Nicole Dallas | Global Head of Technical Services | Cushman & Wakefield | Increasing amenity choices for great tenant experiences

Transcript

DA: Welcome to TEN, The Tenant Experience Network. I’m your host, David Abrams. In this episode, we are connecting with Nicole Dallas, Global Head of Technical Services at Cushman & Wakefield. In this episode, we learn about Nicole’s career journey and how adopting the strategy of “fake it ’til you make it” led to her first position as a chief engineer at a hospital. Nicole now focuses on leading engineering and operations platforms for service providers. She recognizes that she does not know everything and therefore has come to rely heavily on those around her to bridge the gaps, including the engineers that she works so closely with. I love Nicole’s bottom-up philosophy that comes from being in the field and engaging with members of her team. During the height of the pandemic, Nicole did not slow down for a minute. Quite the opposite, she had to accelerate a process to develop the next generation of expert facility engineers. While COVID was causing tenants to add walls and plexiglass, Nicole and her team were busy adjusting air systems to reflect changes to the physical floor plate and later repeating the process as these barriers started to come down. Nicole has always worked remotely with her team located around the world. However, she does recognize the role that amenities play in helping define great tenant experience, largely due to the need to increase tenant choices. Her line of business has actually ramped up with new demands to manage buildings that are idle, but still need to be maintained and ready for reactivation as needed, bringing about new challenges and opportunities for her team. We’re excited to share this podcast with you, so be sure to subscribe to TEN so you never miss an episode of The Tenant Experience Network. And now I’d like to welcome Nicole to the show. I’m really glad you could be with us today.

ND: Thank you, it’s great to be here.

DA: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m looking forward to our conversation. And I’d love you to start with maybe sharing your journey to your current position role. How did you get started in the business?

ND: Yeah, thank you. So I’ve been in the industry of facility engineering for almost 30 years now. And I got started in kind of a very weird way. I always like to say it’s kind of the “fake it ’til you make it” way of making your journey along the way. I started out as a degree at engineer and I went to college and I absolutely hated my first job out of college, sitting behind a desk, and I knew it wasn’t for me. And so, I saw a job for a chief engineer at a hospital, a hands-on chief engineer. And so I decided, you know what? That sounds like something that would be right up my alley ’cause I do like to work with my hands. And so, I applied for the job and strangely, I got the job, and that was my first “fake it ’til you make it.” Because knowing about equipment from a book and actually working on it are two entirely different things. And so, I spent the first 10 years of my career actually as a chief engineer in a healthcare setting and I did go back and get my HVAC technician license and I went through all of that training. And after that, then I moved into data center engineering, so critical environments. So a lot of generators, a lot of UPS, critical air conditioning units. And then I worked for The Nielsen Company in 103 different countries running their engineering programs for their data centers. And that was a very fun and interesting part of my career. And then the last, I would say, 10 years, I have been on the service provider side for multiple service providers where I lead their platforms for engineering and operations and I bring best practices and just kind of collaborate with our clients and make sure that we’re delivering services.

DA: Amazing. Well, that has been quite a journey and I’m really excited about this conversation ’cause I think you’re going to bring such an interesting perspective and area of expertise to this conversation that we perhaps haven’t had in the past. So I’m looking forward to hearing from you as we go deeper into the conversation. I’m just curious though, why do you think you were so uniquely suited to this opportunity? What has helped you to become successful? Skills, mentors, colleagues, books? What’s been meaningful for you?

ND: Well, I think the best kind of just overall experience was knowing that I don’t know everything and really trusting the people that I work with. I did spend a lot of time in college, but I can honestly say, and this is no disrespect to my college or my university, but I learned more from the engineers at my first maintenance shop. And I was so fortunate that they kind of took me under their wing and showed me everything. And to this day, I owe them my career, quite honestly, because they taught me how to break down pieces of equipment. They taught me how to transfer from one chiller to another. And really, just being open to getting knowledge from people within my team rather than me coming in thinking that I knew everything. And then I always just continued to go back to school. I went back to, like I said, to get my HVAC technician because I realized that that was incredibly important. And just along the way, I’ve had some really great mentors, some people that have just helped me get from the bottom up. And I think that that is really special in a journey is, if you start from the bottom to get to the top, you have a just a different way of looking at things. So, the way that I lead now is that I really go into the field, still to this day, I ride around with my engineers and I ask them what can we do better. And that’s how we’ve made changes at Cushman & Wakefield. I don’t just sit at the top and say, “Oh, we’re going to change this today.” I really want to make sure that we’re making big incremental changes for them in the field. It’s where my heart is.

