Feature in Dei Zeit

Dei Zeit No 9 Earth Office Feature

Thursday morning at ten o’clock in Berlin-Friedrichshain, minus two degrees, sunny. An hour ago, the WeWork on Warschauer Platz opened its revolving door. People are staring into their laptops, sitting in a huge living room landscape. Bookshelves, sofas like from Danish designer stores, abstract art, in lots of indoor plants. “Most beautiful coworking in Berlin,” someone wrote on Google. A place where you can work if you don’t have your own office.

Kazimierz Kazanowski, Kaz for short, stands in line at the coffee counter. Young people in bell bottoms and pastel colours. Kaz is wearing a down jacket, his pants have lots of pockets. “How are you,” the woman at the portafilter asks when it’s Kaz’s turn. “You are early.” – “The plants don’t care when I’m here,” Kaz says.

Philodendron scandens.

Heart-shaped leaves.

It can produce heat in flowers.

From small pots, the climbing plant hangs from a shelf, forming a square 3-D painting with others of the same ilk.

Kaz hangs his jacket over a chair. On his polo shirt, you can see the logo of the company he works for, an embroidered potted plant. He fills the first watering can of the day, it holds 14 litres. He never fills it; he thinks ten litres is enough to exercise his arms.

Kaz, 41, travels 400 kilometres every two weeks for the plants, on behalf of the Irish company Universal Floral. The service they offer is called Bringing Your Office to Life.

Universal Floral rents plants throughout Europe and also maintains them if requested. Clients include companies like Meta, Pinterest, Microsoft, Airbnb, and Instagram. In short, Kaz drives into offices and takes care of everything living that is neither human nor animal: he waters, fertilizes, and prunes the greenery.

The air conditioner hums, soft murmurs come from behind, and now and then the quick tock-tock of the Slack app. A guy with headphones glances fleetingly over a partition as Kaz starts digging through vines and crunching the first dried leaves between his fingers. A white spitz is the only one watching Kaz. He is allergic to dogs and to the white blood of the ficus.

He reaches for a shoot that is too long and pulls his pliers from the leather case on his belt. He applies the blade, hesitates briefly, and then pushes through. People might otherwise soon bump into it and complain.

Kaz has been working for Universal Floral for 14 years; he comes from Poland, near the Ukrainian border. His parents had a small farm, with vegetable fields and a few animals. His mother and sister loved plants. He rather didn’t. He went to Ireland at some point and worked in a warehouse there. There was no daylight, and when the building was sold, Kaz decided to make a change. A friend had told him about Universal Floral. The job requirement: be flexible, and quiet, but passionate about what you do.

Kaz says it took him a while to understand what he needed to do. Plants died because he didn’t know their names and didn’t yet know what they needed. At night, he dreamed he had forgotten a plant. Today he knows the Latin names by heart. His job title is plant technician.

The great thing about plants, he says, is that they make you feel good. That every place looks better with a plant. That they give him work. He laughs a little when he says this as if it’s absurd to talk about plants.

Three Sansevieria, two Monsteras, and a Rhapis later, even the Spitz has lost interest in Kaz. He elegantly crosses his front legs and stares into space. The smell of hot food wafts through WeWork’s kitchen. Silver stoves are set up. A woman scoops lasagna onto a plate. “Is that vegan?” another asks before calmly reaching for cutlery. Techno is playing. It’s almost noon, lunchtime. Kaz is pleased. An hour of space! Some customers want him to come in the evening so he won’t be a nuisance. But plant care prefers daylight, Kaz says.

Aglaonema commutatum.

Called “Maria”.

Also grows in the shade.

Modern offices as we know them today have been around since the early 20th century, when the first office building, the Larkin Administration Building, opened in Buffalo, New York. There have been studies of people and their workspaces. They all say that man is in danger of collapsing in the office. He suffers from irritated eyes and headaches, fatigue when there is too little daylight, and from back pain when he sits too much.

What do the plants suffer from?

From creepy-crawlies and leaf loss, Kaz says.

Who can take more?

The plants, Kaz believes, at least some of them, because they change offices less often than humans. Plus, they have superpowers. Some plants need almost no light. Aglaonema commutatum, for example, the cob thread. Kaz would love to plant Aglaonemas everywhere – perfect for conference rooms, which often don’t have windows and are therefore dark during the day. But customers just want certain plants in certain places, even ones that are bad for the plants. There is little demand for the aglaonema.

He listens toward the milky glass of a meeting room. Voices. He leans back and braces his arms at his sides. He is here only once every two weeks, then spends just under a week in Berlin. He will now have to come back on Saturday. If he doesn’t come in then, he’ll have to hope for the next time. Six weeks without him, the plant in the conference room could not survive. Then he would have to buy replacements for it, repot it, and clean up after himself.

Even worse than conference rooms are hotels, Kaz says. People would throw trash in the pots, and mess with the plants, and they would be moved around constantly for events. Plants like to be in one place. Kaz, fortunately, was only assigned to one hotel once. Every time he visited, he had five to six spare plants in his car, just in case.

What do plants like?

Light, sure. Water, but not too much.

Most plants die because humans take too good care of them. “A lot of people overwater them,” Kaz says. “Just like grandparents overfeed their grandchildren.” Sometimes they pour water into the pots because the leaves have turned yellow and they want to help the plant, he says. Yet the yellow is also a sign of too much moisture, he said. Watering every two weeks is sufficient for large pots.

Chamaedorea cataractarum.

From the mountainous regions of Central America.

Like all palms, needs a lot of space

It stands next to the first aid kit at the entrance of WeWork, its tips have turned yellow. Skilled as a barber, Kaz clips off the ends with pliers. “People lose their hair, plants lose their leaves,” he says.

