Growing Your Garden: Greening the office started with a tree

Picture in your mind’s eye, the top floor of a new, lowrise office building, painted a pristine white from floor to ceiling. The space is long, running north to south, with generous windows stretching the length of the office with east and west exposures. White office furniture divides the office into several uniform work stations.

At eye level, a collection of tropical houseplants, in matching white planters, serves to divide the work stations. Beyond the general office, an atrium of sorts, anchored with a central weeping fig tree, serves as a casual gathering space for staff and clients. Individual meeting rooms and a boardroom are discretely positioned beyond the atrium.

With a clean white backdrop, the lively green plants pop to the forefront, offering a fresh approach to bringing nature inside — the space feels welcoming, approachable.

This is the home of Forte Workplace Law in Surrey, B.C., led by Sara Forte, my daughter-in-law. She was inspired to steer away from standard office decor and integrate nature into the space by introducing house plants as a design element.

Needless to say, I was intrigued by her choices.

On a warm April afternoon, we sat in Sara’s back garden to chat about the green theme of her new office. I wondered what had inspired her choices.

“When I first saw the space and the vaulted ceiling, the first thing I thought was, I want a big tree in the middle. It really all started with the tree idea.”

The plant-themed decor of a local restaurant, along with decorating ideas she saw online, also influenced her choices.

“The idea was to create a place to work that was comfortable, peaceful, welcoming and … fresh. That’s what I wanted people to feel when they came in. Practically speaking, we needed some separations because we don’t have closed offices, so we needed noise and visual separation. Plants and their upkeep aren’t cheap, but neither is furniture.

“I would have had to put something between those desks, having the plants in there serves several purposes. It creates that sound and visual barrier, adds colour, gives softness and interest to the space, but it is also very functional.”

Rather than opt for cubicle panels to divide the work spaces, Sara decided to use plants in their place, in part for their ability to allow daylight to go through them. It was the ideal way to optimize the natural light the windows offered and to keep the space visually open. She opted to hire a professional to select the plants and take charge of their upkeep.

“I did not buy a single plant. Pam Wilson-Sydor, owner of Magnolia Boutique Gardening, sourced the plants, even the big tree. I knew that we needed to buy the right plants that would thrive in that environment and I needed someone to take care of them.”

With a major investment in plants, hiring professional help takes the pressure off the office staff in terms of plant care. Wilson-Sydor also sourced self-irrigating pots for the plants, manages the watering, feeding, pruning and any maintenance required to keep the plants looking their best.

“I’m planning on seeing a lot of value out of those plants,” said Sara. “I know that everyone who works in the office loves them and is very proud of them. It’s something I see when someone is on a video call, they’ll say, ‘Hey look over my shoulder at some of the new plants we’ve got,’ or, if they bring someone through the office, its something different and interesting to talk about.”

The colour green, and plants in general, are known to be soothing and help relieve stress. Had that been a consideration?

“Hmm … the plants help to create a sense of calm and peace for the lawyers and all of our team and our clients when they come in. When clients come in, I want them to feel comfortable and relaxed, and I feel things like art and plants are good ice-breakers: you talk about the tree, or the painting, or whatever. I have a ton of people who come in and say, ‘This doesn’t feel like a law firm.’

“For me, the important part is, plants are more than just plants — artificial plants wouldn’t have the same effect — real plants are dynamic. If you go away for a few days, when you come back you notice they’ve changed a little.”

“Do you see the office decor acting as a business card of sorts?” I wondered.

“Completely, it is our brand as lawyers when clients are deciding who they want to work with, deciding who will be the best fit for them. And, when we are hiring lawyers and legal office staff, what are we all about? Would you want to come and work here? A lot that happens on social media today.

“I’m planning on getting a lot of leverage out of those plants,” Sara said with a smile, “recruiting tool, freshening the air, visual and noise barrier, interior decor element, conversation piece, and, today digital marketing and social media are always looking for images, and they are hard to find in a law firm. Plants also make the office look more inviting when posting on social media.

“They say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and those plants say a thousand words about how we approach our work, how we care for each other and what kind of work place it is.”