Are offices ecosystems? In conversation with Joel Bloch, founder of Oxygen at Work

In 2016, as part of my PhD research, I made a film which was inspired by the East London shared office space, Second Home. At the time, Second Home had just opened its doors to a small group of tech entrepreneurs and was home to start-ups like Signal AI, Taskrabbit and Anglepoise. The atmosphere in the building was palpable. What struck me the most was the sense that collaboration was something baked into the design of the building, inviting the co-workers to commune, create, and work together, in rooms that were noticeably all filled with plants.

Plants are important at our offices at MBS too – so much so that when we opened up some new space last month, it became a makeshift potting shed before being turned over to desk space. We have even appointed a Chief Plant Officer! And so it was with great excitement last week that I got to meet and discover the work of entrepreneur Joel Bloch, who in 2017, founded Oxygen at Work in his home city of Zurich.

First and foremost a technology business, the company’s mission is to fill offices with plants, thereby improving the air quality and resulting in happier, more productive workers. Using technology, data and analytics, Oxygen at Work tracks air quality and decreases the ecological footprint of the businesses they work with. Their clients include some of the world’s biggest businesses, including Microsoft, Amazon and Johnson & Johnson to name but a few.

An office interior filled with plants

The business, Joel explained when we caught up earlier this week, is leveraging what has long been a feature of the workplace: the office plant.

“Indoor plants aren’t particularly innovative,” he laughed when we met, “even the Romans, more than 3,000 years ago, were using plants to decorate their homes. But what we’re doing is combining our plant service with sensors that measure air quality, allowing companies to track their indoor environment.”

Like many entrepreneurs, Joel grew up in a business-minded family, with a father who owned two shoe stores in the center of Zurich, and a mother who ran her own yoga studio. “My father’s stores were where I learnt to sell, and where I mastered the art of exciting people about different products. At his shops, we’d offer people free Italian espresso as they tried on their shoes – so it became a really buzzy, chatty and sociable environment, which felt very new at the time.”

“My father’s stores were where I learnt to sell, and where I mastered the art of exciting people about different products.”

Despite not being – in his words – a “particularly good” student, Joel made it to university where he studied Biology, and it was here that the idea for Oxygen at Work was born. “We were learning about the complex photosynthesis process, which improves the climate of our entire planet, and I was intrigued to know whether we could replicate that effect inside buildings.”

For those whose memories of biology lessons are a little sketchy, plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen through the photosynthesis process, increasing humidity by transpiring water and can also absorb air pollutants. Research from the World Economic Forum has shown that exposure to air pollution, even at low concentrations, can have a meaningful impact on physical and cognitive performance. Plants = clean air = greater productivity.

Joel grew up in Zurich.


“I realised that there was an excellent business case for having plants in the office,” Joel said. “This was 2017, when most offices were pretty grey and sterile, and sustainability and employee health and wellbeing were not high on the agenda. So I dropped out of university to pursue Oxygen at Work.”

Finding the right people is critical in the early stages of a business. To bring the company to life, Joel brought on board Rita, a landscape architect with deep knowledge of plants, and Manuel, who provided finance and business expertise. “We were a great trio,” Joel recalled, “we complemented each other very well, spending those first few weeks cold-calling companies as market research. We got three meetings, which went well, and on that basis decided to press on with building the software to measure the impact of plants on an internal environment.”

“The biggest challenge was definitely building our team. It’s so critical to get the right people early on. You need to find people who share the same drive, the same belief in the product, and the same desire to create something big. When we couldn’t offer competitive salaries, we had to find people who were motivated by our vision.” Clearly, Joel found the right people: Oxygen at Work is still run by Joel, Rita and Manuel – and every person who joined in the early stages of the business is now in a management position.

“It’s so critical to get the right people early on. You need to find people who share the same drive, the same belief in the product, and the same desire to create something big.”

I asked Joel how the conversation has changed since they first started out. In the past six years, the notions of wellbeing, health and sustainability have become critical business considerations. The way that we think about the office has also transformed since the pandemic, and today, offering an attractive physical space to work is crucial in the war for talent.

“At first, the only people really interested in our product were Facility Managers and a few HR Directors,” Joel told me. “But since then, companies have woken up to the importance of a healthy work environment.”

Did the pandemic set off panic buzzers? “It was certainly interesting for us! We didn’t know whether the office would still exist after Covid, but it turns out that it became more important. Today, it’s no longer HR leaders I’m speaking with, but CEOs. The workplace is a critical part of the company strategy, especially when it comes to culture and bringing people back to the office.”

“Today, it’s no longer HR leaders I’m speaking with, but CEOs.”

Post-pandemic, companies are renting less office space – but are investing heavily in the space they’ve got. To compete with the home, offices have to provide a real point of difference: an attractive, healthy environment designed for in-person collaboration between colleagues. “Interestingly, some really forward-thinking companies actually started working with us during lockdowns,” recalled Joel. “Microsoft, Amazon, Hyundai, SAP – they all wanted to make sure they had an attractive work environment by the time employees were asked to return to the office.”

While the greenery is perhaps the most tangible element of Oxygen at Work’s offering, Joel insists that his is a tech business, not a plants business. “It’s the technology that leverages the power of nature in the buildings,” he explained to me, “through our sensors and our software we can track air quality and measure the performance of the plants. We take into account the whole environment – we consider how and when people open the windows, the ventilation system, the amount of dust, what the building automation looks like. It’s a complex process, on which our clients get monthly reports.”

The work of Joel and his team will only become more important in the months and years ahead. As businesses grapple with how to best execute hybrid working, attracting a new generation of talent, and shrinking their own carbon footprint, leaders should perhaps be more open to considering their office as its own delicate ecosystem. Oxygen at Work’s clever blend of nature and technology is a pertinent example of how to take an age-old concept – the humble office plant – and reimagine it for the modern world.

Quick-fire questions  

What is your favourite plant? The Kentia Palm Tree

Who is your mentor? My father. He taught me how to be a business leader, how to interact with suppliers, customers and employees

What’s your favourite film? Match Point by Woody Allen

What’s your favourite city? Zurich

Who or what has inspired you the most? I’m inspired by movies. I like to think of my life as a series of different movie scenes.

What would you like your legacy to be? I’m too young to think about my legacy! 

Helen Benigson |