DA: For sure. I loved your thoughts around learning from others and learning by doing.

ND: Yeah.

DA: And I’m more of a learner by doing as well. And that’s where I think what you created, in part, sounds almost like a co-op program where you actually learn by others but then also continued your own education. And I think that’s really where the magic is. I think that just the academics and then getting into industry, I think when you can combine the two, and that’s why I love, for example, co-op programs. We have some amazing co-op students working on our team and they’re able to actually learn and do and learn and do and take in experience from real life and working with our team and then apply that to their learning and vice versa. So I love that you were able to create that yourself through your own process.

ND: Yeah. And I’m continuing. We want to pay it forward and so we have an apprenticeship program and a mentorship program here that we utilize with younger people coming into the field of learning from all of us that have been doing this for 20, 30 years. We want to continue that, pay it forward, yeah.

DA: Fabulous. And I’m sure they add a lot to the work experience as well. I mean, we find it goes both ways, right?

ND: Absolutely.

DA: We learn so much from these young people as well. So, it’s so much fun. Nicole, there’s a lot of commentary around the return to workplace and there’s, obviously, some very extreme opinions being expressed, sometimes confrontational, often polarizing. My team, we really believe strongly that we need to live and work in the world as it is right now. And we think that the CRE industry as a whole and employers can’t continue projecting to an imaginary date in the future when we will return to normal. And we’re still seeing it, even to this day, we’re still seeing announcements being made about where and when we should either return to work or how we will work. We really believe that the world with COVID is the new normal, not post, but actually with. So I’m just curious what you think this means for the commercial real estate industry, for your area of expertise. How do buildings continue to be an important part of this new expanded workplace ecosystem?

ND: Sure. So from my perspective, I look at it a little bit different ’cause in the facility engineering, how COVID really affected me is that, for those of you that don’t know, the trades are what I call a dying greed, unfortunately. And we are trying our best to get the younger generation interested into becoming facility engineers, electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians. And the last time that I looked at the statistics, the average age of an engineer at Cushman & Wakefield was 54 years old. And so, I knew that I had this window of about five to eight years where I was going to have a mass exodus of people. But what COVID did was, actually, it sped up that timeline. Because for whatever reason, there was a lot of people that were in that kind of area that didn’t want to get the vaccine and then therefore they couldn’t go back to work.

DA: Right.

ND: And so, I was struggling to find them work in places because a lot of our clients were requiring the vaccination and that was causing a lot of problems. So that actually, that timeline of five to eight years is now three years. I have about three years before I have to do something substantially different with how we approach facility engineering just around the world in general. And so, for me, when buildings are closing and they’re shrinking their footprint because people are working from home or the changes that they’ve made to the tenant environment where everybody tried to densify and now they’re bringing us to say, “Oh well, wait, now we can’t sit close.” So engineering had to come in and help undensify, I don’t know if that’s a word, but kind of spread people back out. And our needs became so different in that environment of the engineers, as well as, you think about the air units and everything that needs to be done with filter changes, and all of the things that really ramped up our work during that time. So, quite honestly, we didn’t slow down during that time. Everybody else went home, we continued to work. And so, as we see the footprints shrinking, it actually is going to help me a little bit with respect to facility engineers. Because I’m always going to need engineers to respond to, let’s say, banking centers and things of that nature that won’t close. Because whether there’s people in the building or not, generally, there’s going to be systems that are running and so you will always need the facility engineer. But as the office building shrink and maybe I don’t need a technician on site, I can redeploy that person. So it’s actually caused a little bit of a chess game for me in a different way to strategize on my staffing.

