looked like everyone could keep going and going and going… it’s like everyone had Duracell batteries for breakfast!
So the year 2020 is about to come to pass, and what a year it has been. Everyone just wants to get 2020 over with, and move on to 2021 with hope and optimism. Me? I think 2020 deserves to be reflected upon by everyone because this pandemic spared no one (except maybe Jeff Bezos of Amazon!). We had to adjust to work from home, becoming fully at the mercy of the internet. And all human contact, including meetings, became relegated to this then little known app called Zoom. And isolation. Everything came to a standstill, people lost jobs, people got sick in the millions, and died in the thousands.
Many of our promising projects came to a grinding halt with no end in sight. We were doomed! Or so we thought. Some clients decided to pursue ongoing projects, and those kept us going. But the fuel that kept the flame burning, however, was you guys. In a time of great difficulty, you all came through. I had already mentioned this at the height of the pandemic, but felt it was worth repeating to remind everyone again that we would not be where we are today without your temerity, resolve, and dedication. We stopped paying overtime, missed salary payouts, and were constantly under a cloud of uncertainty. Yet, here we are, still joining Zoom meetings, meeting deadlines, and raring to take on the next deadline. I guess we are not defined by our difficulties, but how we react to them. You all reacted with great aplomb, and i am wishing we could all do a group hug right about now!
So we soon cross the threshold to 2021, with that cloud of uncertainty still lingering. A doctor who was one of the first to get a shot of the vaccine, said it was shot of hope. And hope is the wind that will blow our sails towards a more optimistic horizon. I think we will hit the ground running in 2021 (still with masks on), but this time better equipped to face the challenges ahead. We will also start the year with our new offices at the SY2 Campus, which i hope you will all get to visit at some point.
At the homily of the Simbang Gabi (more like Simbang Umaga, at 5am!) at the Church of the Gesu last Saturday, Fr. Alejo, SJ, talked about “foundational stories,” stories that you remember as a child, during Christmas, and how these formed you later on as an adult. I am sure that we too, as architects have our own foundational stories. Now might be a good time to reflect on these and recall how these influenced us to pursue architecture and be the architects we are today. At what point in your life did you want to be an architect?
As usual, i leave you with a dose of humor. Laughter, to me, is still the best medicine, especially in these times.
Jose Pedro Bong Recio founded Rchitects, Inc., one of the Philippines’ most respected firms in 2008 after a two-decade-long partnership with Carmelo Casas. The firm’s mission reflects its principal’s core values: To keep the customer as the focus of all design activities; to continue the legacy of genuine design and build on the foundations of Recio’s philosophy of aesthetics, balance, proportion, and sense of place; to promote an office culture that celebrates challenges, achievements, possibilities, fun, and friendship; to deliver good returns for shareholders, and to work constantly for the betterment of architecture in the Philippines.