An intimate tour of New Zealand’s most holistic work space, where staff can forage for food and meditate amongst aromatherapy diffusers.
“Watch this,” says Ben Blakemore. With a cream shirt tucked tightly into his pants, the building manager points to a digital display mounted to the wall. It’s showing a large number meaningless to the untrained eye, but Blakemore promises it proves something. “The building is responding to the CO2 levels that we’re bringing in,” he says. “It will pump in more fresh air.”
He’s right. As we talk, the number drops and a soft breeze wafts across our heads out of invisible vents. The downtown Auckland building we’re standing in – the newly-opened and award-winning head office for telecommunications company 2Degrees – has registered the amount of carbon dioxide spilling out of our mouths. In response, it’s sending more oxygen our way.
As the number rises back up, Blakemore confirms the building’s state-of-the-art air conditioning system also responds to changes in temperature, humidity, dust particles and even the gas emitted by wall paint (VOCs). “It’s especially important in meeting rooms,” he says. Every office dweller knows how stuffy they can get when packed full of people, but not here. “The building’s responding, delivering fresh air.”
That’s not the only piece of behind-the-scenes magic happening in Auckland’s most holistic office space. In the foyer of the gleaming Fanshawe St building, once home to a dusty carpark and a strange 90s radio competition, ambient music pipes gently in the background, emitting vibes of a yoga studio’s in-house café. Above, fake plants hang from the ceiling. They’re tended by gardeners who adjust the size and length of foliage to match the growth of the foyer’s real plants.
Inside, digital hands wave to staff, greeting them with a classic Kiwi “shaka, bro” hand signal. Meeting spaces are contoured organically, stairs widened to encourage impromptu discussions while allowing others to pass unimpeded. Staff have access to soundproofed booths for phone calls, meditation and prayer rooms filled with mats and aromatherapy diffusers, and breastfeeding mums have their own space with a comfy chair and a fridge to express and store milk.
In the kitchen, racks of bananas and oranges are available, free, for staff to snack on. Barista-sized coffee machines grind beans and steam milk. Graze platters laden with tomatoes and carrots sit on benchtops for staff snacks. If anyone feels like a salad for lunch, they can gather some vegetables and forage for buttercrunch lettuce leaves and herbs growing in permanent planter boxes on open-air balconies. While leaning against a pool table, The Spinoff spots strawberries ripening in the sun.
All this sounds like a response to Covid, when everyone headed home to wait out lockdowns and learn how to use Zoom while kids scoffed snacks in the background. These days, many seem reluctant to RTO (return to office) full-time. Some companies have embraced this, closing down branches and promoting a fully remote lifestyle. Others have adapted, tempting staff back with hybrid hours and catered lunches. Some took this to an extreme, offering free swag or Friday food trucks. Google got Lizzo to perform.
But working from home is here to stay. According to this recent study, 81% of New Zealand’s workforce would consider working remotely on a permanent basis. So building an entirely new head office specifically catered to the needs of the modern office worker seems extreme. Yet Blakemore says 2Degrees began its designs well before the pandemic made Slack posts like ‘WFH 2day’ the norm. “We were up in Newmarket and those offices were pretty substandard,” he says. “We wanted to drive a transformation in the way our people felt about coming to work.”
Enter Asha Page. During the country’s first lockdown, the associate principal at architecture firm Warren and Mahoney used Zoom to hold “visioning workshops” in an attempt to understand just how far 2Degrees wanted to take this project. The irony of designing a flexible co-working space from home during level four isn’t lost on her. “It was quite intense trying to imagine what it was going to be like when we came out,” she says.
It’s Page that’s responsible for much of the building’s worker-first initiatives. It’s why “neighbourhoods” have been created for teams to work in, with groups of hot desks. It’s why acoustic panelling on the ceilings helps calm noise pollution, even with multiple meetings, Zooms and phone calls happening in the same space. And it’s why most desks have plants visible within a 30-degree radius. “For humans, being able to look at green, like plants and nature, is scientifically proven to have better health outcomes,” says Page. “Happier, healthier people are more productive.”
It’s also why, when it opened in the middle of last year, the building became the first in Aotearoa to receive a Well certification, a title given to workplaces that adhere to 10 holistic principles. Spending an hour wandering through the calm corridors, gazing in wonder at the foraging gardens, and snooping inside the meditation room, the same thought keeps crossing my mind. My office, and probably every other office in Auckland, doesn’t look anything like this. Should it?
“Idon’t think so,” says Samantha Gadd. The founder of Excellent, a company that helps curate employee experiences for businesses, is something of an expert. She has strong feelings about treats being offered to tempt staff back to the office.
“Things like mod cons and perks are not a solution,” she says. “I think that they can help. But if you have people that are genuinely feeling like they can contribute, learn, grow and perform and have that real sense of achievement on a daily basis without going into the office, free lunch isn’t necessarily going to get them in.”
Gadd believes three years of Covid has changed office life expectations for good. “[Employees] have experienced what it feels like to cut your commute and get your washing done between meetings, and it’s going to be very difficult to go back,” she says. “This concept of co-design is going to be critical to find a middle ground for employees and employers. What most people are looking for is … that feeling of choice.”
When I mention a recent debate in The Spinoff office over whether ambient music should be introduced, she says companies need to approach these decisions with caution. “I would really hope that the way that they get there is through having lots of conversations with a diverse representative group of employees to figure out [whether or not] that’s actually what people want and need,” she says. But Gadd also admits: “All of these problems are new, and no one’s got it nailed.”
Staff aren’t required to come into the 2Degrees office and use their flash new facilities, says Blakemore. There’s no Tesla-style edict commanding them to be there. But the initiative is working: Blakemore reports an above-average 50% of 2Degrees’ 600 staff are in the office at any one time. “We tend to be just over half-full most of the time,” he says. (On the late November day the Spinoff visits, it’s lower, which Blakemore attributes to the poor weather and illness.)
The idea, says Blakemore, is to give staff the opportunity to work in a building that also reflects the company’s values. They also wanted to open the 2Degrees doors up to customers. Anyone is welcome to use their front foyer spaces with the sun gleaming through the windows and the slow-growing hanging gardens, he says. “Just come in, hang out,” he says. “That’s totally fine.”
Being so open can have a downside. Just as The Spinoff is about to say goodbye, an irate 2Degrees customer arrives and spoils the curated ambiance. He believes his phone is being spied on, his messages being read, and his voicemails being listened to. He recites parts of the Privacy Act, his voice escalating as he clutches his phone. Blakemore, realising just how bad this timing is, calmly excuses himself and guides the customer to a comfy chair in the foyer.
As the ambient electronica washes over him, he gazes up to the hanging plants and takes a breath. He already seems calmer. Perhaps 2Degrees really is onto something here. Shaka, bro.