DA: Right. So, I guess long term, you’re having to, again, think about your business and how you structure your business, staff your business to meet the future. And on the other hand, you’re also dealing with the reality of what that future looks like. Some companies as you, what was the term you just created? De-densifying? Other firms completely changing their floor prints in terms of what they offer and how the facilities that they provide to their teams. How involved are you and your teams in helping the building operator, the property management teams, sort of reimagine, recreate, and support their building occupiers in creating the spaces for tomorrow that will continue to attract people to the physical workspace?

ND: Yeah, our job mainly revolves around just the overall conditioning of the air and lighting and things of that nature. So when this happens, one of the biggest things that we were involved in was air changes and making sure that we were turning the air over appropriately and filter changes and things of that nature. And one of the things that happened is, when people were putting up barriers and things like that, it changes the airflow.

DA: Right.

ND: So the airflow is intended, it’s designed in a certain space for a certain way, but then you start adding walls, you start adding plexiglass, it kind of changes the way things are. And so for us, now we’re going back in and we’re trying to make sure that all of that was done appropriately. And so that’s where we come into play is just making sure that we can condition the space in an appropriate manner and getting the right air changes for people to keep the environment healthy. And that’s our main goal. And we’ve developed inspection protocols for all of our facilities where we’re looking at all of the new, as you said, the new normal. This is the new world and we’re never going to go back. We’re always going to make sure our buildings follow these particular protocols when it comes to the air systems, the filters, all of those things. That’s just going forward because I truly believe that this has just opened our eyes for the next event that’s going to happen. I don’t want to be doom and gloom, but I would rather be prepared and continue along this path. I’m never going to unwind what we have just done. We’re going to continue.

DA: Right. So I’m just curious, I have just to ask an unscripted question. Given that your buildings and employers are working hard to, again, I don’t like to say to bring people back, give them a reason to come back, from my perspective, because I think the physical workplace is important, but it’s not the only place to work. But given your unique view into what people are doing, any interesting changes that you’ve seen in the physical workspace, changes that they’ve made to layout structure? We put those barriers up, I suspect some of those barriers are coming down. What are you seeing right now? I’m just curious.

ND: I think the biggest thing that I see is where, like I said before, people were trying to really give people a small working environment, now people are more spaced out. And so, if you do come back into the office, you find yourself not necessarily working shoulder to shoulder to someone that you would’ve been in what the old environment, so to speak. And so I think that’s the biggest thing that I’m seeing is just mostly people are actually spread out in a different manner. ‘Cause we’ve had all these open working concept offices and that was just such the coolest thing. And then in 2015, 2010, whatever timeline that came out, everyone wanted the open environment collaboration space, everybody working together. And that kind of has taken a little bit of a pass. And so we’re seeing that that kind of go out into a different working environment. People are going more into that, just going into pockets of the office, at least for the Cushman offices that I see.

DA: Right.

ND: I’m a terrible person to ask. I’ve worked from home since 2007, so I’m-

DA: Wow.

ND: I have a very strong opinion on working from home. You will never get me back to an office.

DA: We’ll talk about that and get your preference and you’re thinking around that as well. The pandemic certainly has recalibrated the market and to now recognize that buildings are really places for people. The physical aspect of buildings is not what it’s all about. The people are the real asset. And as a result, we think the tenant experience or workplace experience is fast becoming the new differentiator and is driving real estate decisions, more so than the historical determinants such as location and class.

ND: Right.

DA: So, you just gave us a hint that you’re loving and have perhaps always worked remotely and love working remotely, but we do believe there is a reason at times to come back to the physical workspace, to come back to offices, to come back to buildings. And I’m just curious, how we will define great customer experience in the future? And I guess, I have to ask as well, what would bring you back? If you’re such an ardent supporter of working remotely, what part of the physical workspace would also bring you back from an experience perspective?