Sometimes someone from the offices asks him if he talks to the plants. “I have too many and don’t have time for that,” he replies, very politely. People would be happy to talk to the plants themselves, standing right at their desks, he thinks to himself.

Okay, sometimes he does speak to the plants, somehow.

“Get well,” he says, or “What happened to you?”. But only in his mind.

In his silver Hyundai, he drives to the next stop, past the remains of the wall at East Side Gallery, to the high-rises at Potsdamer Platz. Kaz worked in Dublin until last summer. Then he helped out in Berlin, flying in from Ireland a couple of times. He is now responsible for several office floors in Berlin.

He lives with his wife and children in Łęczyca, a small town in the middle of Poland, hundreds of kilometers away from Berlin, a four- to five-hour drive. When he’s not in Berlin, he pours into an office in Warsaw, helps out elsewhere, for example in Amsterdam, and spends time with his family, preferably outside. He gets paid between 15 and 25 euros an hour. That’s enough in Poland, Kaz says, but not in Berlin.

The premises of TIER, the e-scooter and bicycle rental company. My ears pinch in the elevator as it rises to the 21st floor. Four long meeting tables, a screen on wheels, a whiteboard, and a tap for craft beer. There’s no one around, the city outside the windows just posing for plants.

Yucca gigantea.

Looks soft.

But has razor-sharp leaves.

Holding a leaf with one hand, he swipes a microfiber cloth over it with the other. Dust particles shimmer in the sun.

He wipes upward, so he doesn’t cut himself. Wiping, he says, is the hardest part of maintenance. You could spend hours dusting. He can only do that occasionally, and not with every leaf. That’s why his favorite plants are the ones with the big leaves: strelitzia or monstera. When he talks about a plant, he occasionally takes a leaf in his hand, stroking it.

On another floor, a woman lures a very excited dwarf poodle to her. The owner, she says, is in the bathroom. “Penny!” The dog howls and runs off with its tail between its legs. The woman coordinates the office space. The herb garden on the balcony looks a little sad, she says, without Kaz hearing her. True, mint, thyme, and oregano are struggling meagerly against the cold. They’re just decorations; no one cooks here. Kaz is “extremely cool,” the woman says, “insanely calm.”

Universal Floral realized that office workers fail at plant care back in 1969, when the father of Marie Caffrey, the current CEO, founded the company. U.S. companies had set up offices in Ireland and wanted plants for them. Studies show that plants relax people, and make them happier and more productive. In 2017, Apple had 9,000 trees planted on its Silicon Valley campus, and Amazon’s Seattle headquarters has 40,000 plants.

With Instagram and Pinterest, a plant fever has broken out, Marie Caffrey says in a video call. Her company is expanding across Europe. Companies now didn’t just want a few token plants for the reception area. They wanted moss installations and living walls, everywhere. As if to fool people into thinking they weren’t in an office at all.

The sun is setting, an office building, a five-minute drive away, another company, open-plan space with a kitchenette. Kaz has replanted the office with ficus, dieffenbachia and schefflera. Because everything is still unfinished, the company doesn’t want to be named.

As Kaz fills the watering can, a woman walks in, patterned sweater, creoles, and popcorn packet in hand. “Can I use the microwave?” she asks.

“Sure, I’m just watering the plants.”

“I was wondering who takes care of them. I took off some yellow leaves, I have a few plants myself.”

“The plants have only been here six weeks. They need time to get used to the new place.”

“Oh,” the woman says.

“They’ll be okay, I’ll do my best.”

Strelitzia reginae.

Evergreen, perennial, herbaceous.

Good hiding place for mealybugs.

Kaz sticks the moisture meter deep into the soil. Is still damp, he says, as he wipes the stick with his hand. He dumps in a little water. That’s all there is to it; the strelitzia is still fresh.

But it doesn’t have much room to grow. Huge, it rises to the ceiling, about four meters; Kaz had to bring it here by truck. The plants come from a dealer in the Netherlands, he imported them from Thailand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, and Florida. “We only use the strong varieties,” Kaz says. “Then we have a guarantee that they won’t die.”

There are about twenty different plants suitable for offices, most of which don’t need much light or water; they bring the characteristics of nature. The plants that can handle adverse conditions outside are also the ones that hold up better inside.

When the plants arrive, they look perfect, Kaz said. People would expect them to always stay in shape. Some companies would send plants back because of a yellow leaf.

“It’s hard to have a perfect plant in the office,” Kaz said. There is a lack of contact with the wind, he says. The wind outside makes them stronger.

People put their laptops in backpacks; they suddenly seem more lively than before, allowed to go home. Sometimes they tell Kaz they’d like to “do something with their hands, too.”

Beaucarnea recurvata.

Thick trunk, like an elephant’s foot.

Loves sunlight and hates frost.

Kaz pulls long dry brown leaf tips. “Problems,” he says. The plant is too far from the window, he says. But you can’t see it unless you get close to it.

Kaz saved a second Beaucarnea recurvata by putting it close to the window, close to the light, in a convenient office for another customer. No one would know about it. Kaz calls the place his secret garden.

Previously, he tried to save all the plants, even the offspring. He put the young shoots in water at home for months until roots appeared. He nursed discarded plants that had become too yellow. But his apartment is too small, his wife thinks. Meanwhile, he has only one palm tree, a few cacti, a lucky feather, and a dracaena.

Sometimes Kaz exchanges tips with his colleagues in a WhatsApp group on how the plants survive better. Sometimes he asks if anyone wants a baby plant. “It’s a baby plant, not trash, but I don’t need it.” If no one wants it, he throws it away.