Interviewed on March 11, 2021
Interviewed by Yingying Zhu
Mikki Ward is responsible for developing and advancing EQ’s use of AI, automation and data analytics across the portfolio with a focus on customer/tenant services, automating for the future of work, security/access control, data acquisition and monetization, multimedia and experience design.
Before EQ Office, Mikki served as the Information Technology leader for North America’s largest hardwood lumber manufacturer – Weyerhaeuser for 15 years. She built and executed the strategy to deliver business wide Infrastructure and Application enhancement and support to a $750M, 2,000 person, multi-national organization.
Mikki graduated Magna Cum Laude from College of Business and Economics, Washington State University.
More forward-thinking real estate companies are starting to create the roles of head of technology or innovation. How do you define your role at EQ Office now and in 5 years? My job is to define a technology strategy for EQ Office, including evaluating new technologies and vendors, as well as understanding how they might fit into our overall portfolio and how they might help to serve our property teams and tenants. The role is changing constantly, not only because technology is changing quickly but also because technology has become a central part of the workplace experience, which is also evolving. For example, I started off looking for new types of access control systems, whereas now I need to understand how I am bringing people back to work safely and help them utilize the space more efficiently.
I read in the news that EQ Office is using Openpath at the newly repositioned Canvas Costa Mesa in California. Can you use this as an example explaining how you usually assess technology solutions and select the best among many? One of the great things about working at EQ Office is that we have assets across the US with different types of building systems. We are fortunate to be able to pilot 10 different access control systems that are available on the market at 10 different buildings. This allows us to test and learn from different products and to work through real-world issues with different technology partners. In the case of Openpath, we worked very closely with James Segil, the founder of Openpath, who values feedback from their customers and is very keen on understanding what is important to the customers that we want to serve. We found a great fit when we saw a partner who shared the same goals as ours, which is creating the best experience for our tenants.
How do you choose your tenant engagement app? We have evaluated several products in the tenant experience and tenant engagement area. On top of being an event finder for the building or a local perks locator, the products we tend to favor should also provide utility. We need the app to provide services that our tenants truly value, such as building access, work order requests, and temperature and air quality information so that our tenants use it on a daily basis and feel the sense of belonging and ownership in the building. Lastly, it needs to integrate well with our existing building systems.
What are some of the features that you are focused on for technology solutions that a real estate professional may not necessarily focus on? Every one of our buildings is different and each has different base building access control systems, HVAC systems, Building Management Systems and more. One thing that I am focused on is the integrating capabilities of the technologies. They have to work well with the existing systems so that they can be rolled out throughout the portfolio without tremendous efforts to revamp what we already have.
How do you work with proptech companies? I like to build a good relationship with our potential partners by knowing the team and understanding their goals. I will be straightforward about what we are trying to do for our tenants, and then we discuss how they can help us get there. Oftentimes, proptech companies appreciate the expertise and market knowledge that we bring to the table and evolve their products based on our feedback. For example, for a tenant engagement app, we might say it could be more focused on the utility functions that our tenants rely on for safety, wellbeing and convenience, rather than the feature around perks. We love being a partner with those companies who keep improving their products. This way, we also help the commercial real estate industry as a whole to have better access to technology products.
How do you make sure to align your internal team around testing out a new idea? EQ Office is a very tight team working towards the same goal. Our CEO, Lisa Picard, has instilled in all of us that technology is important to prepare us as a workplace company for the future. For that reason, our property managers and asset managers are always interested in learning about new technologies and eager to pilot new products.
“I am very interested in the area of space utilization … it is extremely valuable to understand the data that we can access through sensors and AI cameras to help our tenants optimize their space...”
What are some areas that you want to see more solutions for? I am very interested in the area of space utilization as the way people use offices is changing rapidly. There are some tools that already have come out but I think many new things will continue to be developed over the next year and beyond. For example, it is extremely valuable to understand the data that we can access through sensors and AI cameras to help our tenants optimize their space to better suit their activities and working patterns. I look forward to starting to pilot more of the new technology to really understand the data.
What is EQ Office doing to help your tenants as we enter this post-vaccine stage of the pandemic? We have worked on many things to help our tenants to get information about the air quality, the cleaning schedule, the wait time for elevators, and the occupancy level so they feel safe when they come back to the office. Our goal is to integrate our physical real estate and our digital layer of services together into one seamless, pleasant experience. We are focused on bringing humanity to the workplace by asking our tenants, “What would make your coming to the office a better journey, or what can we do differently to make the workplace a better place for you to perform?”
“She (Lisa) recognizes when everyone has Zoom fatigue.... If she thinks the team needs a break, she will enforce a break by saying, ‘let’s give each other some silence from Thursday noon through Monday afternoon,’ for example. It brings humanity into our culture and promotes actual productivity instead of long working hours.”
How does EQ Office as an employer promote productivity during the pandemic? I can’t say enough that we have a great leader Lisa Picard. She recognizes when everyone has Zoom fatigue and does a great job of leading by example. If she thinks the team needs a break, she will enforce a break by saying, “Let’s give each other some silence from Thursday noon through Monday afternoon,” for example. It brings humanity into our culture and promotes actual productivity instead of long hours. We have also rolled out apps for daily meditation to the EQ team to help us transition from working in the office to working at home, and to deal with the stress that comes with it.
How did you make the career switch from a technology lead in the timber industry to the real estate industry? I was working for Weyerhaeuser, one of the largest timber companies in the Pacific Northwest for 15 years, integrating new building systems when the company acquired new buildings, or separating systems in the case of divesting. I have learned over the years to develop a solution to integrate technologies when there are no readily available options that I can buy off-the-shelf. I enjoy solving problems creatively and those skills are transferable to the real estate industry. However, the real estate industry is very different and is really lagging behind in adopting technologies than industries even like timber manufacturing. But the great thing is that technologies are coming much faster and improving more rapidly for the real estate industry. New players come to the market every day and many are consolidating, being acquired, or pivoting significantly into something new over a short period of time.
What initiatives does EQ Office have to promote female leadership? Our leadership teams are working on programs to help recruit and promote more women in the workplace. The hiring managers are required to seek out and consider underrepresented minority candidates for every position. Our team ensures pay equality by never asking for previous salaries and, instead, sharing what EQ pays for a role. Leaders provide extensive mentorship for young women across the company once they are hired. In addition, EQ has a very unique program called Women of Willis (WOW), a tenant-exclusive network designed to empower, elevate and connect women working within the iconic Willis Tower in Chicago.
Please name a woman professional who has inspired you the most. I am part of a women’s professional group and we spend a lot of time sharing information about construction and real estate technology. One of my friends that I am constantly inspired by is Amy Hutchins. She is the Chief Product Officer and Co-Founder of Unearth, the company that created a smart map-based project management tool.
Edited and condensed for clarity.