ND: Sure, those are great questions. So for me, the way that I look through this is, and it’s generational, right? So everyone has a different way of working and I think that’s what brings, if you cater to what people want, you’ll get the workers to come back to the office. And so, what I have noticed is some of our clients, I go and visit their space. And I do travel and I do go into offices. And when I do, I think what brings people in is really amenities. I think that I see cool coffee bars and just great places to lounge and all of that kind of stuff that’s really gearing towards the new generation of workers. I’m an old generation of worker, I’m on my way out, so they’re not catering to me anymore and that’s okay. I think those kind of fun spaces really are what’s driving people to want to come in and collaborate. And I speak to people all the time and I have so many people on my team and we all have very specific feelings about going back to the office. I think it’s almost very personal. My second in command wants to go into the office. He lives in New York City. He doesn’t want to work in his Brooklyn apartment, it’s small. He doesn’t feel like it’s just, you know, he gets lonely. He goes into the New York office and he loves it. He absolutely loves it. That environment is great for him. I live in the St. Louis area where we have one of our best offices at Cushman & Wakefield in the St. Louis office. And I go in there and I just feel alone when I’m in the office because everyone that’s working, they’re not on my team, they’re on different teams. And so, for me to go into the office, I would want my team to be there, but my team lives across the world, so I can’t expect that.

DA: Very interesting. And I think you’re right, I think there are just so many different individual experiences.

ND: Yeah.

DA: There isn’t one right answer.

ND:  It’s not. It’s complicated.

DA: Again, it’s not “Everybody has to come back.” It’s not “We should never come back.” And obviously, HILO is a digital platform that’s used to help building operators connect with their tenants, so we have a vested interest in commercial real estate. But we’re also smart enough and real enough to understand that it’s not going to be the way that it once was. And the way that it was before, still people don’t necessarily even realize that we did live in a world where remote was very much part of it.

ND: Definitely.

DA:  And we believe that it should be all about what’s right. So your partner in New York that loves going into work, and for you, again, since your team is so global, now I totally understand. For you to go into the St. Louis office where it’s just a fraction of your team, your team is across the world, it totally makes sense to me. So I think it’s a great example of why we really need to be listening.

ND: Yeah.

DA: And creating solutions that work for everybody. And it’s not a cookie-cutter solution.

ND: It’s not, it’s really not. It’s just I think the tenant experience comes down to just giving people choices.

DA: Right.

ND: And that’s really what it comes down to, choices. And making that environment as inclusive as possible if they do choose to go into the office. Like I said, it seems like nowadays people just want that environment that’s collaborative, full of coffee, fun, good lighting, open, airy, that kind of stuff. I think that will get people into the office if they choose that that makes sense for them. But it is a very personal decision. I work better when I’m just home locked in my office and that’s what works for me.

DA: Yep, totally get it. Let’s take a short break and we’ll be right back.

Commercial Break

DA: We are back with Nicole Dallas, Global Head of Technical Services at Cushman & Wakefield. Again, I’m really glad you are with us today and I’m enjoying our conversation.

ND: Thanks.

DA: Living through a pandemic has been very challenging for so many people, but it’s also provided an opportunity, as we like to say, to be better, do better, and build something better. So I’m just curious, can you share any details about your business or some part of your business that you’re now reimagining to reflect where we are today?

ND: So for us, the strange thing is, one of the business lines that I manage is a mobile engineering force, which is a variable team that sits across the United States and they’re able to help our clients that are in dispersed portfolios. And one of the things that we had to reimagine is, we are helping our clients with a lot of idle sites, so sites that are actually closed down. But our work doesn’t end because they still need to keep the systems on, they still need to have electricity. They need to have someone going in there and checking those sites to make sure there’s no leaks, there’s nothing that’s going wrong in those buildings, even though nobody is in there. So this is actually built my business line quite a bit because I have at least four different clients where I use that team to do idle inspections, which has been a huge increase in my business, quite honestly, to go and do that and just do a check. I feel bad that I’ve been able to increase business and some people have had to decrease business, but this has actually opened up some opportunity for us in our mobile engineering team.

DA: Really interesting. And of course, no one would think about that. We’re all thinking about existing buildings and bringing people back to buildings and how buildings can respond to this new world. And yet you’re dealing with the opposite of buildings that are going through a very different experience. And to your point, it doesn’t mean they can be neglected.

ND: Right.

DA: And will those buildings eventually come back online or sort of what’s the roadmap?

