Urban Agriculture’s Next Frontier: Your Office

At-work gardens have all the benefits of outdoor communal space—and make meals taste that much better.

(Photo: Courtesy Organic Grid+)

Feb 23, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Standing in a salad bar line is so early-2000s. The office lunch of the future will feature produce from “sky gardens”—vertical hanging planters ripe with pick-your-own produce grown right next to your desk. At least that’s the vision of tomorrow offered by the winner of Metropolis magazine’s recent Workplace of the Future 2.0 competition. But you don’t need to wait for the prize-winning, Jetsons-like Organic Grid+ scheme to come to fruition. If the office of the future features vegetable gardens, then the future is now.

“To be able to give employees the ability to go pick some fresh basil for their salad or a tomato is fabulous,” said Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace. “Growing food on office premises is part of workplace mindfulness and health.”

(Photo: Courtesy Organic Grid+)

Office gardens go one step further than dusty game-room ping-pong tables to directly connect the dots among the value of employee downtime (happier, more productive workers), employee health (fewer sick days), and a business’ bottom line (which means companies can spend less on insurance).

“It’s not just one of those ‘Oh, isn’t this a neat idea’ ” type of thing, said Lindsey Pollak, spokesperson for The Hartford, a Fortune 500 insurance and investment company and a millennial workplace expert. “It has a business purpose and financial value,” as access to both fresh, wholesome food and green spaces mitigates stress and keeps employees healthy.

Part of that business purpose goes beyond keeping health costs low. Vegetable gardens could be good at driving revenue as well. None other than The Harvard Business Review has noted the rising importance of modern office spaces that allow for employee “collision”—spontaneous interactions that increase creativity, communication, and productivity. Those congregating at the Keurig machine aren’t going to cut it. The potential benefits of collision has put a new emphasis on outdoor spaces—or spaces that bring the outdoors in—in office design. At Samsung’s new U.S. quarters, for example, vast outdoor spaces are sandwiched between floors to draw workers into communal areas in the hopes that people from disparate departments will mingle, creating cross-departmental collaboration.

In the wake of the 2007 financial crisis, employee-run vegetable gardens sprouted up across the country as a low-cost benefit companies could afford when raises weren’t in the budget. Employees at Kohl’s, Aveda, and Chesapeake Energy all had rows to hoe and could take home what they grew or donate collectively to food pantries. Many gardens ended up producing just as much goodwill as there was zucchini.

“It takes the politics out of the job,” a PepsiCo senior manager and gardener told The New York Times in 2010. “Everybody is on the same level in the garden.”

After the initial burst of planting, some gardens struggled once initial enthusiasm faded, and gardeners skipped out on weed and water duties. But the ones that have flourished connect growing food with a company’s deeper, intrinsic values and missions. At Minneapolis-based public relations firm Haberman, the organic garden, known as the Dude Ranch, has continued to thrive since HR Executive named it one of the Best HR Ideas in 2010. “The reinvention of the food system is a key part of our agency’s mission,” the corporate communications manager said. The same is true at New Hampshire–based W.S. Badger Company, a body care business that has robust social and environmental initiatives: Produce grown in the on-site garden is folded into the free daily organic lunch provided to all employees.

Today, whether or not your office gets a rooftop container garden could come down to the age of the boss—and who a company is trying to attract as its workforce. The Organic Grid+ designers are both in their 20s, and their food-filled office plan not only belies a millennial preference for the kind of sleek design Steve Jobs would approve of but also is in keeping with that generation’s driving influence on trends in our food systems and workplaces.

Studies from the Center for Culinary Development show that millennials are not only drawn to healthy food options and customized, choose-your-own-adventure dining experiences; they also care deeply about ethical eating—where their food comes from and how it’s produced. (Hence, their abiding Chipotle love.) At the office, they want to tilt the scales on work-life balance and not just with the usual flex time or work-from-home arrangements.

“It’s not just about people getting out of the office but bringing their life into the office,” explained Pollak. That means feeling that the office honors not just an employee’s utility but his or her interest in the environment, the outdoors, and healthy eating, she said. “A garden is really in line with that sort of value,” she added.

Even if the sleek Organic Grid+ design never takes physical form, it speaks to trends toward ethical desk-side lunches and greener workplaces that are already afoot, just in a sexier package.

“What millennials say they want tends to appeal to a lot of different people,” Pollak said. “It just sort of never occurred to them that they could have a hanging garden in their office space.”