How'd you like to work in a forest? Settle into the undergrowth for a meeting, epiphytes climbing all around, ferns and palms delicately unfurled above. The air, super fresh and super controlled. In an office building.
Law firm Meredith Connell, which calls itself MC, is on a quest to answer a very big post-Covid question: Why would our staff want to come to work?
During lockdown, everyone at MC stayed home. "We know we can work successfully like that," says CEO Kylie Mooney. "We did that."
But they don't want to. "Our biggest competitors are the beach, the cafe, the park, the home." MC is determined to make the office a more appealing place to work than them.
So they're moving to new premises next year, to a building designed to achieve New Zealand's best available environmental rating: Six Stars in the Green Star system. That makes it a "world leader", according to the Green Building Council's certification process.
But MC is going even further, with a "holistic and rigorous" plan for the whole place and the people in it. It's aiming for certification under an American system call WELL: "A building and operations standard," says Mooney, "that's about supporting the health, wellbeing and happiness of our staff in our workplace."
I know, it's a bit jargony. But the intent is real and the goal is enormous. The firm intends to integrate environmental, social, personal and business health. Your office has some pot plants? MC will have 5000. Why? Because people feel better around plants.
They'll be spread around the office but also concentrated in that jungle area: my term not theirs, they're calling it a terrarium. A place where staff can meet, work, or perhaps just watch the plants do their thing. And the greenery is only a small part of how MC is rethinking the office and what happens in it.
Every company in every office building in cities everywhere now faces this issue: how to get staff to come in to work. Thanks to the success of broadband connections in the lockdowns, many office workers now know they have choices.
In fact, for climate-related reasons alone, working from home for some of the time will probably become essential, for those who can. As I reported last week, simply cancelling journeys is the cheapest and most powerful way to reduce carbon emissions.
Companies, though, know that over time too much remote will undermine the firm and probably the individuals, too.
"We value social capital," says Mooney. "It's huge for us. We want people to have a sense of belonging somewhere."
So the issue is: how to strike the right balance. MC wants that balance to lean heavily towards the office.
They have an open-plan office, where partners sit with their teams. That puts mentoring into the day-by-day. They're building a courtroom in the office, so everyone can practice and, presumably, create some entertainment and excitement. They say it's a first for New Zealand.
The social life is also important. Mooney cites research by Rachel Morrison at AUT that suggests people are less likely to leave their firm if they have friends at work.
But social life also involves workplace relations. Gone, or going, are the days when employees put up with stuff in the hope of one day getting a corner office and access to the executive dining room.
Today, you might be more interested in how the company keeps staff safe from bullies and toxic masculinity. From racism too, and the phobias some people have about sexuality and gender. You might want to know the firm's approach to biculturalism and what it's doing about pay gaps.
Mooney says they're onto all this at MC. "The public is very aware of the law profession's historic and current issues with racism, sexism, bullying and socioeconomic disparity, and I'm confident MC is well ahead of other large established law firms on all of them – with work still to do."
Green solutions aren't much help on this score: using rainwater to flush the toilets won't save you from a bully of a boss. They won't even guarantee the office looks good or feels right to be in. I know Green Star buildings with bleak interiors and aircon that can't deliver consistent outputs to all work areas (Five Star or less, admittedly).
WELL is vague on contentious social issues, and it doesn't cover Te Tiriti at all: Meredith Connell has other initiatives for that, including Te Kuhunga, which helps students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds focus on careers in the law.
But WELL does provide an excellent mechanism for assessing everything else. There's a big menu of targets: companies choose which ones they will commit to, and to what degree, and then they have to remain committed. Certification is regularly renewed.
Like Green Star, WELL covers air quality, water, light, "thermal comfort", sound and the impacts of construction.
WELL also covers transport, which in Auckland is the biggest environmental challenge for all companies and their staff: transport emissions account for 40 per cent of the city's total.
It's especially important if, like MC, they expect everyone to go to work each day. How do they make not driving to work a good option? How do they incentivise not making work trips by car during the day?
Bike lockups, showers, charging stations for e-bikes and EVs are the bare minimum. WELL requires companies to build "near mass transit" and on streets designed to be pedestrian and bike friendly. MC's new building is near several important bus routes but it can't do much about the streets.
Honestly, the fastest way to get across the inner city is on an e-bike, but you have to be either very confident or mad to try it.
This is not an issue companies can solve on their own. The council and its agency Auckland Transport have to take the lead in making cycling safe in the central city but, to date, they've done far too little.
On a wider front, it's way past time the Government upgraded the Building Code and incorporated Green Star into it.
WELL also has a big prescriptive lineup of "mind" goals that include mental health, access to nature, training and "business travel support". Under "community", it includes supportive policies for breastfeeding, childcare and eldercare, civic engagement, universal design and "bathrooms for diverse needs". Providing nutritious food is also high on the list; junk food vending machines are out.
One of the best aspects of the programme is that it requires innovation. You have to keep improving.
If successful, MC will be the first WELL site in New Zealand. Around the world, only 348 have so far been certified.
This isn't just about personal and environmental issues, or companies wanting to attract and keep good staff. It's also about whether the city itself will thrive.
Viv Beck, of the business agency Heart of the City, says the pedestrian count in central Auckland last week was down about 40,000 people per day, compared with the same time last year.
We can't do much about the missing tourists and overseas students. But if we want shops and cafes and a vibrant central city, we have to use them. Bringing back the people is a challenge for companies, the council and citizens. If we don't rise to it, Queen St will die.
Kylie Mooney says she likes to think the ethos of her company is "Celebrating contemporary Aotearoa". That could stand for the city too. Next year, we could try to work out what it means.