ND: So potentially, and that’s why they don’t want to shut them down completely. They keep them so that if they do choose to bring them back on, they’re ready to go. And so they want a monthly inspection. They want us to make sure that those buildings, should they choose to pull the lever to reopen that building, that it’s ready to go. And so, there’s a saying that I always say, “An empty building is an unhappy building.” It’s kind of like if you have a car that you don’t drive very often, it’s very terrible for the car. It’s the same thing for mechanical equipment. If you’re not using it and checking it and making sure that it’s continued to run, it’s not good if you want to quickly bring the building back on site or back online. And so, they ask us to make sure that we’re upkeeping those idle sites, should they pull that lever to come back to work in that building or that warehouse or whatever that particular type of real estate is.

DA: Are they primarily industrial and/or office?

ND: It’s both, it’s everything. I have warehouses, I have industrial, I have office buildings, lots of different types of real estate where it’s considered an idle site, they just keep it idle. Like if you’re idling your car, it’s just ready to go if you need it, but not ready.

DA: Very interesting. Well, again, none of us have looked for that silver lining, but the reality is we’ve all had to respond to what we’ve been dealt with and this clearly is an area of your business that perhaps you didn’t foresee, but is something your team had to respond to, so kudos to you.

ND: Thank you.

DA: Our closing speed round is an opportunity to get to know you a little bit better, not just about your work that you do and the industry that you serve, but just to understand you a little bit more. So I’m just curious if you can share one way in which the pandemic has changed your outlook on life.

ND: Well, I don’t take family gatherings for granted anymore. I think I used to take them for granted and kind of, when my family got together, there’s always that one person that you want to avoid in your family. But now, I don’t take them for granted any longer and I try to make an effort to get to see my family, for sure.

DA: Wonderful. Is there a travel destination that you miss most and that you’d like to have on that checklist as soon as you are able?

ND: Yeah, I miss going to New York. I used to go to New York quite often and I grew up in New Jersey, and so, I did miss going to New York, and I was going very frequently. So that, hopefully, will come back here in the near future. Most of my work has been on the West Coast lately though, so I’ve been heading to the West Coast quite a bit.

DA: Right. Well, I’ll be in New York the second week in October and I can’t wait. It is one of my favorite cities, so I’m looking forward to that.

ND: Definitely.

DA:  Anything new on your bucket list that you’d like to experience?

ND: I would love to go to Bora Bora, definitely, that is going to be my next year goal, so I would love to go there and spend a week without my phone, without my computer. I would like to, actually, without my children. I would completely just shut down for a week. I don’t think that that’s something that I’ve been able to do for a very long time.

DA: Right. Listen, through the pandemic, that’s been near impossible, so I totally get that. What’s your favorite technology that is new to your life?

ND: So there’s this new, I feel like I’m going to plug them, I’m going to give them some free advertising here, but Fulkrum is a new inspection app that I have been using with my team and it has changed our lives. Like I said, we do these idle inspections of all these buildings and it was really cumbersome in the current CMMS system that we were using and we found this application called Fulkrum. It has completely changed our lives. We are enjoying using it, so it’s a very cool technology.

DA:  Excellent. Now, I think I know the answer to this last question, but I’m going to ask it but I’m going to provide a little add-on as well. What’s your personal choice for days spent in-person with your colleagues versus working from anywhere? And part B would be, given that you are likely more remote, how do you stay connected and how do you maintain those relationships in a more virtual remote way?

ND: Yeah, so that’s a great question. I meet with each of my direct reports weekly for an hour and we do FaceTime or video conferencing and I think it’s really important to stay connected with them. And sometimes we use the whole hour and sometimes we don’t, but I think that’s part of, if you’re not working daily with someone, you have to give them that weekly time. I think that is sacred time and I say that all the time. There are sometimes where I have to move those meetings around, but I will meet with everybody because it’s so important to connect with your team and to make sure that they’re doing well and to understand how they’re doing in their environments. Like I said, I have one individual that wants to go to the office and he didn’t have a spot so I had to help him get a spot. It’s just having that open dialogue. For me, working from home, like I said, I’ve done it since 2007. It works for me. I am a working mom. I have a lot of outside interests. I’m a volunteer firefighter. It just makes a lot of sense for me to work from home. It just makes everything so much easier. I also have two women that work for me. They have very young children, they work from home. They’re so happy that they can be on my team to work from home and not go into an environment. And so, that’s my personal preference. As for the first question, I’m so sorry, you said what would make going into the office good? I apologize.

