The classic story of two kooky but lovable companies who move in together…

No successful company should be without a broken beer fridge, a selection of abandoned bicycle parts and a safe to which no-one knows the combination.

In these penny-pinching times, all companies are being forced to cut corners and make compromises in order to scrape their way out of this devastating financial crisis.

Sorry about that first sentence, but it is apparently the law that every article ever written about industry or society or, indeed, anything should now begin with a hackneyed lament about the financial crisis beginning with the phrase, “In these (insert word related to thrift or poverty) times…”. I can’t say at all whether or not it is anything to do with the financial crisis in my case, but one way or another we have downsized our office to save money, and have moved into half of the whole floorspace (or ‘Reich’, as my demented boss surely imagines it) which we used to occupy. We are now the Untermieter to a young, trendy company who have moved into the other half and taken over all of the best rooms, including the large and now completely redundant front reception and the back room, the room that used to be my room, a bright and welcoming room with a trapedzoidal back wall and windows that looked out onto the amazing architecture of this old Jewish block. Our messy, chaotic and ragtag bunch have all squeezed into some small, dingy rooms on the other side where the walls smell like a distant sewage works and there is no space to store the thousands of folders and files and boxes and flyers and T-shirts that a tourist company needs to function. With little time to spend tidying and little money to spend on organisational accessories like filing cabinets, we contentedly work around the solid clots of stuff that mass between our desks. Meanwhile, in the rooms we have left behind, change is happening.

Now that we are gone, and the rooms are perfect and clear and empty, our roomies are trying to bring the rest of the office into the 21st century. They are an online ticket sales firm and would probably describe themselves as ‘dynamic’, ‘cutting-edge’ and ‘innovative’, and might even go so far as to flagrantly use the word ‘now’ as an adjective. Their CEO is a man mummified in the thick, tight bandages of a hefty mid-life crisis. He ‘chills out’ in T-shirts with surfing emblems and stenciled VW camper-van images, and takes offense at people who use the polite ‘Sie’ address with him because he’s like, totally ok with ‘du’. Ever since he started moving in, he has fluctuated between vituperative moments of disgust at our company and aggressive trendification maneouvers in the rooms we now share. 

First, came the painters. They painted all the walls in a shade of pale purple that has absolutely nothing to say. Then came the interior designer. She and the fab CEO man minced from room to room discussing the potential of the space, the look they were going for and how they would rescue rooms like our kitchen, which is a tiny cubicle filled with broken appliances, enormous boxes of redundant network cables and a kettle whose inside is crusted in mysterious orange residue. Slowly but surely, the place began to transform into a proper start-up den. 

Our thousands of crates of carbonated water – which in Germany is seen as a human right to which all should have constant access – were removed, and in their place a Sodastream was introduced with reusable bottles for everyone. Our broken washing machine (which, frankly, is a question mark to begin with in terms of what it is doing in an office kitchen) was chucked away and replaced with a shiny brushed-steel dishwasher that doesn’t quite fit under our cheap, grey countertop and therefore makes an alarming ‘twang’ every time it is opened or closed. Our paper towels in the bathrooms were replaced with normal flannel hand-towels so that by the end of the day you would have more success wiping your hands dry on the back of a wet dog. 

And then the ‘design’ began. A mountain of Ikea boxes suddenly appeared in the middle of the front room, and out of them emerged cowhide stools with black-and-white splotches, which together with the new leather sofa and the groovy asymmetrical nesting tables made the place look like a cowboy’s meditation room. A colossal conference table arrived in the back room, over which was hung a preposterous – I kid you not – chandelier. And perhaps the worst moment of all was the picture, hung over the couch in the lobby: a black-and-white photograph of an anonymous black dude smoking a cigarette and wearing a flat cap and leather jacket. Looking gritty in front of what appears to be some kind of gritty urban corrugated-iron panelling, this guy was saying what the company was dying to project to the world: “We’re diverse, alternative, pensive and just as cool as black people or smoking. Yeah.” This appalling and racist pointlessness now greets me every morning when I arrive for work, and we have since christened our new mascot ‘Token’ in honour of the fact that the company he stands for is as white, German and middle-class as you can possibly get. 

We also now have a ‘kicker’ table (table football or foosball for anyone who isn’t endeutsched). When people play it, it sounds like a dozen machine guns being fired at a tin can pressed against your ear. It’s there in the front room – officially the ‘chill out’ room – next to the photo of Token and the cowboy boudoir. It completes the masculine trifecta that make that room a kitsch monument to caucasian testosterone: leather, rubbish man-art and a boy’s game.

This is the curse of the Berlin start-up. There are thousands of companies like this across the city, throngs of young and stubbly blokes putting together ‘bright idea’ companies and filling their offices with pointless adult toys and decor that suggests a den rather than a workplace. The job ads all advertise these things as if they were a major draw, alongside other sought-after career goals such as free pizza or the ability to wear shorts to work. Companies that are trying to be the web-based advertising platform version of American Apparel, wearing sunglasses in the office and drinking nothing but flat whites and kombucha. Companies that fill their rooms with pool tables and vintage Nintendo arcade games and inflatable rubber balls in vigorous denial of the fact that the people in the office are there to do a job for money to pay for rent and the odd slice of toast. They’re cool, they’re young, they’re entrepreneurial and they more often than not go bankrupt – possibly because they spent all their money and time acquiring camp wild-west accessories and unlimited Club Mate for employees rather than thinking about how to make their business work.

Meanwhile, the CEO, in his ‘California Waves 1969 Cowabunga!’ shirt and expensive jeans, marches into our half of the office on a daily basis to scold us for being the way that we are. ‘Look at zis place, ihr seid so richtige messys hier!’ he declares with a limp flick of the wrist. ‘I know you all zink I am just a Nazi, but…’ – and so he goes on, casting his disparaging gaze over our stacks of boxes and folders all over the place and shelves leaning alarmingly sideways with the sheer weight of millions of archived invoices. ‘You really buggered it up before I came along, didn’t you?’ And then he sashays back to his pastel oasis of innovative synergy and forward-thinking envelope-pushery. And yes, our mountains of stuff look terrible, like the dystopic landscape in Wall-E; and yes, you have to literally climb to get from one place to another now, like a goat on a Scottish hill; and indeed, our furniture is nothing but a startling array of non-matching and slightly broken artifacts from all over the timeline of office history. But that is because no-one in my gang has the time to faff about with matchy-matchy furniture and kicker tables and immaculate storage solutions; we work like Tazmanian devils all day every day to do our actual jobs. Through the sheer dogged elbow grease of a few people in Berlin working their knackered arses off, we are able to keep a successful business going in over a dozen cities worldwide. Meanwhile the new manager of the company next door is still trundling over to work on her scooter. I think I’ve said enough.


Rose T