Case Studies

Natashia Dunham – Sobeys

Real estate director drills down into data to improve worker wellness

When Natashia Dunham joined Sobeys, she launched an extensive renovation program to improve the company’s facilities and bring them up to Canada’s new national standard. But for Dunham, that dovetailed nicely with her modus operandi.

“Transformation, continuous improvement and real estate have always been themes in my career journey,” says Dunham, the director of corporate real estate systems and facilities management for the more than a century-old Canadian retail grocer.

Natashia Dunham | Director, Corporate Real Estate Systems, CI & Facilities Management | Sobeys

Natashia Dunham | Director, Corporate Real Estate Systems, CI & Facilities Management | Sobeys

Now tasked with oversight of 17 buildings across Canada, from portfolio management and capital planning to strategic asset maintenance, as well as the design portfolio, Dunham creates spaces that foster collaboration and well-being. She is, after all, responsible for the office environments of 4,500 employees nationwide.

For example, Dunham and her team have introduced agile office guidelines at Sobeys’ new downtown Toronto office as well as at the Vancouver office. What that means is that employees don’t have assigned workspaces; they sit in a free desking environment where they can move to whichever area best suits the work that they’re doing at a given moment.

“It really creates more of a community mentality within the office when teams have to share space and cooperate,” Dunham says. “It’s been very successful. And we look forward to pulling some of those features and services into our other offices over time.”

A multidimensional approach to WELLness

Dunham has just renewed the company’s 2023 WELL Health and Safety Building Standard certification for multiple offices across the country—14 of Sobeys’ 17 corporate locations are certified, among them the Stellarton, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Toronto, Mississauga, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria buildings. The WELL Building Standard is a system that gauges a built environment’s healthiness for its human occupants based on seven metrics: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.

That required Dunham and her team to keep spaces sanitized, provide health benefits, communicate health and safety initiatives to workers, and practice emergency preparedness, among other efforts.

So, for example, Dunham has evaluated the company’s HVAC filter quality to make sure they all meet the highest standards. And she’s been installing devices across the building portfolio so she can remotely monitor the air quality of Sobeys’ spaces in real time.

Natashia Dunham | Director, Corporate Real Estate Systems, CI & Facilities Management | Sobeys

On the comfort front, she looked at data on how rooms were being used and determined that she and her team needed to improve the acoustics in the Halifax office. The data had shown that certain rooms were underutilized, and when asked, the workers there said the acoustics were problematic. Dunham’s team did an analysis of the engineering and found that there were deficiencies that needed to be addressed.

In addition, her team has made security system upgrades, improving the quality of the cameras, particularly on the exterior of buildings, “so that if there are any events, that we have high quality footage to support any investigation,” she says.

She’s also incorporated apps that allow her and her team to access security footage on mobile devices, so they don’t have to travel to the facility in question and can begin investigating right away.

“It’s just a multidimensional approach, versus just being complacent, like, ‘We’re done,’” Dunham says. “It’s a mindset of, we can always do better, and the environment is always changing, so there’s always opportunity.”

Assessing new norms

Dunham’s team has been focused on understanding the current trends in workplace environments, and they’ve conducted assessments of how spaces are being used at Sobeys. Dunham has applied what she’s learned from internal and external data to design spaces according to the different functions of the teams working there (with the help of her human resources and IT partners).

The hybrid working assessment is the most recent example of this, and it gave Dunham and her team a chance to learn how the post-pandemic “new normal” affects their spaces. They wanted to know: If employees are in the corporate offices three days a week, how much space is used and how is it used?

Natashia Dunham | Director, Corporate Real Estate Systems, CI & Facilities Management | Sobeys

Based on what they found, they made recommendations to leadership about how hybrid working policies were intersecting with real estate and how to best use space over time. Sobeys eventually implemented a two/three-day policy: Some roles are in-office two days a week, others (managerial roles) three days a week.

Dunham and her team then worked with IT to tailor their technology to the new policies, including adjusting entryway sensors. They’re currently troubleshooting to make sure they got everything right. Because some workers will be working from home some of the time, they also performed an audio-visual diagnostic to make sure everyone could connect remotely.

Better buildings and communities

But Dunham is not just concerned about improving the built environment for Sobeys workers; she’s also dedicated to bettering her community. For example, spending a day with her team at Second Harvest Food Bank.

An alum of York University, where she earned her B.A. in economics and psychology, Dunham started her career in the design and construction department of Famous Players Theaters, a Canadian company owned by Viacom.

“I realized through early work experiences that what I enjoyed was a role that had multiple dynamics to it—where no two days were the same, and that had elements of analytics and of creativity,” she says.

Natashia Dunham | Director, Corporate Real Estate Systems, CI & Facilities Management | Sobeys

Dunham later worked for Maple Leaf Foods, staying there for 11 years. In 2013, she became director of business process transformation for Sears Canada, where she also served as project lead for a national supply chain optimization. She moved to DealNet Capital in October 2014, serving as vice president of strategic technology, compliance and vice president of client engagement. In 2018, she joined Sobeys, rising from director of finance continuous improvement to her current role in 2020.

Today, Dunham says the director of real estate position is “a natural fit.” She’s learned over the years to “trust and live the process”—put in the time, build skillsets and focus on contributing something meaningful. And to not worry too much about compensation—she’s found that when she pursues what interests her, the monetary rewards just seem to follow.

“I’ve been fortunate to contribute to some of Canada’s best organizations,” Dunham says. “Now I look forward to continuing to find meaningful ways to add value and grow.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. V 2023 Edition here.

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