DA: Well, no, no, I think you answered the question in terms of your personal preference, and obviously, geography is a concern as well, particularly also given the nature of your team. And then you talked about how you stay connected. I’m just curious, you said that you’ve been remote as long as you have, your company clearly has always been very accepting of that and supportive of that. Was that always the case?

ND: Yeah, definitely. I’ve been very fortunate. So working for companies, I have actually sought out remote positions and it’s something that I negotiate generally when I’m looking for a position. I am always looking for a remote position at this point just because, again, like I said, of my personal life, which I find, if everyone would prioritize what they think is right, my personal life is number one, always top. No offense, I love my company, I love my job. It’s a strong number two, but my family is always going to be number one. And so, it just works best for me to be at home and to be able to stay connected from working. So for me, I make sure that I negotiate that into any role that I’m taking.

DA: Right. Well, I suspect in the new world, situations like you find yourself in are going to be more common, and whereas perhaps you were a pioneer back in the early days, we’re going to see more and more opportunities like that. There’s no one solution for all. I think this is a great example of finding what makes sense for you, what makes sense for your company, and sort of a number of different variables that you’ve obviously considered. Personal interest, your family, your career. I love that. So it’s been a pleasure to have this conversation to continue to get to know you, Nicole. Thanks so much for coming on the program. I wish you continue success and look forward to continue the conversation in the future.

ND: Thank you. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

DA: My pleasure, take care.

ND: Thank you.

DA: I want to thank Nicole Dallas for joining me on this episode of TEN, and for contributing to the global conversation around buildings being part of a robust ecosystem, helping to build great companies that are vital in the effort to cultivate and support great people and teams. The future of the workplace will likely take many forms and we will continue to explore what that looks like together. Subscribe to TEN for more conversations with leading CRE professionals and experts who all have something to say about tenant experience and the future of the workplace. We love hearing from you. So if you enjoyed this episode of TEN, please share, add your rating, and review us through your preferred podcast provider. 

If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on a future episode, please reach out to me directly at david@hiloapp.com. And until our next episode, I wish you all continued success in building community where you work and live, thank you.

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Rita Tené Ellison | Associate Director | T. Dallas Smith & Company | Putting customers first in CRE

Season 3 / Episode 20 / 22:20
In this episode, Rita explains that access to local amenities is becoming more of a driving factor in real estate decisions, causing smart landlords to become more attentive to tenant needs, and respond with appropriate programming. With a “client-first” mentality, her firm has maintained a consistent approach throughout the pandemic in responding to the evolving needs of its customers.

Jamie Petten | President & Executive Director | Kanata North Business Association | Connecting the community in Canada’s largest technology park

Season 3 / Episode 19 / 31:09
In this episode, Jamie shares that in order to attract and retain talent, a big part of the conversation is adding new opportunities to live and play at Kanata North Technology Park, and making new investments to enhance physical workspaces. Jamie is enthusiastic about the role that HILO will play in helping to connect all the partners in the park and promote all of the park’s activities.

Rita Tené Ellison | Associate Director | T. Dallas Smith & Company | Putting customers first in CRE

Season 3 / Episode 20 / 22:20
In this episode, Rita explains that access to local amenities is becoming more of a driving factor in real estate decisions, causing smart landlords to become more attentive to tenant needs, and respond with appropriate programming. With a “client-first” mentality, her firm has maintained a consistent approach throughout the pandemic in responding to the evolving needs of its customers.

Jamie Petten | President & Executive Director | Kanata North Business Association | Connecting the community in Canada’s largest technology park

Season 3 / Episode 19 / 31:09
In this episode, Jamie shares that in order to attract and retain talent, a big part of the conversation is adding new opportunities to live and play at Kanata North Technology Park, and making new investments to enhance physical workspaces. Jamie is enthusiastic about the role that HILO will play in helping to connect all the partners in the park and promote all of the park’s activities.